When Is a Food Not a Snack?

Rarely, say IRI, Snack Food Association

CHICAGO -- There’s a chance that steak tartare and filet mignon aren’t considered snacks—but don’t bet the house on it. Snacking habits have opened the net so far and wide to include once-unlikely options that snacking has become the new Wild West.

Indeed, the blurring of eating occasions across what was once our three day-part segments has expanded that gastronomic galaxy, and a larger number of food and beverage categories now appeal to consumers as snack options to rival the core categories.

While it’s true that 14% of the U.S. population still consumes three square meals a day, from 2010 through last year, people who ate three or more snacks per day grew from about 35% to 51%, while per-day snack consumption rose from 1.9 to 2.8, according to data from Chicago-based IRI and Arlington, Va.-based Snack Food Association (SFA).

The insights were part of the “State of the Snack Food Industry” webinar presented by IRI and SFA. The webinar discussed 2013 performance, peppered by trends and consumer insights surrounding major snack-food categories.

“We feel consumers will remain cautious as they did in 2013 until confidence is gained,” said presenter Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive and general manager, client insights, for IRI, adding that consumers are carrying “small pockets of confidence” around with them. Snacks hold a key to those pockets because the cost per occasion is less than that of a full meal.

One of the more compelling shifts to occur over the past four years is that core snacks have now been joined by “macro snacks” such as soup, fresh eggs, smoothies, cottage cheese and tofu.

All told, 68% of consumers seek snacks that are fun to eat, and 62% of core healthy categories are growing, according to IRI and SFA data.

Chocolate is currently available in so many snack categories that people needn’t buy a core chocolate anymore to get their fix. To wit: Snyder’s of Hanover chocolate-covered pretzels. And, the fact that the snack category experienced an average price increase of 3.6% in 2013 has an explanation: Prices were blown up by the costs of those macro snack varieties such as pizza, peanut butter and soup.

Day-part Harmony

It will be incumbent on marketer/retailer partnerships, said Lyons Wyatt, to divine consumer day-part tendencies and then execute upon them to grow snacking sales.

“The battle for breakfast was intense in 2013,” she said, pointing to Taco Bell’s entrance into the day-part. “In addition, the path to purchase … has become increasingly complex, and making precise communication inside and outside the store is essential to influence consumers at key decision points.”

Lyons Wyatt said that 85% of consumers in 2010 indicated they did not consume snacks in the morning, but this declined to 69% in 2013. In 2010, 53% said they didn’t snack in the evening, but this dropped to 31% last year.

So what are consumers seeking? One can start with the power of yogurt as a snack-time behemoth. Perhaps due to competitive pricing, dollar sales declined across most snack categories, but yogurt was an anomaly.

The yogurt narrative was fueled by 100-calorie products, Greek blends and “flip” packaging innovations that support consumers seeking “nutrition management” instead of plain dieting.

Salty-snack innovations were paced by the likes of Tostitos Cantina Traditional Tortilla Chips, while cookie sales grew in 2013 after a flat-to-declining performance in 2012. Ice cream remained in flat-to-declining mode.

The quest for a healthier lifestyle meanwhile opens up new marketing opportunities. “Message beyond the basics and help support consumers’ quest for nutrition management—and communicate this in the store,” says Lyons Wyatt. “If you get this right it will deliver results.”

Lyons Wyatt cited Wawa’s marketing around the health benefits of its smoothies and 7-Eleven’s recent introduction of an egg-white breakfast sandwich as strong examples of better-for-you messaging.

“Who would have imagined that trend [driven by a c-store chain]? They are balancing the health aspect with the indulgent: 7-Eleven is holding firm to its core strategy while also breaking the mold by migrating into new territory.”