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Meat snacks are being newly corralled -- and not just for the cowboy crowd anymore. While young adult males are still the category's core consumers, women, kids, health-conscious baby boomers and various ethnic groups have all been alternative targets for the high-protein snack category of late.
"Our fastest growing demographic in the meat snack category is the female shopper -- and the main reason is the low- to no-fat products," revealed John Strickland Jr., vice president of operations and general buyer for Wayne Oil Co., based in Goldsboro, N.C. "Plus, it's not the old beef stick anymore -- it skews more to a bag. I call it chunk shapes. The re-sealable bags are perfect for women -- they can carry them in their purse, in the car, or take them home to their kids."
It all started with the Atkins diet craze -- a peak that obviously passed a few years ago, but was when the meat snack category gained widespread awareness and some new consumer groups -- many of which are still very interested in adding more lean protein to their diets. Manufacturers have really honed in on the trend recently, expanding their lines and giving retailers increased merchandising options for a more powerfully packed meat snack array.
The logic is simple -- the typical male meat snack consumer will respond to traditional options, but up-and-coming consumer groups will respond to up-and-coming product innovation. According to category research by Mintel, a market research firm based in Chicago, today's meat snacks are being driven by improvements, extensions and variations in flavors, textures, shapes, protein sources and packaging. Specifically, leading players Frito Lay (Oh Boy! Oberto), ConAgra (Slim Jim) and Link Industries (Jack Links) have collectively unveiled meat snack items with:
-- A softer texture -- Mintel reported that meat snacks "have long been associated with a tough chew and texture," but newer, softer SKUs are appealing to new users, particularly women and children.
-- Alternative sources of meat -- Beyond the traditional beef meat, manufacturers have turned to other sources of lean protein such as ham, chicken and turkey. This is also associated with a "softer chew."
-- "Piece" sizes rather than huge strips or long sticks -- This goes along with the category's efforts in portability and portion control, and for a more "comfortable chew" to attract more women and children consumers.
-- Spice and zip -- Spicy, barbecue, teriyaki and smoke flavor profiles all increased in 2006-2007, according to Mintel. They have been joined by even more zip in flavor profiles lately, which include spicier and hotter versions, such as Jalapeno Sizzle and Kickin' Cajun (both from Jack Links). Mintel reported other taste inspirations are being based on popular restaurant trends or brand names (such as KC Masterpiece from Jack Links).
-- Updated packaging trends -- These encompass innovations catering to the demand for convenience and portability, such as multiple-serving re-sealable bags and single-serve packages. Revamped packaging has also been part of the deal with the intent of passing on a "more modern" image for meat snacks.
-- Health claims -- Low-, no- and reduced-fat; low-, no- and reduced-carbs; no additives or preservatives; and low-, no- and reduced-trans fat are among the most prevalent claims, according to Mintel.
-- All natural/organic and premium products -- This is an extension of the health claim trend, and is often combined with it.
How has this plethora of new products played out, specifically for c-stores? Industrywide, there's been a decent, recent upswing, now a couple years after the crash of the low-carb movement and the accompanying flat category sales of the past.
C-store dollar sales in meat snacks are up at $817 million, growing 4.9 percent for the 52 weeks ending May 17, 2008, according to data collected by The Nielsen Co. The category is on par in terms of dollar sales growth with other dynamic snack categories in the channel, such as nuts/seeds (4.8 percent), granola/yogurt bars (5.1 percent) and the entire salty snack category (5.8 percent).
Some chains have clearly seen an exciting change at the store level, reflective of the trends. Wayne Oil always had a 3-foot endcap for meat snacks, but now it's "our No. 2 endcap right as you walk into the store," Strickland said. "Our No. 1 endcap has Lance crackers and such, but then just to the left of that in the next aisle over is meat snacks. It's a very visible section and has a ton of variety in bags as well as sticks. Everything's pegged."
While Strickland believes most c-store retailers go with either Jack Links or ConAgra products exclusively, "we blended the set and took the top SKUs from each. It's just what our transactional volume showed was the right approach. It wasn't worth the slotting fees either. We would not have fully capitalized on the category if we'd gone with one sole source. This is definitely the trend. You have to sell what customers want today. There's no room for putting something out and hoping they'll buy."
The blended strategy also lets Wayne Oil make the most of new flavor introductions. "There's definitely been a shift towards offering more flavors -- Jalapeno, Teriyaki, Sweet and Sour -- they're all good with our customers," Strickland said. "We also carry three SKUs of turkey, mostly for the women."
Flavors are the most noticeable difference in the meat snack category for Shay Oil Inc., based in Yuma, Ariz. "We have a 3-foot endcap for the category and in many of our interstate stores we're seeing the new flavors doing very well," stated Jim Schacklett, general buyer for the chain. "It seems the really hot ones, like Jalepeno and Tabasco, are actually outselling some of the 'calmer' ones. Then there's Teriyaki. It does well, too."
The flavor trend is such an obvious one for Shay Oil that Schacklett recently decided to carry more new flavor SKUs than "regular" ones, as he put it.
Of course there are still those c-stores that haven't seen changes in the category -- or perhaps, haven't made the proper adjustments.
"We get a lot more females in general, shopping in here, but I haven't noticed anything affecting the meat snack category," maintained Chip Vann, buyer for Don Stewart Petroleum Inc., in Austin, Texas. He said the category "was really hot for a while and then it died off after the Atkins craze." And while it really hasn't picked back up for them since, Vann admitted, "we're not really making any changes. If anything, we've scaled back on it considerably."