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It's All a Blur.

Byline: Kathie Canning

Is it a snack, or is it a meal? Retailers have an opportunity to address the blurring between the two with targeted own-brand product development.

In recent years, much has been written and said about consumers' growing tendency to substitute snacks -- or several mini meals -- for the traditional breakfast, lunch or dinner meal occasion. But any old snack just will not do. Retailers that understand how to address the blurring between snacks and meals -- with consumer-centric store brand snack items -- will have an advantage over those that don't.

The snacking reality

Just how many American consumers are subbing snacks, at least occasionally, for meals? Well, Nielsen's recent "Global Snacking Survey" found that more than half of American respondents admit to snacking in place of a meal.

"As more of us are eating on the go, we're more likely to turn to the convenience and portability of a snack instead of sitting down to a meal," notes Jordan Rost, vice president of consumer insights for New York-based Nielsen.

In its own 2016 snack-related survey, Chicago-based market research firm IRI also uncovered a trend toward increased snacking on the part of consumers. The survey found that 46 percent of American consumers now consume a snack three-plus times per day.

"There is no doubt that U.S. consumers have fundamentally changed the way they eat over the past five years," states Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president and practice leader for IRI. "We find that they eat four to five mini meals/snacks or three meals a day plus snacks -- or just graze throughout the day."

Meanwhile, a smaller but significant percentage of U.S. adults -- 15 percent -- fall into "Super Snackers" territory, according to "Snacking Motivations and Attitudes," an April 2015 report from global market research firm Mintel. These consumers snack four or more times per day.

"iGeneration/millennials, those aged 18 to 36, are most likely to snack frequently," the report notes. "Nearly one-quarter are Super Snackers, compared to just 7 percent of baby boomers and 3 percent of Swing Generation/World War IIs."

Despite the ramp-up in snacking occasions, most consumers still stick to a three-meals-per-day plan, says the NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y. However, those meals tend to look very different than they did in years past.

"The number of dishes and ingredients used to prepare main meals continues to decline as more consumers rely on "healthy' portable snack foods to be part of their breakfast, lunch and dinners," says Darren Seifer, NPD food and beverage industry analyst. "As the sizes of our meals shrink and people continue to incorporate more traditional "snack' foods into main meal menus, the perception is that they are grazing or snacking more. These mini meals, however, are not adding new or additional occasions to the day."

Generation Z and millennials are driving the trend toward eating snack foods at main meals, Seifer adds.

"However, aging curves and generational changes suggest this trend is nearing maturity," he says.

Their hearts' desire

So what do today's consumers want when it comes to the snacks or mini meals they call breakfast, lunch or dinner?

Preferences vary -- and change -- according to generation, Lyons Wyatt says. In IRI's assessment of the "macro-snacking universe," it found that millennials and Generation X trend toward portable quick-and-easy options such as frozen and refrigerated pizza, toaster pastries, frozen handheld entr'es, specialty nut butter, dry fruit snacks and enrobed snacks.

"Boomers are also looking for on-the-go options," she adds, "but their preferences skew towards snack nuts and seeds, cottage cheese and nutritional snacks/trail mixes."

Meanwhile, bars -- nutritional bars, granola bars, cereal bars and the like -- collectively account for the largest snacking category across all generations, Lyons Wyatt notes. They deliver on many of consumers' most pressing wants and needs, including satiation, convenience, variety, nutritional enhancement, flavor and texture, and more.

Seifer adds yogurt and fruit to the list of sought-after snacks serving as mini meal and meal replacement options, both of which mesh with the overall trend toward more healthful offerings.

Speaking of healthful offerings, the iGeneration (Generation Z) and millennials gravitate toward organic snacks and snacks with added nutritional elements such as protein and vitamins, the Mintel report states. But affordability is critical to these generations, too.

Of course, U.S. consumers aren't always health- and wellness-minded when it comes to snacking outside of mini meal and meal replacement occasions.

"Evening occasions are associated with comforting, indulgent and unhealthy snacks," the Mintel report states. "Furthermore, snackers associate all flavor profiles with this occasion: sweet, savory and spicy."

Reel them in

To attract the interest -- and dollars -- of all generations, retailers will want to keep in mind some in-demand snack attributes.

"Snacks tying to nutrition and convenience are winning with consumers today," Lyons Wyatt stresses.

But nutrition means more than the removal or reduction of less-desirable ingredients such as sugar, she says. It also means the inclusion of positives such as fiber, protein, fruit or vegetables, and/or what she refers to as "real food" ingredients.

"In 2015, 17 percent of IRI's New Product Pacesetters touted protein, which has moved in positioning from an attribute to a "brand' in its own right," Lyons Wyatt says. "Many new introductions in 2016 have plant-based ingredients, including plant proteins [such as] algae, soy, etc., which are resonating with consumers' quest for less-processed foods and foods that focus on more healthy fats."

Rost agrees that healthful ingredients are important to today's snack consumers.

"While snacks traditionally appeal to consumers based on their convenience and portability, consumers still expect their snacks to deliver the same healthful benefits that they would have otherwise received from a meal," he says. "As we saw in Nielsen's 2016 Breakthrough Innovation winners, brands in categories from popcorn to yogurt are finding ways to make snacks that are convenient, taste great and deliver the healthy benefits that consumers are demanding."

The attributes associated with snacks serving as a meal replacement are similar to those associated with morning snacks -- for example, nuts or breakfast biscuits, which are light, healthful and energizing, the Mintel report states.

"Protein-rich snacks are especially important for this occasion because respondents are looking for foods that will keep them full and give them sustained energy," Mintel says.

It's important for retailers to keep all of these attributes -- as well as ethnic variety and familiar flavors -- in mind when developing store brand items that fit in with the blurring between snacks and meals. After all, if consumers cannot find what they want in stores (and at the right price), they're likely to create it at home, Seifer suggests.

Finally, retailers will want to give some marketing and merchandising attention to own-brand snacks positioned as mini meals or meal replacements.

"Marketing and/or merchandising efforts need to tell their core brand story, but the story needs to be told in a way that aligns to targeted eating occasions," Lyons Wyatt says. "In many instances, snacks can play multiple roles, so there need to be multiple stories."
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Author:Canning, Kathie
Publication:Progressive Grocer's Store Brands
Date:Nov 1, 2016
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