Snacking, Health and Wellness Drive Convenience Merchandising

April 8, 2015

snacks as main meals

Consumer trends around grab-and-go snacking and health and wellness are reshaping the convenience areas of contract foodservice venues.

An increasing number of diners — especially Millennials — are shifting away from the traditional pattern of eating three square meals a day in favor of multiple quick-and-easy snacks. Recent research from The Hartman Group in Belleview, Wash., found that 48 percent of consumers said they replace meals with snacks at least three to four times per week, and on half of those occasions health concerns influence consumers’ decisions.

The NPD Group in Chicago, meanwhile, forecasts that snacks eaten as a main meal would grow by about 5 percent between 2013 and 2018, to $86.4 billion in sales.

Those trends are playing out in the convenience foods areas of colleges and universities, hospitals and other noncommercial settings, where snacks have in some cases become more like mini-meals — yogurt with granola, or chips or vegetables with a dip, for example.

Ken Toong, who oversees all University of Massachusetts dining facilities as executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises at the Amherst-based school, says health and wellness is the top concern of students when it comes to meals and snacking. The campus recently added a new convenience dining concept on campus called Harvest, which is modeled in part after the buffet and grab-and-go offerings typically found in Whole Foods supermarkets.

“It’s like a mini-Whole Foods, with all-natural snacks, a juice bar, a yogurt bar and salad bar, along with prepared foods, including Indian Food and Asian food,” Toong says. “It is one of our most successful places on campus for snack foods.”

The popularity of the juice bar exemplifies the snacks-as-meals trend, he points out. Many students appear to be buying smoothies as a healthy substitute for a traditional breakfast or lunch, for example.

“We all say that snacking is the new way of eating on campus,” Toong says. “Students don’t eat three square meals a day any more, and instead they are eating four or five smaller meals throughout the day. There’s a huge market for snacking.”

About 80 percent of the products sold at Harvest, which opened in September, 2014, are healthier options, he says.

Even in more traditional convenience retail settings on campus, the school has shifted toward more healthy snacks, and more organic and natural items. About 25 percent of products sold in more traditional convenience retail settings on campus are healthy, Toong says.

“We feel this is the future of what people are going to want,” he says. “They are time-stressed, and they want healthy food they can take with them and eat on the go.”

Other factors Toong has seen impacting snacking on campus include international influences — dried seaweed is a popular snack, he says — and a preference for snacks that are sourced from small, local companies.

Salty Snacks

Jerry Peacock, senior vice president at Acosta Foodservice, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based sales and marketing agency, says he believes the snack category will continue to grow rapidly in noncommercial foodservice. That includes salty snacks such as kettle potato chips, popcorn and nuts.

“Snacks have moved from an in-between meal occasion to an anytime event,” he says.

He notes that even within salty snacks, consumer interest in health and wellness, and in natural and organic attributes, is becoming more important.

“We see that natural is becoming mainstream,” Peacock says. “In the work we’ve done with the salty snack teams at [distributor] Sysco and in talking with customers, ‘natural’ and ‘no trans fats’ are far and away the most important nutritional attributes to consumers, and natural is growing faster than any other segment.”

Healthful convenience offerings have become particularly important in hospital foodservice facilities in recent years, following a backlash against medical facilities that provided food perceived as unhealthy.

The New York City Department of Health and Hygiene, for example, in 2012 launched the Healthy Hospital Food Initiative. The voluntary program encourages hospitals to adopt standards for healthful offerings not only for patients, but also in public cafes and cafeterias and in food and beverage vending machines.

“Hospitals should set the standard for promoting healthy behaviors,” said New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley at the time of the launch.

Right Products, Right Placement

Noncommercial operators constantly square against off-premise options to capture a larger share of consumers’ snack spending.

Research firm Mintel notes that on college and university campuses, for example, students buy an average of 5.5 snacks per week off-campus, and only 3.8 snacks per week on campus.

“Creating an extensive snack menu that breaks away from chips and candy and includes appetizers, smoothies, specialty coffee, and other items often seen in commercial restaurants can move off-campus snacks back on-campus,” Mintel notes in its 2014 report on Colleges and Universities Foodservice.

Snack-merchandising experts point out that having the right products in the right place and at the right price are keys to driving sales in contract-foodservice venues.

In cafeterias the checkout lanes represent prime real estate for impulse items and “small rewards,” which could be for the patrons themselves or for friends and family members. This is one area in which customers might forego their health-and-wellness concerns and indulge themselves or others with treats like cookies and candy.

Another such area is near the dessert counter in a cafeteria, where cookies can be a popular option. Meanwhile, baked goods and similar fare make appropriate snacks in the section of the cafeteria set aside for coffee and other hot beverages, while chips and pretzels can still be popular as accompaniments stationed near the sandwich or grill area of a cafeteria.

The equipment used in snack merchandising also is important in convenience retailing in contract foodservice venues. Suppliers often have proprietary display-rack systems they provide for their brands, and in many cases such items are kept replenished through direct store delivery (DSD) merchandising teams.

The ability to adjust the product offering by daypart also can be an important aspect of merchandising convenience areas.

Toong of the University of Massachusetts explains how snacking preferences evolve throughout the day at his facilities. Students generally opt for healthier selections in the mornings — such as yogurt or fresh fruit — and shift to sugary snacks or other more indulgent items, like chicken wings or pizza, in the evenings or late at might.

Overall, however, he says he’s seen a tremendous increase in students’ interest in nutrition, quality and taste, along with concern that the companies supplying the products are socially responsible.

“For our students, health and wellness is the No. 1 concern, and sustainability and delicious taste are also big concerns,” Toong says.