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Snacking surge: How brands and retailers can satisfy consumer cravings

At home and on-the-go, experts say consumers are experiencing a serious snack attack

From grab-and-go bars that fuel a mid-afternoon energy slump to late-night munchies that help us unwind after a busy day, snacks are as diverse as the reasons why people eat them. 

A study from market research company Ipsos for the 12 months ending July 2022 suggests the average person consumes a food or beverage between meals 11 times per day. Kathy Perrotta, vice-president of market strategy and understanding at Ipsos Canada, says this number has seen a noteworthy 8% growth since 2020. 

“Snacking has surged for different reasons and across different categories through the pandemic,” says Perrotta, “and now with movement rates [outside of the home] up, we see that snacking remains robust and – at certain points like morning snacking – it’s growing.” 

Perrotta adds that rates of snacking at home remain higher than prior to the pandemic. This trend is now dovetailing with a resurgence in on-the-go snacking, as many consumers return to the office and other out-of-home activities. “The biggest growing category in our store is snacks,” confirms Ryan Dennis, owner of Vancouver grocer Larry’s Market

Bethany Pfohl, vice-president of marketing for SimplyProtein, agrees that this blending of pre- and post-COVID consumer snacking habits is creating big opportunities in the space for brands and retailers alike. “With more consumers navigating a hybrid lifestyle, it’s opened up a whole new plethora of snacking occasions,” she says. 

Rabba Fine Foods has seen a “steady and consistent increase of snack sales” in its stores, says Rima Rabba, marketing communications manager for the Toronto area retailer. She says the grocer takes a three-pronged approach to selecting snacks for its 30-plus stores. “Our more recent decisions on new snacks typically revolve around something that tastes great, uses quality ingredients and our customers can feel good about eating,” she explains. “Whether it’s because a snack is non-GMO, has specific nutritional benefits or comes from a trusted brand, customers must connect with that great feeling they get from snacking.”

A nibble here, a nibble there

The definition of “snack” is evolving, with many consumers opting to graze on light bites throughout the day, rather than eating three main meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

Mondelēz International’s 2021 State of Snacking report found 63% of Canadians prefer to eat many small meals throughout the day, as opposed to a few large ones. This number has seen a significant 13% rise since 2019.

The same Mondelēz report revealed 75% of Canadians say their definition of snack has evolved over the last three years to include more or different types of foods, occasions for eating or other elements.

Ipsos’ Perrotta says the softening distinction between meals and snacks is likely to continue as consumers return to their busier, out-of-home schedules. “As we move outside the home more, you can expect to see morning snacks continuing to grow: ‘I don’t have time for breakfast. I’m just going to grab a snack on the way out,’” she explains.

“It’s still not as robust as the pre-pandemic period when it was a habit, but it’s growing versus 2020 and 2021,” Perrotta adds. 

Ipsos research is supported by Mondelēz’s data, which shows 51% of Canadian consumers replace at least one meal each day with a snack. 

A permissible indulgence

For many consumers, a snack is about more than satisfying hunger. The Mondelēz report found that nine in 10 consumers say they eat at least one snack for sustenance and one snack for indulgence each day.

“Some of the new innovation that we see in the marketplace really targets not just what’s in the product, but how it can provide benefits both physical and emotional to consumers. I think it’s a way to make indulgence permissible when there are benefits to it,” says Perrotta. 

According to the Mondelēz report, 37% of consumers say they snack for “a sense of comfort,” while 36% snack “to boost mood.”

Many snack companies are creating products that touch on the diverse needs that snacks serve for consumers. The concept of permissible indulgence, for example, is the strategy behind many of the products in No Sugar Company’s lineup, according to the brand’s chief strategy officer Zelka Ridjosic. “[Consumers] are not just looking for a healthy product, but they want something that’s indulgent and rich and creamy,” she explains.

No Sugar Company recently launched Chocolatey Caramel Pecan Keto Shellz, which Ridjosic describes as a better-for-you take on Turtles chocolates made with dark chocolate and zero sugar. “It’s about finding something that feels and looks like a treat,” she says.

Dennis from Larry’s Market is noticing a similar trend around better-for-you versions of chips. “Potato chips, they’ve stayed steady, but the growth is in veggie chips and fruit chips – anything in that category of healthy snacking,” he says.

Mid-Day Squares takes a similar approach to its snacks, which blend the taste of a chocolate with the better-for-you benefits of a protein bar, according to co-founder Jake Karls. “We call it a functional chocolate snack,” he says. “People want to indulge but they want to feel good after.”

Mid-Day Squares’ high-protein component taps into a particular better-for-you benefit that consumers are seeking right now. “Calories, sugar, fat and carbohydrates are the top four, but they’ve pulled back a little bit,” says Perrotta. “They’re still the largest, but rising in priority is protein.”

While better-for-you benefits can increase a product’s appeal for consumers, taste still reigns supreme when it comes to these permissible indulgences. “Something like 80% of consumers cite taste as being the most important element of their purchase decision,” says SimplyProtein’s Pfohl. “All of our innovation needs to deliver on taste first and then we get to nutrition.”

Snacking with a conscious

Consumers are turning a more critical eye to the values of the snack companies they support with their dollars. In the Mondelēz report, 79% of respondents say they have become more conscious over the last year of what products they’re buying and why.

Matthew von Teichman founded Purplesful Snacking with the goal of giving back to local communities. “It’s trying to divert some of the profits of the high-volume category of snacking away from just padding the profits of shareholders and over to people that need the help a little bit more,” he says.

Launched earlier this year, Purplesful’s ready-to-eat popcorn is made with non-GMO purple corn, which is rich in antioxidants and amino acids; and 25% of the company’s profits are donated to community organizations like Breakfast Club of Canada

“We satisfy the taste piece, which everyone really needs in order to get repeat sales,” explains von Teichman, “but we’re different in that we then satisfy the health piece and we [also] satisfy that ‘brand with a conscience’ piece.” 

No Sugar Company’s Ridjosic notes that clean label and ethical products often come at a higher retail price, which can cause sticker shock for some consumers. No Sugar Company’s snacks, which are made with organic coconut oil, fair trade organic cocoa and sustainably-sourced dark chocolate, cost consumers more than their conventional sweet snack counterparts. 

“I think that’s part of our biggest challenge, because people look at our products like our new Gemz chocolate covered peanuts, for example, and they look at the cost of M&M’s and they’re like, ‘that makes no sense,’” says Ridjosic. “But we are trying to educate consumers that it’s not a direct comparison.”

Ipsos’ Perrotta says consumers’ willingness to pay more to support ethical snack companies varies by demographic, explaining that older cohorts are more likely to be unwilling to accept the higher price even if they align with the company’s values. “They feel like the manufacturers should pay for it,” she says. “The younger cohorts take a responsibility stake in it and they’re willing to pay for it.” 

Pack a punch 

From Nestlé Canada’s commitment to ensure an average of at least 30% recycled content across all its plastic packaging by 2025 to smaller brands such as Humble Potato Chips using certified compostable bags, sustainable and biodegradable packaging is now a hot topic in the world of snacks.

Seventy-seven per cent of Canadian consumers say the No. 1 environmental impact on their food choices is low-waste packaging, which includes using recyclable or reduced packaging, according to the Mondelēz report.

After noticing a lack of organic, environmentally-friendly-packaged snack options, husband and wife team Alicia and Jeff Lahey came up with the idea for Humble Potato Chips – a chip brand made with locally sourced, organic potatoes and packaged in 100% compostable bags. 

From perfecting the packaging to developing seasoning for the chips, it took the couple five years to commercialize the brand, which hit grocery stores shelves earlier this year. Humble Potato Chips are available in original, sea salt and vinegar, smokey barbecue, honey mustard, and creamy dill, and the Lahey’s hope to introduce two more flavours and a smaller grab-and-go size to their lineup next year. Ipsos’ Perrotta says packaging is part of an emerging aspect of sustainable operations for snack brands. “When you talk about sustainability, there’s ‘product provenance’ – locally-sourced, functional ingredients, and freshness – and I think manufacturers have done a lot of work around that already,” she explains.

“But the other space is the Earth’s health, which is sustainable packaging, regenerative farming and an environmental footprint that’s favourable – that one is kind of a newer, less-developed space.”

Mirroring wider conscious snack consumption trends, younger consumers are more likely to pay the higher retail price associated with biodegradable packaging. “They’re willing to support products with a brand DNA that really says, ‘we understand the importance of the sustainability footprint,’” Perrotta says.

In-store insights

With inflation increasingly impacting consumers’ purchasing decisions, Perrotta advises retailers not to overlook the demand for snacks.

“In an environment where there are inflationary pressures, there tends to be a really big focus on meal essentials and a mindset that snacking is not as important – and that’s not the case,” she says. 

Perrotta adds there’s an opportunity for retailers to connect snacks with consumer enthusiasm for the return to socializing in groups. 

We do see a slow movement back to social and celebratory occasions, so I think it’d be a great time for those in-store promotions that look at celebrating with different kinds of foods and beverages that meet those ‘outside meal’ occasions,” she suggests. 

Mid-Day Squares’ Karls says better-for-you snacks often benefit from placement in the produce department, which can be more effective in helping them reach their target audience of health-minded consumers. “We’ve slowly started changing to merchandise in the produce section, where the consumer indirectly is looking for products like ours,” he says. 

Long-term, however, Karls hopes more Canadian retailers will take a cue from their U.S. counterparts by having entire aisles dedicated to functional snacks. “In Canada, we’re still not there yet – and we hope to be the pioneer – but the goal is when we can build them [functional snacks] sets together, then basket size will go up,” he says.

Karls adds that retailers could also benefit from supplementing the chocolate and chips traditionally showcased in the check-out area with more innovative snack products.

“Think about the cashes today in grocery stores, they still sell candy bars and diet beverages or sodas but, if you think about it differently – on where the consumer is going in life – they’re moving towards better-for-you products,” he says. “I think that’s where we need to go in the next decade in order to help the consumer out and drive more sales for retailers.”

This article was first featured in Canadian Grocer’s November issue.

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