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Shifting Consumer Behaviors Blur the Lines Between Snacking & Meals

Gen Z has the buying power to have an impact on convenience stores and the snack categories in the years ahead.
a female shopper holding fresh to go snacks at Love's Travel Stops

NATIONAL REPORT — In a pre-pandemic world, it wasn't like Americans were short on snacks. However, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated snacking habits so much so that snacking evolved into the "fourth daypart" in the convenience channel. Now, in the post-pandemic world of remote work and inflationary pressures, the once clearly defined line between "snack" and "meal" continues to blur, with 2024 expected to see even more melding of the two.

"The snack category will continue to be shaped by consumers' desire for foods that offer emotional comfort, time-saving convenience and health benefits. Snacks that can bridge these attributes will stand out in the market," said Michael Berro, CEO of Chipoys, a rolled tortilla chip brand inspired by authentic Mexican flavors.

[Read more: Snack, Meal or Both?]

The blurring line between snacks and meals is being driven by consumers' growing desire for convenience and simplicity in their eating habits. Recent research shows an increased prevalence of between-meal occasions, particularly during midday, and highlights a shift in consumer behavior toward more flexible and snack-centric meal patterns.

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"This trend reflects the desire for quick, easy and satisfying options that cater to the evolving needs of modern lifestyles," a representative of The Hershey Co. told Convenience Store News.

The Time-Crunch Conundrum

Although there are 24 hours in a day, 80% of Americans feel as though their days have fewer hours, according to the fifth-annual "U.S. Snack Index," recently released by PepsiCo Inc. divisions Frito-Lay North America and The Quaker Oats Co. This burden is most acutely felt by younger generations (85%) with no sign of letting up. Six in 10 consumers say they anticipate demands in their life will increase in 2024.

When considering snacks at the store, consumers cite protein as the most important nutritional attribute they seek (55%). This is especially true among those most time-crunched.

Energy is also a top-rated attribute as 60% of consumers look to their favorite snack products to provide energy. Generationally, millennials (72%) are, by far, the group most likely to be looking for a pick-me-up, followed by Generation Z (62%), the Snack Index reported.

These findings are consistent with what Chipoys' Berro is seeing. "Today's consumers are increasingly seeking snacks that offer the same nutritional value and satiety as traditional meals," he said. "This trend is driven by busier lifestyles that demand more flexible eating patterns and a desire for convenience without sacrificing health."

Recent research has also shown consumers are increasingly incorporating snack products into their meals to provide flavor, texture and variety. This approach to eating breaks down the barriers of traditional meal composition, allowing for more personalized and diverse food combinations, Berro added.

"With consumers even more on the go, snacking has been a very popular meal enhancer and, in many cases, a replacement. With time at a premium, a delicious snack is occasionally preferred to a meal," he said.

For Love's Travel Stops, the Oklahoma City-based operator of 640 travel centers in 42 states, customer demographics reveal shoppers are seeking out quick, smaller-portion items to curb their hunger between each meal. The rise in retail prices due to inflationary pressures is also driving some purchase behavior toward value-type items for such occasions.

"Love's has seen more interest in items like corn dogs and 'chicken drummies' in our hot snack category. Those options cost less than a full meal, but provide protein and energy between meals," Bryan Street, manager of deli for Love's, pointed out. "Additionally, open-air cooler snack items like meat and cheese snacks have seen growth as they are items that complement hot snack items, but also provide that additional snack option as customers go through the day."

When it comes to dayparts, consumers turning to snacks and other convenience foods at mealtime is particularly evident at lunch, followed by breakfast. A consumer sentiment survey commissioned in July 2023 by New York-based NCSolutions, which tracks advertising effectiveness in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry, found that 52% of consumers opt for convenience foods at lunch, followed by 50% at breakfast.

The same survey highlighted consumers' significant reliance on snacks: 35% of respondents said they eat snacks on the go either "always" or "often." And these numbers are even higher among millennials (52%) and Gen Zers (49%).

A Who's Who of Snacking

Convenience store retailers are well-positioned to capitalize on the movement toward snack-centric meal patterns by offering a diverse range of products that meet the evolving demands of consumers around convenience, flavor and value. But first, c-store retailers must know who their shoppers are, and understand the influence they can have on their business.

"There is significant growth in snacking among younger consumers, surpassing pre-pandemic levels. Millennials and younger generations dominate convenience store shoppers, emphasizing the importance of understanding their preferences," The Hershey Co. representative said.

Generation Z is the most likely cohort to have an impact on convenience stores and the snack categories in the years ahead. This generation has $360 billion in spending power and is three times more likely to shop at c-stores than baby boomers, according to NCSolutions data.

The firm's consumer sentiment survey commissioned in October 2023 revealed that more than a third of Gen Zers (38%) are looking for new flavors and products to try, making convenience stores an ideal place for CPG brands to test new snacks.

About the Author

Danielle Romano

Danielle Romano

Danielle Romano is Managing Editor of Convenience Store News. She joined the brand in 2015. Danielle manages the overall editorial production of Convenience Store News magazineShe is also the point person for the candy & snacks and small operator beats.

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