By Sarah Hamaker
Apparently not even a recession can get between an American and his salty or alternative snacks. Salty snack sales jumped 13 percent from 2004 to 2009, with total sales in all channels soaring more than 15 percent from 2007 to 2009, according to Mintel. The research ï¬?rm concluded that "salty snacks have fared very well amid the U.S. economic recession."
In convenience stores, while retailers stock more salty and alternative snacks, the category experienced a very slight dip in sales from 2008 to 2009, according to the NACS State of the Industry Report of 2009 Data. However, that trend seems to be reversing as salty snack sales have been inching up in the first six months of 2010, according to NACS data powered by CSX. Last year, salty snack contributions to in-store sales and in-store gross margin dollars placed the category within the top 10, with alternative snacks not far behind.
Those numbers prove what Jack Gardner, owner and operator of Archibald’s One Stop in East Machias, Maine, sees in his store. "Salty snacks sell well for us," he said. "Category sales have been going up because we had a great summer."
Many salty snack suppliers also say they have seen sales start to increase this year. "Our brands are up 4 percent to 15 percent, while the category overall has remained relatively flat," said Mark Singleton, vice president of sales and marketing for Rudolph Foods.
Mintel attributes stronger sales within the salty snack category to the value these products represent to consumers, compared to other snack options. Also, the dual trends of eating in and brown-bagging it for lunches have fueled sales in the salty and alternative snack category.
Creating more interest in salty and alternative snacks: sizzling flavor trends. Mintel lists hot and spicy as a growing trend for potato chips, tortilla chips, snack mixes and nut segments. Last year, Combos brand added JalapeÃ±o Cheddar Tortilla to its line-up of convenience store snacks, which also include Zesty Salsa Tortilla.
"According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hispanic food — especially Mexican — is growing in popularity and we introduced the jalapeÃ±o cheddar product to meet that consumer desire," said Larry Lupo, vice president of sales for convenience and retail for Mars Chocolate North America.
Rudolph Foods launched a Chili with Limon version of its pork rinds and packages a hot sauce packet for extra punch with its Hot Sauce pork rinds. "Everybody’s trying new flavors to help drive sales and the bigger successes have been the sizzling, spicy side because consumers are craving spicy, bolder flavors," said Singleton. Even alternative snacks are jumping on the hot and spicy bandwagon. Red Smith Foods now offers a hot and spicy version of its pickled sausage and Freestone Pickle Company has a Chili Lime pickle. "Everybody seems to have added a spicy version of their regular flavors," said Brian Burton, sales director of Red Smith Foods.
With consumers continuing to demand healthier snack foods, trends in new salty snack products also include whole grains, natural and organic, and portion-control packaging, according to Mintel. "In general, there is a focus on health," said Dana Rohde, brand manager for Oberto Beef Jerky. "Consumers are still looking for great taste and convenience, but also are seeking healthier solutions for snacking."
Kellogg has "placed an even stronger focus on better-for-you products and those that provide positive nutritional ingredients," said Lisa Costigan, Kellogg business unit manager for convenience stores.
Gardner has noticed the trend in his store. "You’re seeing salty snacks trying to tackle the good-for-you route with whole grains added to products, but still salty snacks are made to taste good," he said.
Salty coupled with sweet is another trend in salty and alternative snacks. National Confectioners Association research shows an increased popularity for sweet and salty snacks. For example, this year, Mars added two new convenience store products pairing chocolate with savory ï¬?llings — M&M’s Pretzel Chocolate Candies and Snickers Peanut Butter Squared.
Kellogg also debuted new Rice Krispies Treat clusters with mini cookies and pretzels. "Taste is the main reason why consumers choose a snack food and more than 60 percent of adults prefer salty and sweet snacks," said Costigan.
Salty and alternative snack companies often use limited-time offerings (LTO) to highlight new flavors and brand extensions. "Manufacturers are bringing out new seasonings and limited-time offerings," said Singleton. "It’s about keeping the experience novel for your consumers, showing them something new from time to time."
"Frito-Lay is always experimenting with flavor combinations with LTO," said Gardner with Archibald’s One Stop. "These LTOs do tempt people to try the product. The limited-time offerings do well for us in terms of sales, too."
More reduced-sodium salty and alternative snacks also are appearing on shelves these days. Mintel found that close to 100 lower-salt salty snack products hit stores between 2007 and 2009. Mintel predicts those numbers will rise, given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent report urging Americans to lower their salt intake.
Salt content in foods has become a target for federal agencies and cities seeking to improve the health of Americans. In the spring, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced an initiative aimed at reducing the salt intake of Americans. The effort will involve the first legal limitations on the amount of allowable sodium in food.
Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg started a campaign asking food makers and restaurants to voluntarily lower salt levels in their food products by 25 percent by 2015, a move supported by city councils in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Baltimore. A number of companies, including Kraft, General Mills, Unilever, Sara Lee, Campbell’s and PepsiCo, have voluntarily agreed to lower sodium levels in their foods over the next five years.
"Personally, I think when the federal and state governments finally squeeze the last bit of tax revenue from tobacco, they will need other areas to get tax revenue from, and the not-as-good-for-you categories like salty snacks may be targeted," said Gardner.
But most salty snack companies are not overly concerned at this point. Bill Gawlikowski, national sales manager for Freestone Pickle Company, pointed out that while salt is a necessary ingredient in the pickling process, the company has been controlling the salt content in its pickles for years. "Salt is a natural health food item and we keep the sodium as low as we can given the product we make," he said.
Burton of Red Smith Foods said his company does the same. "Meat snacks are a high-sodium product because salt is a major ingredient in the process," he said. While Red Smith Foods does keep an ear open for rumblings about regulating sodium in foods, Burton indicated it’s more of a back-burner issue for the company.
Salty and alternative snacks appear well on their way to a full recovery and these suppliers and retailers see a robust future for the category. "With so many new products coming out, there will be a freshness to the category," said Burton. "Convenience stores are where so many consumers look to buy these products."
Oberto’s Rohde agreed. "The category will continue to grow through quality and innovation," she said. "There’s always someplace in a person’s day for a snack and convenience stores deliver those snacks better than any other place," Singleton added.
Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer based in Fairfax, Virginia. She’s also a NACS Magazine and NACS Daily contributing writer.