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    Study: Snacking Gives Way to Regular Meals

    Convenience stores among top destinations for off-peak eating.

    Snackers aren't just snacking anymore. They're eating regular meals during the traditional "snack" dayparts, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., according to research from NPD Group, a global market research firm.

    In fact, 50 percent of people who eat out during those hours are consuming regular meals, data from the Port Washington, N.Y.-based group indicates.

    Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group, said not ounce of data exists to suggest that Americans are snacking more. NPD data show that snacking away from home is actually declining, though most consumers eat a snack during the course of a day, according to a report in Nation's Restaurant News.

    "Snacking can be in the home or outside the home, though it is mostly in-home," he noted.

    During snacking times, younger consumers are more prone to purchase items from restaurants, NPD data shows. Teenagers constitute the largest proportion of afternoon restaurant eaters, or 24 percent of total traffic from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. During the late-night period, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., young adults are the heaviest restaurant users, with 18- to 24-year-olds accounting for 28 percent of total traffic and 25- to 34-year-olds making up 22 percent of traffic.

    At quick-service restaurants, people who eat during off-peak hours, in the mid-afternoon and late night, call the eating occasion a "snack" about half of the time and a "meal" about half of the time. "Even if they call it a snack, they're eating meal-like products," Balzer said.

    Convenience and grocery stores also rank as top destinations for off-peak eating. Top purchases at convenience stores in the afternoon and late night include smaller snack items, such as soft drinks, candy and candy bars, potato chips, bottled water and cookies.

    New products increasingly drive the market-share battle between retailers and restaurants, Balzer said. "So it's not ice cream, but what is new in the ice cream category," he said.

    Balzer points to the category of yogurt-based products as an opportunity for restaurateurs trying to attract non-meal snack business. In addition to seeming like a treat, yogurt-based products "have a halo of health around them," he said.

    In fact, American consumers are eating more yogurt now that ever before, he noted. "It is one of the snack categories that is actually growing," he said.

    Several quick-service chains have followed in the footsteps of McDonald's, with its long-running fruit and yogurt parfait, by adding yogurt-based products to their menus. Wendy's recently rolled out a low-fat, strawberry-flavored yogurt cup with granola, after introducing a fresh fruit bowl with yogurt dip earlier this year.

    TCBY Systems of Salt Lake City in July unveiled a quick-service concept wholly focused on yogurt, called Yovana. The first unit, which debuted in Phoenix, offers fresh yogurt parfaits, yogurt smoothies and frozen yogurt treats with fresh fruit and granola.

    Beyond attracting customers to quick-service restaurants with snacks they perceive as treats, Balzer also sees opportunity for operators of snack concepts to offer the meal-like products that 50 percent of customers are seeking in the afternoon and late-night periods.

    "I would say bring on sandwiches, or things that are typically lunch products," he said. "I would tell operators to be thinking about feeding as a meal."

    Dunkin’ Donuts is one chain working to expand its offerings beyond breakfast and snack dayparts, according to Jon Luther, chief executive of the Canton, Mass.-based Dunkin' Brands Inc. Dunkin' Donuts, which has more than 4,500 domestic units, is testing panini sandwiches at about 75 stores in its Providence, R.I., market.

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