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By Linda Lisanti
Back when you were a kid, your mother likely told you to put down that snack to avoid spoiling your appetite. But these days, as Americans try to cram more and more activities into each day, many are no longer heeding that maternal advice.
Snacking is a behavior entrenched in the daily routine of consumers' lives. After experiencing a period of decline between 1996 and 2002, consumption of snacks has grown steadily and is forecasted to increase 14 percent by 2017, according to "Snacking in America 2008," a recent report by the NPD Group, a market research company.
"A generation ago, most Americans believed they should avoid snacking entirely, but today snacking is more acceptable and is clearly the fourth meal of the day," said Harry Balzer, NPD Group vice president, noting 21 percent of all meals are snacks.
Between meal occasions — defined by Balzer as any occasion that's not breakfast, lunch or dinner — have become a profitable daypart, particularly for quick-service restaurants (QSRs), the foremost competitors to convenience stores for foodservice dollars. Over the last few years, fast-feeders have rolled out a variety of new items targeted toward snackers in hopes that the munchies would drive more customer traffic and increase sales.
McDonald's found a winner in its Snack Wrap, a combination of grilled or crispy chicken, lettuce, shredded cheese and sauce wrapped in a flour tortilla. Introduced in August 2006, the Snack Wrap is now available in three flavors. Both Wendy's and KFC since added their own chicken wraps to challenge McDonald's. KFC debuted its Toasted Wrap in February, while Wendy's new Chicken Go Wrap launched this April. Not to be left out, Burger King introduced a Spicy Chicken BK Wrapper in August.
Other QSRs jumping on the snack bandwagon include:
Jack in the Box, which this summer began rolling out a new Pita Snacks menu, a lineup of snack-sized, wrap-style sandwiches in steak, fish, grilled or crispy chicken varieties;
Popeyes, which recently launched "The Big Deals" promotion featuring three chicken snacks for $1.49 each, aimed at building snack daypart traffic;
Taco John's, which developed a new snack lineup for its 425 U.S. restaurants, including the Buffalo Chicken Snackarito, Ranch Chicken Snackarito, Chips & Queso, and Cini-Sopapilla Bites, small pastry puffs dusted with cinnamon and sugar; and,
Quiznos, which extended its line of Sammies, 200-calorie, flat-bread sandwiches for $2 that debuted last November. They now come in six varieties at the 5,000-unit chain.
Whereas a piece of fruit or a bag of chips previously would suffice as a snack, nowadays there is a blurring of exactly what constitutes a snack vs. a meal. In Balzer's opinion, the QSR snack wraps are not a snack, but rather a new version of a main meal item. "A snack wrap is a main meal; don't be fooled because they call it a snack wrap," he said.
The snack wrap, however, does encompass many of the qualities consumers seek out in snacking choices. Quick, easy, portable, ready-to-eat, ready-to-serve and mini are some of the descriptors Balzer cited when asked what Americans want in a snack. "Snacks tend to have a good price point, but it's really about size," he explained.
Snack for Every Daypart
The current snacking evolution is not only an opportunity for QSRs, but for c-stores, too — and not just with packaged snack goods, but in their foodservice offerings as well.
"Our view is that we are in the snack business fulltime, we are not in the meal business," said Andrew Baird, vice president of marketing for BP U.S. Convenience Retail. "The way our customers consume the food we offer is as a snack. Snacking is a way they keep themselves going until their next snack, as opposed to taking the time for a full meal."
With people jamming so much more into each day, and the larger societal message that it's better to eat six small meals instead of three big meals a day, Baird said an increasing number of people are eating smaller meals at a greater frequency. As a result, BP is seeing "a lot more snacking behavior," and is positioning itself as a destination for snackers.
The chain's ampm stores offer snack-oriented foodservice items for every daypart whether it's a fresh bakery item or a hot food such as a double cheeseburger or a spicy hot dog. The retailer also brings in many new snack items and limited time offers.
"ampm stores offer snack options for any part of the day, so consumers can snack the way they see fit, the way it suits their lifestyle. Breakfast may be 7 a.m. to some, but for other customers, it might be 10 a.m. or even 4:30 p.m.," said Jon Bratta, director of proprietary brands for BP's ampm stores, which have been billed as snack food theme parks. "Customers know ampm has what you want when you want it."
To complement its product mix, ampm's messaging to the consumer also is oriented around snacking. For example, one of its mottos is "It's OK to indulge yourself."
"We're trying to give customers permission to indulge, as opposed to having any righteous type of customer messaging," Baird explained. "Instead of a corporate-style, serious message, we make the messaging around our food playful and fun."
BP plans to continue rolling out snack-oriented foodservice items, as it views between meal occasions as a growing opportunity. As Bratta noted, the shift toward snacking is apparent not only in purchasing behavior, but even in the way customers talk about food. "It's not so much traditional meals anymore. It's more along the lines of 'Hey, I saw something that I thought looked good' no matter what the trip occasion may be."
Like BP, Speedway SuperAmerica also is tapping into consumers' love of snacking. Earlier this year in its Springfield, Ohio market, the Enon, Ohio-based convenience retailer began testing Snack Attack, a new line of foodservice snack items including chicken fries, mini corn dogs and popcorn chicken. The program targeted the peak drive time of 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. when commuters are on their way home from work.
Speedway has since changed the name of the product line to Speedy Snack and rolled out the offering to additional stores, according to company spokesman Eugene Freeman.
Convenience retailers not catering to snackers through their foodservice offering are missing out, since despite mom's warnings, in-between meal eating is big.
"It's no longer a question of whether to snack, but rather when to snack," said Balzer, citing NPD Group's "Snacking in America 2008" report, which showed the time when Americans snack is changing. Most snacking still occurs in the evening at home, but evening snacking is declining. Meanwhile, morning snacking has shown the strongest growth, and snack foods replace more breakfast meals than other meals.
Why the shift from evening to morning? "At one time, the top breakfast food was a bowl of cereal. For the last 10 years, yogurt and breakfast bars have taken over. Neither one of those is a very hearty breakfast, so they lead you to snack in the morning. You will either bring something from home or stop at a foodservice operation," he said.
Day or night — and anytime in between — Balzer said the most important thing for retailers to understand about snacking is it is not a trend, but rather a component of consumers' daily eating patterns regardless of age, lifestyle or health.