The Great Snacking Shift


“This independent distributor walked in here one day eight months ago. I saw him taking notes in our store and when I went up to him, he said we had configured our snack section wrong,” recalled Jeremy Goerts, general manager of Speedi Car Wash & Fuel. “I listened to him for 15 minutes, then we called the owners in and two days later, we let him redo both sides of our snack aisles, reconfiguring products and adjacencies.”

Now, that independent contractor is in the store once a week managing the category and in the past month, Speedi has experienced double-digit increases in snack sales, particularly in salty snacks such as nuts, seeds, pretzels and chips, according to Goerts.

Speedi’s independent-contractor-turned-category-manager is obviously following some of the latest consumer trends, which indicate snack attacks and quick (sometimes healthier) solutions are occurring more often as Americans shift to mini-meals enjoyed all day long.

“As consumers continue to adopt a snacking culture, choosing to snack anywhere, anytime and on practically anything, the format and function of snacks will need to evolve to meet their needs,” stated Amanda Topper, food analyst with research firm Mintel.

She said that while snacks with healthy claims and natural ingredients are important, snacking consumers are also still very much indulgers. Both healthy and indulgent snacks balance out the list of the most-consumed snacks in the United States currently, according to Mintel. Topping this list is fruits and vegetables, potato chips, cheese, cookies and cakes, and soup.

The Grab-and-Go Channel

Snacking occasions now involve multiple product categories, including candy, salty snacks, sweet snacks, packaged beverages, dispensed beverages, prepared food and more.

With its wide variety of products, the convenience channel is hailed by consumers as the place to go for grab-and-go snacks. Recent research conducted by The NPD Group shows that c-stores capture five times their fair share when it comes to grab-and-go snacking occasions, ahead of both grocery stores and discount (mass retail) outlets.

“Grab-and-go snacking represents a sizable opportunity” for c-stores, said Darren Seifer, NPD’s food and beverage industry analyst. He suggests convenience retailers rotate the types of items stocked near the entrance or checkout to align with grab-and-go customers’ needs by time of day.

Snack Time Redefined

In the world of snacking, timing is everything — and more and more, snack time is widening to any time. Both single-store owners and c-store chains are taking notice of this.

At the chain level, Billy Greene, a buyer with Sayle Oil Co., operator of a dozen stores in Charleston, Miss., said he’s observed definite shifts in the purchasing times of snacks — specifically, customers are buying snacks earlier and later than they used to.

“We used to see customers buying fresh deli items between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., primarily during the lunch hour. But now, they’re buying prepared foods as early as 9 a.m., then throughout the day and also after 3 p.m.,” he said. Fresh items that are selling as snacks between meals and as meal replacements include fresh fruit, pre-made salads and chicken strips, he reported.

In Gainesville, Ga., the 12 PetroFast Food Stores owned by Olympic Oil Co. have also witnessed a “tremendous growth” and shift in snacks, according to Hank Kaiser, supervisor and buyer. He, too, made note of customers buying more snacks in the early morning hours to eat as breakfast meal replacements and also to save for later consumption. Because of this shift, all PetroFast stores were recently reset with a significant increase in the snack area. Depending on the store, snack space was expanded between 4 feet to 8 feet at the expense of grocery/household items.

This is in line with what took place recently at Speedi Car Wash & Fuel. The snack aisles were expanded, but they were also segregated more logically, so now customers can find exactly what they are looking for in a grab-and-go situation. Breakfast snack items are grouped together, healthier options have their own section, more indulgent items are merchandised together and salty snacks are a subsection all their own.

“Believe it or not, we were all over the map with our snack adjacencies — we had breakfast items next to salty snacks, for example — and sales suffered,” Goerts admitted.

Indulgence vs. Health

Just like consumers no longer abide by traditional snack times, they also flip-flop between wanting indulgent snacks vs. healthy snacks, depending on their mood at that moment.

New products seem to be the ticket to increased sales of indulgent snacks, such as candy and chips. “We sell more of the new items in candy now. That new Butterfinger item (Peanut Butter Cups), I had a 166-count display and I sold it in three days,” said Greene of Sayle Oil.

Along the same lines, PetroFast’s Kaiser said the company’s stores are experiencing some growth in chips — “in particular, Frito-Lay, because they’re coming out with so many new flavors.” PetroFast has also increased its beef jerky space by 2 feet because “they’re coming out with all kinds of crazy flavors,” Kaiser maintained.

On the healthy snack side, convenience stores everywhere are finding ways to fit in fresh fruit, a favorite grab-and-go item of consumers, especially female shoppers.

Speedi Car Wash & Fuel is planning to bring in bananas, oranges and apples when the weather gets a little warmer. “We tried fruit awhile back, but it only sold well in one season: the summer. Now, we want to bring it back for all seasons,” said Goerts. “We’re going to get some fruit racks and [put] them up front at the counter between [our] fountain drinks and coffee.”

Speedi is also focusing on sunflower seeds, another healthy snack in the c-store realm. The single biggest change made to its snack department when Speedi’s distributor reconfigured the set was in seeds. Larger bags of BIGS, David’s and Spitz seeds were added to the single store’s salty snack set and are selling well in the higher price points of $1.79 to $2.49.

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