Today's meat snacks target a different consumer than in years gone by. Introductions from major brands and manufacturers now come in unique sizes, packages and flavors.

Protein, portability and portion control are helping to keep the category strong with consumers.

Meat snacks just aren’t what they used to be. And that’s actually a good thing.

Today’s meat snacks are softer, sometimes shaped differently and available in more exotic flavor and seasoning combinations. They’re also targeted to a broader base of consumers and positioned for different eating occasions. (Think lunch boxes.) Factors such as these are helping to position the category for further growth.

A peek at Chicago-based Infor-mation Resources, Inc. data suggests that sales are a bit lackluster, but it’s important to keep in mind that these statistics include neither the all-important convenience channel nor Wal-Mart - another key retail venue for meat snacks. For the year-long period ending Nov. 4, 2007, for example, jerky sales in supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers excluding Wal-Mart were off by 2.1% for a total of $206.4 million. Sales of all other dried meat snacks were up just .2% for a total of $107.1 million.

But that doesn’t tell the full story.

According to leading meat snack vendors such asJack Link’sbrand marketer Link Snacks, Minong, Wis., the convenience channel accounts for nearly 50% of category sales volume, with Wal-Mart contributing almost 20% more. And sales in those channels have been strong, at least forJack Link’s.

With fewer consumers enamored with low-carb dieting these days, meat snack marketers must work harder to get the word out about their products’ attributes.

“We’re in a really competitive industry, especially with beef jerky,” says Baron Bridgford II, special projects manager for Chicago-based Bridgford Foods. Retailers are cutting back on the number of vendors whose products they stock, opting to go with a shorter list of top performers, Bridgford continues, adding that he believes, ultimately, that this works to benefit the shopper.

“Too much variety can be overwhelming for the consumer,” Bridgford says.

Keeping it Current

At the same time, however, new product forms - included in IRI’s “all other” categorization - are adding excitement to the category.Jack Link’s X-Bites,for example, are bite-size pieces of smoked sausage packaged in easily portable, 2-oz. packages. The company also is introducing meat snacks in multipacks that are designed to appeal to lunch box-packing moms and brown baggers.

Frito-Lay, Plano, Texas, has moved into the emerging 100-calorie arena, already well-established in other snack categories, with the rollout ofOh Boy! Oberto 100 Calorie Original Beef Jerky Bites and 100 Calorie Teriyaki Turkey Jerky Bites. These single-serving products retail for $1.99 and deliver a portion-control benefit.

In addition, meat snack makers are doing their best to create products that are moister and easier to chew in order to appeal to consumers, including children, who traditionally aren’t fans of jerky’s - dare we say it - tough texture.

“More tender and softer-chewing product is the wave of the future,” says Hans Evenson, sales and marketing manager for Old Trapper Smoked Products, Forest Grove, Ore. He attributes Old Trapper’s ability to achieve sales growth of 20% annually for the past three years to the fact that it offers a product that’s softer and moister than conventional meat snacks.

“That’s been our focus all along, but I think you’ll see the whole industry moving that way,” Evenson predicts.

An ethnic influence has arrived in the meat snacks category, as well. For example, Jack Link’sis adding a new Sweet and Spicy Thai-flavored jerky. Market tests showed it had a strong appeal to women, says Bret Ocholik, vice president of marketing and innovation for the company. Introducing this sort of exotic product provides an opportunity to generate trial and also offers heavy users more product choices, Ocholik observes.

ConAgra’sSlim Jim brand has heated things up, too, inviting consumers to “unleash their spicy side” on an interactive Web site, explains Ann Mamer Lloyd, vice president of marketing for meat snacks at ConAgra Foods, Omaha, Neb. TheSlim Jim lineup boasts a number of spicy flavor options, including Tabasco, Chili and a Sweet n’ Spicy varieties.

“Advertising creative showcases what happens when one’s spicy side gets out,” Lloyd says.

As marketers in myriad food and beverage categories have done, meat snack companies are introducing an expanded array of premium offerings.

“Meat snacks as a category appeals to a number of different consumers, including those looking for a more premium product,” Lloyd says. “Slim JimMeat Sticks appeal to a younger audience looking for a product to prove their coolness, while our jerky items -Pemmican,Slim JimandHarley DavidsonBeef Jerky - appeal to an older, more premium audience looking for flavor and quality.”

Silver Creek Specialty Meats, Oshkosh, Wis., hopes to appeal to consumers who seek a top quality product option with its new line of meat snack strips that boast distinctive, upscale ingredient blends as well as an upgraded nutritional profile. The snack strips are made using a process of slow roasting and light smoking, which yields a tender, moist product.

“We believe there is a good opportunity to expand the product portfolio in the meat snacking category,” says Mike Halverson, sales and marketing manager for the company. “We’ve developed some new ideas.” So far the company’s snack strip options include Chicken with Salsa and Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese, Chicken with Italian Seasonings and Romano Cheese, and sirloin with cranberries and wild blueberries. A 1-oz. snack strip carries a suggested retail price of $1.25-$1.50, and a five-pack sells for about $6.99.

Packaging Pluses

Across all segments of the category, retailers are pressuring vendors to streamline packaging.

“One trend right now seems to be a movement toward less waste in packaging, resulting in smaller packages that are more full of product,” observes Bridgford. “I think a lot of people were wary at first that a smaller package would imply less product to the consumer, but many retailers are demanding smaller footprints for each SKU. Wal-Mart and Target are two big driving factors behind this initiative.”

This move toward packaging sustainability has the added benefit of delivering more convenience to the consumer.

“It makes our snacks more portable,” Bridgford says. “Women can carry them in purses; kids can keep them in their backpacks or lunch pails.”

For Link Snacks, new packaging technology has allowed the company to up the convenience factor, Ocholik reports. Using oxygen-absorbing film for itsJack Links X-Bites’ portable, tube-style packaging let the company eliminate an oxygen absorber inside the package. This was important, Ocholik explains, because the notched corner at the top of the package is designed to enable a consumer to rip it open and pour the bite-size pieces directly into the mouth or hand. Including an oxygen absorber would have posed a choking hazard for the on-the-go consumer, he says.

As product and packaging options expand, so, too, does the range of consumers to whom the products appeal.

“More and more women seem to be entering the category and eating meat snacks as part of diets and [including them in] their children’s lunches and snacks,” Bridgford notes.

Jack Link’s, for one, is committed to targeting more than the traditional core audience of young males. The company’s irreverent “Messin’ with Sasquatch” television advertising campaign of 2007 was well-received. For 2008, however, the goal is to allow the marketing communications effort evolve to include more public relations, print and online components, and to expand its focus beyond “image and fun” to include nutrition, health and convenience messages, Ocholik says.

The idea, Ocholik explains, is to communicate with consumers who may not automatically include meat snacks on their mental lists of potential snacks.

“For people who aren’t considering meat snacks, we want to get the message out as to why they should consider them,” he says.

And just what do today’s consumers want?

“Health, convenience and satiety,” Ocholik summarizes, “and meat snacks sits right on top of all of those.”

Organic Options

One trend intriguing many meat snack consumers is organic. Among the manufacturers catering to this niche is Mirab USA, Inc., part of the Marfrig Group, based in Taylor, Mich. Mirab’sFarmer’s Marketbrand offers Original and Cherry & Apple Wood Smoked varieties of beef jerkey, as well as its Honey BBQ Apple and Cherry Wood Smoked Beef Tenders, which are brand-new to the marketplace.

As Mark Stieglitz, senior vice president of business development for Mirab, notes, “Organic is hot.”

Protein Power

The Atkins Diet peak is past, of course, but the meat snack category still benefits from consumers who are interested in adding more lean protein to their diets.

“In general, we make a healthy snack, and we feel that more and more consumers are being health-conscious when making their snack purchases,” says Baron Bridgford II, special projects manager for Bridgford Foods, Chicago. “I think more people are buying these snacks regularly now as opposed to sporadic impulse purchases.”

Many dieters are seeking foods that will help them feel full without overdoing fat, calorie and carbohydrate intake. Meat snacks fit the bill because they are “calorie-dense,” says Bret Ocholik, vice president of marketing and innovation for Link Snacks, Minong, Wis. For example, he notes that the company is introducing meat snacks in multipack, single-serve packs that contain just 50 calories each.

“We give people a decent amount of product for those 50 calories,” Ocholik observes. “We don’t have to change our product to deliver that portion-control.”

Marketers at Silver Creek Specialty Meats, Oshkosh, Wis., have even calculated the Weight Watchers Points value of the company’s newSliver Creek meat snack strips. Each 1-oz. strip contains 50 calories and is just half a point in the Weight Watchers food-tallying methodology.

Silver Creek is developing point-of-purchase materials that call out the snack sticks’ healthful nutritional profile, says Mike Halverson, sales and marketing manager for the company. The materials flag the high-protein, low-fat attributes of the product as well as the fact that it contains no MSG.

Silver Creek staffer Sue Cramlich says that health-conscious consumers are a key target audience for the snack sticks. They are “light, but filling,” she reports, noting that this makes them an optimal snack for athletes and other active individuals, which is why outdoor and sporting goods retailers are high on Silver Creek’s list of targets for the new item.

Tools for Category Growth

Viable options abound for retailing meat snacks, so figuring out what works best in a particular channel or chain may take a bit of experimentation. Meat snack vendors offer a wide array of product and pack types, so one of a retailer’s key challenges is to figure out which products have the most profit potential. Consider the following recommendations:

• Run the numbers on DSD vs. warehouse-shipped. Having meat snacks direct-store-delivered tends to mean a lower profit margin per item, but it also makes life simpler at retail and eliminates or reduces the cost of warehousing and in-the-store set maintenance. Thus, some careful category analysis is required.

• Don’t forget the front end. The meat snack category tends to be better-established on the West Coast, and more retailers there merchandise it in the front of the store. As the category continues to attract a broader cross-section of consumers, more retailers may find that it makes sense to add some SKUs at the front end and capitalize on meat snacks’ strong margins and high impulse appeal.

• Consider a seasonal shipper. Consumers love shopping solutions - that is, merchandising strategies that solve a problem or simply life. Meat snack trays that include crackers, dipping sauce and cheese supply that benefit and, thus, can help boost holiday sales. Gift baskets that contain meat snacks, cheese and more also offer an alternative to candy gifts.