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Healthy snacks and convenience stores are no longer mutually exclusive. The concept of healthy snacking became increasingly prevalent in the convenience channel within the last couple of years, but retailers are now more aggressively searching for ways to best capitalize on this growing trend.
Recent online media attention from Cooking Light and Delish highlights the channel?s ?healthy road trip snacks? in slideshow form. Readers are encouraged to take their next road trip with better-for-you (BFY) c-store snacks such as whole-grain cereal cups, energy bars, low-fat yogurt, 100-percent vegetable juice, trail mix, fruit cups, part-skim string cheese, single-serve bags of baby carrots, bananas, baked chips and peanuts in the shell.
Articles like this, along with the overall industry focus on health-conscious food and fitness trends, are contributing to the increased awareness and acceptance of a growing assortment of convenience snacks with better nutritional value than the typical (hot dog, chips) fare. And distributors and manufacturers with BFY options are all over it.
?Since the ?healthy? or ?better-for-you? trend is happening across many categories, it is important that distributors work with all their manufacturers to support the new product introductions that support the trend,? advised a top merchandising executive at Eby-Brown Co., a national convenience wholesaler based in Naperville, Ill.
The distributor exec observed that manufacturers are doing a lot of research and listening to consumers. ?They are putting a great deal of focus on the convenience channel and use several buzzwords that resonate with retailers and consumers: natural, organic, fresh, protein, gluten-free,? he said. ?These words are meaningful when communicating to our retail customers and to the consumers. We also have an opportunity to combine better-for-you and on-the-go messages, which is where it really comes together for convenience stores.?
One observation from the manufacturer side is that ?consumers are looking to simplify their diets by choosing foods made with natural and fewer ingredients,? according to Portia Young, public relations manager for Sargento Foods Inc., best known for its cheese products.
?More convenience stores are heeding the call by offering more wholesome choices people on the go can feel good about. Consumers are looking for fresher, higher quality choices in their snacks,? Young said. ?They want to be able to understand and identify with simple, more wholesome ingredients.?
There was a lot of buzz at the 2014 NACS Show, held in October, about ?fresh? products and the popular perception that fresh and healthy go hand in hand.
From a fresh perspective, McLane Co. Inc. has worked with logistics provider C.H. Robinson to ?establish a consistent, national supply chain to provide whole produce to the industry,? reported Tom Sicola, vice president of marketing for the Temple, Texas-based convenience distributor. ?Currently, McLane distributes produce in 12 of its 20 divisions, with efforts being made to establish critical mass in the remaining facilities.? The wholesaler?s ultimate goal is to offer fresh whole produce to all McLane customers.
?Real food snacks,? such as cheese, dairy and meat snacks, are outpacing traditional snack categories, according to the Eby-Brown executive. He cited Kraft Foods? introduction of several new items in recent months that support the BFY trend, including Oscar Mayer P3, a combination of real meat, cheese and nuts in a convenient on-the-go package, as well as its Stacked Cheese & Meat Snacks, which are made with real cheese and ?deli-quality? meats.
On the foodservice side, Eby-Brown also makes sure it offers fruit, yogurt, flatbreads and wraps. Sandwiches are thought to be a BFY option, too, and are growing in sales year over year.
The way McLane sees it, popular snacks catering to the ?healthier snacker? include attributes such as high protein and high fiber, with low fat and low calories ? but of course, still delivering a good taste. ?Clean and transparent packaging that calls out these details is very appealing and represents good quality,? Sicola stated. He mentioned the Kind bar as ?a good example of a product that encompasses all of these specifications.?
The Eby-Brown spokesperson, too, cited Kind bar, along with Clif, Lara Bar and Luna as those showing the largest percent growth from its perspective. Protein bars, such as Builder?s and PowerBar Protein, are seeing double-digit growth, according to Eby-Brown.
General Mills Inc. offers a variety of healthy grab-and-go products, including Nature Valley granola bars and yogurt. ?Specific to the growing bars space, we are focused on offering benefits across multiple consumer need states, including healthy grains with our Nature Valley Crunchy bars, and protein with our Nature Valley Energy bars and Nature Valley Protein bars,? said Michelle DeLamielleure, global consumer insights senior manager. ?As we look to the future, we are focused on expanding our portfolio of bars with simple, recognizable ingredients.?
In the cheese arena, Sargento recently rolled out 1.5-ounce mini bars, which are sized and shaped like chocolate bars but made with natural cheese and available in sharp cheddar, Colby jack and pepper jack varieties. The new mini bars are being touted as a great fit for convenience stores. Sargento also recently introduced Tastings, hand-crafted natural cheeses that come in eight varieties from the familiar (Wisconsin Aged Cheddar) to the more adventurous (Bruschetta Jack). These specialty cheeses are now available in convenience stores.
In the meat snacks category, the growth of alternative proteins continues to increase the variety of BFY options, according to Jack Link?s. ?Our studies show that turkey has the most growing power in the category,? said Kevin Papacek, director of marketing. ?It has the largest share of all alternative proteins and has increased double-digits for the past three years.? The company sees room for growth both in new flavors of turkey products and new innovation around chicken and pork.
Yogurt is another product segment being recognized as a healthy snack growth opportunity and given the c-store channel?s emphasis on convenience, it is a perfect fit, according to The Dannon Co. ?Yogurt is definitely a big growth opportunity now for c-store operators,? stated Michael J. Neuwirth, Dannon?s senior director of public relations. ?Shoppers express desire [for] freshly made yogurt parfaits, a yogurt parfait bar, high-protein yogurt shakes and fresh- or frozen-based yogurt smoothies, so we are working on bringing these concepts to life with our c-store partners.?
New product development will continue to support the BFY trend moving forward, the Eby-Brown spokesperson believes. ?The trend does not appear to be regional or short-lived, but rather a long-term national trend,? he said.
Achieving a healthier balance of snack options and foodservice choices is fast becoming a popular approach among c-stores. Many healthier choices that only used to be found at stores like Whole Foods can now be found in the convenience channel. But it?s important for operators to think realistically, as well as openly, when adding such items.
?Adding new [BFY] items does not need to come at the expense of top-ranked items,? according to the Eby-Brown exec. The top-ranking items in all categories should always be the first priority, he stressed. ?However, there are normally slow-moving items that can be identified during a SKU rationalization process and removed to make room for new items.?
Regional considerations can be tantamount to success in the healthy arena for c-stores. ?When recommending new and healthy snacks, we rely heavily on the regional demographics of the store?s location and do not encourage over-allocation of item innovation of any kinds,? McLane?s Sicola said. ?A reasonable balance needs to exist between core and new items in order to support total category growth.?
Consumers searching for BFY snacks are looking for an easy-to-spot location in the convenience store, Sicola explained. ?They want an assortment that contains variety, and items within that assortment to contain simplistic ingredients.? Dedicating a standalone three-foot endcap to healthy snacks for at least the first few months of its launch is McLane?s suggested merchandising method for c-stores in many urban areas. If space is too limited for that, the distributor recommends carving out a six- to nine-item-count block in a top corner of an inline salty snack set. ?Deciding whether to add or decrease space for these items will come with time and depend on consumers? reaction and take rates,? he said.
Sargento encourages convenience retailers to take its natural cheese out of the dairy case and display it in multiple parts of the fresh-foods open cooler. ?Doing so encourages cross sales, having close proximity to other grab-and-go purchases such as prepared sandwiches and yogurt,? stated Young. The company also recently began promoting a ?Convenience Cheese Brand Block? designed to create a Sargento section of natural cheese choices in an open-air cooler. This merchandising section includes snack cheese options such as sticks, string, mini bars and its new Tastings products.
From a whole produce standpoint, McLane recommends high-traffic-area displays, such as baskets on the coffee bar or checkout counter, or rolling stands that can be positioned by the fountain or as a point of interruption in other high-traffic areas of the store.
Getting the message across to consumers is an important part of a healthier offering, especially for c-stores, which are still not recognized by many as the channel of choice for such items.
?It is important to call out to consumers that you are a player in the healthy snack category,? Sicola told Convenience Store News. ?Prominent signage advertising healthy options should be displayed both in and outside of the store. Appetizing photography, as well as calling out an immediate consumption need and value, are key.?
The responsibility of educating their shoppers also falls on the c-store operator?s shoulders. ?For example, you may want to have shelf tags that distinguish the difference between a high protein bar and an energy bar,? Sicola offered.
Manufacturers are doing their part where they can. Naturally high in protein and low in fat, calories and carbs, Jack Link?s Jerky offers special displays in-store to help promote these healthy attributes of jerky.
?One of our recent promotions was called Snack Smarter, whereby we had callouts on the displays to bring attention to the great nutritional profile of jerky,? explained Papacek.
Jack Link?s also has a ?smart snack? designation on its bags to highlight the positive nutritional profile of jerky. Specific to the c-store channel, ?we know impulse and shopability are critical to consumer awareness, so we continue to invest in shopper marketing vehicles, including power wings, shippers, point-of-sale, in-store coupons and on-pack messaging,? relayed Michael Burris, channel marketing director. ?Our direct sales teams work closely with retailers to develop growth-driving plans locally based on their specific needs.?
Do consumers feel like eating healthier in the morning? Or are they ready to correct their earlier food mistakes by the afternoon?
There is some evidence that time of day contributes to the likelihood of consumers making healthier food choices, yet that ?health time? varies depending on which research you listen to.
McLane sees evidence that BFY items are more popular in the morning when shoppers are trying to get a healthy start to their days. As the day goes on, consumers turn to more indulgent snacks, according to Sicola. ?That is why it is important to merchandise your sets by dayparts, such as having breakfast items toward the very top of a cookie/cracker/alternative set.?
People?s healthy snacking motivations are strongest and ?most pure? in the morning, General Mills? DeLamielleure agreed. ?The morning is all about wanting healthy snacks that replace a traditional breakfast,? she said. ?As the day goes on, people?s motivations tend to shift to more enjoyment/comfort snacks to satisfy cravings or to tide one over until the next meal.?
Dannon research reveals that yogurt consumption, though, is actually highest in the afternoon when consumers are in c-stores looking for BFY options, according to Neuwirth.
Still, there are those who say the overall BFY trend is not specific to any daypart. ?Consumers are snacking more throughout the day, replacing what had been the standard three meals per day of breakfast, lunch and dinner,? the Eby-Brown exec said. Therefore, healthier snack options such as fresh fruit and yogurt fit into this new lifestyle at any time.