March, 2017

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Implications for Fresh Produce in Consumer Snacking Research

by Carol M. Bareuther


Snack consumption will continue to grow. This is the Number One take-away message from the Snacking Occasion, Consumer Trend Report, published in 2016 by Chicago-based Technomic Inc. Evidence for this comes from a recent rapid uptick of consumers snacking daily, from 76 percent in 2014 to 83 percent in 2016. Busier lifestyles, greater availability of snack foods away from home and the increasing role snacks now play in everyday life are driving factors, according to the report. While produce as snacks at retail and foodservice weren’t specifically measured, there are four important findings in the research that showcase sales opportunities for fresh fruits and vegetables.  

First, innovative healthful snacks will flourish. This comes on the heels of a shift in consumer perception from snacks as the downfall of a healthy diet to now an essential component of such. This indicates an opportunity to drive sales through more interesting, innovative and nutritious snack choices.

“Twenty-eight percent of consumers intend on eating healthier snacks in the next 12 months, and these consumers are increasingly purchasing snacks from prepared foods areas,” says Maia Chang, Technomic’s senior research analyst for consumer insights. “Additionally, we saw that 42 percent of consumers would purchase healthy snacks more often if there were unique flavorings available. So, using fresh produce as an example, these could be items like chili-lime seasoned baby carrots, pomegranate-flavored smoothies and apples with caramel dip.”

However, the report does maintain that an SKU or menu mix of indulgent and healthful items is the key to driving overall traffic.

Consumer-oriented findings in this report were based on the responses of 1,500 Americans who took part in an online survey. The participants were nationally representative regarding age, gender and ethnicity. However, to qualify, consumers had to be snackers. When researchers asked how subjects defined a snack (and respondents could choose more than one definition), 71 percent answered that snacks were any item eaten during non-traditional meal hours, while 48 percent defined snacks as items traditionally sold as snacks.

A second key point in the report is that the definition of snacks will continue to broaden. For example, 41 percent of respondents considered a salad a snack. Plus, consumers are now considering a wider variety of foods to be snacks. This is due in part to the ever-increasing range of new products being developed and marketed to meet between-meal needs. This finding offers operators an opportunity to stock an ever-widening array of items in destination snack cases at retail, or create new snack sections on foodservice menus.“This can mean an opportunity to promote produce that isn’t traditionally considered a snack item. To this point, 62 percent of consumers said they would buy fresh fruits for snacks, and 52 percent said would buy cheese or string cheese for snacks. These items, as well as pre-cut fruit, are examples of how foodservice operators and retailers can meet consumers’ snack needs,” says Chang.

Thirdly, the Technomic report revealed that varied snack portion sizes will be  important. This is especially true for younger consumers, 40 percent of whom eat snacks away from home, compared to 25 percent of the population overall.

 “Varied or tiered portion sizes will be increasingly crucial, because consumers more often say that it’s important that snacks aren’t too large,” says Chang.

The implication of this is that retail and foodservice operators could consider offering more bundled snack options.

Finally, the report reveals that breakfast snacks will gain ground following on the coattails of the major industry trend of the all-day breakfast. This is because breakfast foods are of relatively smaller portion size and lower price point than other meals.

“As for produce, a look through our MenuMonitor tool shows that some QSR chains have already started adding avocado and kale to their breakfast items, especially hand-held offerings,” says Chang.

To avoid breakfast fare’s cannibalization of sales from other dayparts, the Technomic report suggests that operators consider positioning breakfast items as nutritious snacks that can tide consumers over until their next meal.

In addition to the online consumer survey, results of this report also came from information contained in Technomic’s Digital Resource Library, Knowledge Center databases.


Usage Focus Is Key To Increased Consumption

Is the future really bright for chili-lime-seasoned baby carrots and similar items? Maybe in percentage of sales increases, since the base is so small, but count me as skeptical in terms of mainstreaming these types of items. Whatever people say in their survey responses, it is often the case that consumer preferences expressed in survey research are not fulfilled in actual commerce.

Sometimes this is due to wishful thinking – thus gym membership sales may increase after New Year’s resolutions – but that doesn’t translate into much more exercise than last year.  Sometimes it is a desire to impress the interviewer – plenty of people would like to blame their gluttony on someone else – so the reason they are not eating healthy is the fault of manufacturers and retailers who don’t provide chili-lime-seasoned baby carrots.

Even if consumers are honest in their expression and would follow through, the business often cannot accommodate their needs at reasonable prices. Baby carrots have been a boom for the carrot industry, but they are still a small product line. If you get down to the micro level of the small percentage of people who will prefer chili-lime-seasoned baby carrots – and the hundreds of such flavor profiles – it is hard to imagine how manufacturers would produce this assortment and, even more, how retailers would find space for all of these.

This is true everywhere in supermarkets. After all, every other day some retailer announces its intention to “rationalize,” aka “reduce,” its SKU count. This is, however, especially true in refrigerated products and even more true in those products requiring fresh-cut cases with excellent temperature control. It is notable that those companies announcing these types of specialty flavor profiles, often trumpeting trials in press releases, seem very rarely to follow up with announcements of expanding the trials, and one rarely sees them in stores.

The report wisely points out that the definition of a snack has broadened. This is mostly because of processing and packaging innovations. Many food items can now fit in a car’s cup holder and thus become an easy snack. The point here is that producers need to be thinking of executions that are perfect for a usage occasion. A big tub of hummus is designed to take home or use at a party, but those little cup-size servings topped with crackers are great snacks at an airport or to grab to take on a plane. Now since the hummus has to be refrigerated anyway, is there a possibility to market the hummus sans crackers, but with carrot and celery sticks?

Mindfulness about sizes makes sense as well. A big bag of baby carrots is for Mom to dole out as snacks from time to time. Small sealed packets, perhaps with a dip, are great for lunch boxes or to keep in the fridge at work or to grab from a vendor in the airport rushing to catch a flight or at school while in a class. So this research reminds us that snacking and usage occasion are interconnected, and product development has to focus on usage in order to capture the snacking market.

The issue of breakfast is not so much related to snacking as to mindfulness that the way to grow consumption is to change eating habits. In the United Kingdom, a lot more mushrooms and tomatoes are eaten at breakfast than in the US, because a British breakfast is traditionally served with both. If we can persuade foodservice operators to begin integrating produce items into non-traditional day parts – say avocado into omelets and melons into dinner entrees -- we will certainly increase consumption, at least of those items.

Now that breakfast items are available all day in some restaurants such as McDonalds, someone who might have come in for a snack – say just a small cheeseburger between lunch and dinner or after work but before a late dinner – might be open to buying an Egg McMuffin. If we can get either of those items to be sold with a slice of beet root, then we have boosted consumption a bit.

Obviously, in today’s world, we ought to use what opportunities we have to boost produce consumption. Yet we have doubts that this trend is going to be a net positive for produce. It takes a lot of pieces of lettuce on a snack to replace Mom tossing a salad every night to serve with dinner. And many produce items, especially in the vegetable categories, need to be cooked and are really ingredients.

Along with technology, product and packaging innovation can help. New proprietary varieties with unique flavor profiles can help. Intelligent marketing can help. But the real lesson here is that dining habits are shifting in a way that is not positive for produce consumption, so we need to be hyper-attentive to every possible sale. We are going to need it.