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03/27/2015

Meat Snack Momentum

As more consumers realize convenience stores offer more than “junk food,” there is an increased demand for functional and better-for-you products. This doesn’t just mean fresh fruit and low-calorie snacks; the meat snacks segment is heating up and for reasons beyond flavor.

“As Millennial become part of the c-store consumer base, research shows they may be more health-conscious,” said Jennifer Miller, category manager, center of store for the Chevron ExtraMile chain of convenience stores. “Protein products appeal to many consumers and can help satisfy appetite, maintain a healthy weight or build muscle.”

Consumer research lately shows c-store customers want the opportunity to make healthier snack decisions. Meat snacks offer the combined benefits of low calories, fat and carbohydrates that let people feel fuller longer. Consumers are also finding new opportunities to snack throughout the day, and the protein-heavy Paleo diet has taken off in some circles.

It’s a potentially golden opportunity for meat snack suppliers, one encouraged by the fact that 20 percent of snack sales in the c-store channel come from new products every year. Clearly, c-store shoppers want to try new things.

Flavor variety is already expanding, with chili-based flavors such as Chili Lime, Chili Chipotle and Chili Honey standing out as a popular variety, according to ExtraMile, which operates on the West Coast. Different meat types, and product labeling that highlights specific information such as GMO- or gluten-free, are also on the rise as brands attempt to stand out from the pack.

“Alternative proteins continue to drive category growth,” Kevin Papacek, director of marketing for Jack Link’s, told Convenience Store News. “Turkey has the largest share of all alternative proteins and has increased double digits for the past three years. We see opportunity for growth in both new flavors of turkey products and new innovation with chicken and pork.”

As the segment grows, both suppliers and retailers should be aware that consumers are learning more about meat snacks as they buy more of them, and they won’t settle for less.

“As consumers get more deeply involved in the segment, they will get pickier about the brands they choose. They are starting to read the backs of packages as much as they are reading the fronts,” noted Greg O’Neal, director of marketing for Thanasi Foods LLC, maker of Duke’s Small Batch Smoked Meats. “Smart brands will be focused on strong consumer product loyalty and repeat product velocity to survive in the category.”

SMOOTHING THE PATH TO PURCHASE

All this means that with the right category management practices, c-store operators should be able to maximize meat snack sales at a higher level than they currently do. Step one is to make it as easy as possible for consumers to find and get what they want. “We don’t hide our meat snacks. Make sure it is positioned in a highly visible and well-lit section of the store,” said Miller of ExtraMile. “Place it near common tie-ins — think beverages and snacks. We dedicate a promotional endcap to meat snacks.”

Navigation is key for driving snack sales overall, including meat snacks. With shoppers spending only minutes in a c-store, on average, being able to locate and get to the items they’re interested in will up the convenience factor that they value.

“Consumers want convenience at a convenience store and making the shopping trip simpler can drive loyalty for your stores,” said Terry Hancock, field manager, category leadership for ConAgra Foods Inc., manufacturer of the Slim Jim brand of meat snacks.

Other suppliers recommend taking a cue from successful beer category management practices by offering shoppers “good, better, best” quality options, and placing meat snacks next to protein and nutrition bars to capitalize on the nutritional connection between them.

As with any category that sees explosive growth, retailers should be cautious about what varieties of meat snacks they stock. Rather than offer as many SKUs as possible for the sake of sheer variety, c-store operators must pay attention to market research and communicate with their customers to find out what flavors and brands will get the best results.

Retailers should also consider why certain types of meat snacks are coming out, such as sweeter jerky products — which Thanasi warns may not be driven by demand alone.

“We don’t necessarily think people are desiring more sugar-packed jerky snacks. Consumers appear interested in jerkies that use more natural ingredients, come in more creative flavors and ultimately provide less sugar than snack bars,” said O’Neal. “So, why the added sugar? The main reason is that the sweeter jerkies are typically cheaper for manufacturers to produce since sugars drive down the total cost of ingredients while still driving up manufacturer yields.”

Consumers are becoming aware of these “sugary shortcuts,” according to O’Neal. To ensure repeat purchases, c-store retailers should remember that as the meat snacks segment grows and matures, consumer knowledge is growing with it.