Anytime is snack time


Whether eaten as a hunger-tamer between meals or as a pre-meal nibble, todays frozen snacks and appetizers are hard to beat when it comes to quick and convenient at-home preparation. But sales growth – both on the store brand side and overall – has been less than impressive of late (see the table, p. 42), suggesting that retailers and manufacturers need to rethink product development efforts and marketing strategies here.

Change is in the air

Americans eating habits are changing, and retailers that adjust store brand product development and marketing efforts accordingly stand to benefit. According to a September 2013 Times & Trends report from Chicago-based market research firm Information Resources Inc. (IRI), 21 percent of U.S. consumers now tend to "eat on the run," grabbing food and drink throughout the day as the opportunity arises. Deemed "opportunists," these folks fall across all demographic groups (but are most likely to be Caucasian) and split their choices fairly evenly between healthful and indulgent. In contrast, "planners" tend to eat three square meals or several mini meals throughout the day.

Two-thirds of opportunists want foods that are quick and easy to prepare, and one-third of them prefer heat-and-eat or ready-to-eat options, IRI notes.

"As a result, opportunists spent 60 percent more on frozen appetizers [and] snack rolls versus planners during the past year," the report states.

One way retailers could grow frozen snacks and appetizers among this growing subset of consumers, IRI suggests, is by broadening marketing messages and platforms to connect with consumers across all eating occasions.

And snacking also is becoming more prevalent among U.S. consumers overall, notes Alissa Davis, director of marketing for J&J Snack Foods Corp., Pennsauken, N.J., which opens up an even larger opportunity for retailers own-brand frozen snacks and appetizers.

"We see that [consumers] arent eating the typical three meals a day any longer; theyre really just having larger snacks or smaller meals about five times a day," she says. "So we see a shift of product offerings in the category. Its not just a hot snack and appetizer category – I think it could be named more of a mini meal or meal replacement category."

consider trends toward ethnic flavors and bite-sized snacks in new product development.

ignore the value tier when it comes to new product development.

Room for variety

It stands to reason that a wide variety of products, including some unique items, could spark additional interest within the category.

"Weve been working with retailers on some differentiated product offerings," Davis explains, "whether they be products that have a bold kick and flavor or products that maybe have a Hispanic feel to them."

Speaking of a Hispanic feel, Anne-Sophie Mommessin, director of sales and marketing for France-based Frial Inc. (with U.S. offices in Menlo Park, Calif.), notes that Mexican-inspired appetizers are on-trend. Likewise for appetizers inspired by Asian and "classic American" recipes.

"We see more and more classic comfort food available as finger foods in the snack/appetizer aisle," she adds, "like mac and cheese bites, mini tacos, chicken empanadas, mini gyro bites and chicken pot pie bites."

Ray Gadd, executive vice president for Los Angeles-based Flagship Food Group, agrees with the trends toward ethnic and bite-sized.

"Working with our copackers, I have heard smaller, bite-sized, is better," he says. "Ethnic dishes are in demand – everything from Asian to Greek."

Also worth noting is the fact that the line between appetizers and snacks is becoming blurred in North American consumers view, says Dana McCauley, vice president of marketing for Plats du Chef, Vaughan, Ontario.

"It used to be that people looked at a box and said, This is party food or This is snack food," she explains. "We commissioned research recently with U.S. and Canadian consumers, and we found that they more often than not saw items that had been developed to be entertaining appetizers for our own brand and our private label customers [to be] equally as appealing as snack items."

invest in demos that allow consumers not only to try the product, but also to learn how to prepare it.

get into a cycle of frequent redesigns – take a "longer view" of the store brand.

Those findings point to a need to rethink package messaging and imagery, McCauley says.

"Consumers are treating themselves at home to foods they would have only served to company in the past," she maintains. "They will respond to a package that looks like a fancy snack and purchase it to have with wine at night while they watch their favorite show alone or with their partner and keep that item on hand or on their shopping list for when they entertain as well."

Although differentiated products hold appeal and can help inspire brand and retailer loyalty, retailers outside of the specialty and gourmet space shouldnt necessarily put all of their own-brand eggs into that basket. Nor should they focus too heavily on premium offerings, McCauley believes, noting that the value segment presents the best outlook in terms of high-volume opportunities.

"While its not as exciting to develop products with mass appeal, you really are contributing to the convenience and needs of a lot more people if you can help a store brand to get a hit in this segment," she stresses. "The life cycle of the value segment products is often much longer than the uniquely flavored or premium offerings, too, since they become everyday items in peoples homes that weather recessions and trend cycles well."

Whether developing a value item, a premium item or something in between, retailers also would be wise to consider tweaks to make that product more healthful in consumers eyes. According to "Frozen Snacks – US," a report published in May 2013 by global market research firm Mintel, rising consumer health consciousness is limiting the performance of frozen snacks and appetizers, which are viewed as too processed and high in calories, fat and sodium.

"Health- and wellness-related innovations such as those that allow for the reduction of sodium and fat, boost nutritive qualities such as protein and fiber, and boost a perception of product freshness are a necessary direction" for innovation, Mintel says.

Beyond product development

Retailers also could heat up sales of frozen snacks and appetizers via consumer-centric packaging, merchandising and marketing. On the packaging front, resealable and recyclable (or recycled) packaging is important to consumers, Davis says.

Gadd agrees that resealability is on-trend, but also notes that larger packaging sizes are becoming more popular among consumers who want to have appetizers on hand when company shows up.

Although McCauley calls gusseted resealable bags a smart choice – one that makes sense from an environmental, a convenience and an economic standpoint – she cautions that traditional merchandising and lighting systems dont do these bags justice.

"Right now, they flop around on shelves designed for boxes and reflect glare badly, making it hard for consumers to find what they want or to notice new items," she says. "Retailers need to test such packaging in their existing freezers and using store lighting before they can make this leap."

From a convenience standpoint, Mommessin favors the black tray. Consumers are able to heat the trayed product in the microwave and then serve the product in the same tray.

Packaging redesign also is something retailers might want to rethink here. Damon Williams, assistant marketing manager for J&J Snack Foods, believes many retailers should "take a longer view of their brands" instead of getting into a cycle of frequent redesigns.

"I think if retailers really start looking and viewing their corporate labels in the same way marketers view brands in CPG, that would help establish a long-term relationship and purchase rate with consumers," Davis adds.

On the marketing front, demos remain the best way to get consumers not only to try a store brand frozen snack or appetizer, Mommessin says, but also to learn how to prepare it, get suggestions for possible variations and more.

"It is also helpful to add a sticker on the frozen appetizer door with a picture of the product and a few ideas on how to prepare it, where the ingredients are coming from, what is the story of the recipe – for example, traditional appetizer in Italy, often served with cheese. This information can also be added to the retailer website or newsletter," she says.

For her part, McCauley would love to see retailers borrow from the bookstore and wine store arena, having employees curate their favorite products and assign them ratings.

"For example, These franks in a blanket get a 10 for being kid-friendly and easy to prepare – Jean, Deli Department. I think this approach could really drive trial, especially among store regulars who have contact with and [have] built trust with cashiers, butchers, deli staff, etc.," she says.

And on the merchandising side, McCauley believes door blades, when well designed and well positioned, make a great "low-tech" solution.

"Ive also found that TVs – especially when accompanied by audio – that are positioned over bunkers draw great attention, too," she adds.