Protein Powered


Protein-heavy snacks are not newcomers to the shelves of convenience stores, but such items are gaining more attention these days due to the growing interest among health-minded consumers in incorporating more protein into their diets.

From 2009 through 2013, beef jerky-type product sales increased by a steep 46 percent to $1.24 billion as of last year, according to IRI. This rising demand has prompted suppliers to create more flavors and varieties than ever before, and some retailers are even focusing exclusively on meat snacks. Seymour, Tenn.-based Beef Jerky Outlet now operates 26 stores in 16 states, offering everything from beef and turkey jerky to salmon and buffalo jerky.

With so much to choose from, c-store operators have to think carefully about what to place on their limited shelf space. Customers may be loyal to their long-time favorites, but as the segment grows, they?re also interested in trying new varieties, according to retailers.

Rocky Lee, owner of two-store convenience chain Lee?s Kar-Go based in Falls Mills, Va., noted that while the traditional Slim Jim is still popular with his customers, they have grown more interested in steak strips and ?jerky bites? over the last two years.

And meat snacks aren?t the only items that today?s protein-hungry customers want. A rise in nutrition bar sales has prompted innovation in this segment as well.

?Recently, there has been some great-tasting products in the protein bar line [compared to] the old days of ?tasting like cardboard,?? said Robert Perkins, vice president of marketing for Rutter?s Farm Stores. In fact, taste is key ? while meat snacks lead high-protein sales for the York, Pa.-based chain of 60 convenience stores, demand for nutrition bars is increasing at Rutter?s as suppliers launch better-tasting products.

Some retailers are turning to private-label bars to build branding while meeting consumers? protein needs. For example, Dunkin? Donuts recently began offering the Dunkin? Go Bar, a prepackaged granola bar in the flavor of the brand?s Original Blend Coffee that contains 8 grams of protein.

Retailers that don?t go down the private-label road have more options to choose from, but picky customers are increasingly unwilling to accept poor-tasting product or ?nutrition? bars that deliver anything but.

?It?s not easy to create delicious products that are actually good for you,? said Nicholas Robinson, chief marketing officer for Quest Nutrition, maker of protein bars and protein chips. ?[But] our research and development team, perhaps the largest such operation in our industry, is constantly setting the bar for delicious and healthy treats by reinventing the form factors that people love, but traditionally get them into nutritional trouble.?

In the past, consumers expected nutritious bars to either taste bad or be loaded with sugar, carbohydrates and ?junk,? but as they become more educated on ingredients and nutrition, they understand that they don?t have to make such a tradeoff, according to Robinson.

?Today, more and more people are looking at ingredients, grams of protein, etc.,? agreed Ryan Morton, customer benefits manager for North Salt Lake City-based Maverik Inc., a chain of 250 c-stores. ?They can now actually get something good-tasting and healthy at the same time.?

When deciding what protein-heavy snacks to stock, retailers should determine which market they want to appeal to. Recent research by The NPD Group identified three particular groups to consider: Traditional Protein Purists, who are much more likely to turn to animal proteins as their main source of protein; Flexible Protein Users, who look beyond meat due to expense or concern about fat or calories; and Knowledgeable but Indifferent Users.

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