The popcorn category has enjoyed a very strong past year—with a particularly strong jump early in the year after the COVID-19 pandemic hit U.S. shores. And with sheltering-in-place and the resulting upsurge in binge-watching at home continuing to be at least partially in place for the coming months, category observers expect the munching to continue.


Market data

The ready-to-eat popcorn and caramel corn segment contributed $1.5 billion to the $26.7 billion salty snacks category, up 5.0 percent for the 52 weeks ending May 17, per IRI, Chicago. Every one of the top five brands in the segment saw growth for the year. Smartfood, a Frito-Lay business, leads the segment. While overall sales at Smartfood declined 1.5 percent, its signature line grew 1.5 percent to $424.9 million. Overall, SkinnyPop, part of the Amplify Snack Brands group, owned by The Hershey Co. brand, saw a nice jump for its products, up 10.1 percent to $283.3 million, with its core SkinnyPop line accounting for $229.6 million of that total, up 10.2 percent. Its single-serving SkinnyPack line added $53.7 million in sales, up 9.8 percent. Angie’s Artisan Treats, a Conagra Brands business, grew 3.8 percent to $131.6 million, with its primary brand, Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP, up 5.1 percent to $131.2 million. Private label brands combined for $99.0 million in sales, up 9.5 percent. Frito-Lay brand Cheetos entered the segment at the beginning of 2020 and the move has been a resounding success, with sales of $44.0 million through May 17, per IRI.

The overall popcorn/popcorn oil category saw a 13.4 percent increase to $992.4 million in sales, according to IRI—a significant improvement over last year, which saw flat sales in the category. The microwave popcorn segment accounted for the bulk of this explosive growth, rising 13.3 percent to $848.5 million in sales. Pop Secret, from Campbell Snacks, was the top-selling brand, up 16.4 percent in sales to $169.5 million. Orville Redenbacher’s, a Conagra Brands line, was up 11.4 percent to $154.4 million. Private label also had a good year, with sales up 15.8 percent to $134.5 million. Act II from Conagra Brands has tracked very well, with the core Act II brand up 32.4 percent to $75.9 million, and Act II Butter Lovers up 21.1 percent to $75.0 million. The Jolly Time Blast O Butter line from American Pop Corn Co. grew 15.7 percent to $14.7 million, while the main Jolly Time line grew 4.5 percent to $12.4 million.


Looking back

For most of the past year, the microwave popcorn subcategory had been flat after several years of decline, while RTE popcorn sales had slowed after three to five years of “tremendous growth,” says Garrett Smith, president, American Pop Corn Company, Sioux City, IA. But once COVID-19 hit, that all changed, he says. “On the institutional side, sales went into the tank, because nobody is going to movie theaters and ballgames,” he says. “But sales of microwave and raw popcorn through supermarkets exploded. Whatever trend was going on before March 15 means absolutely nothing right now.”

Smith believes that sales of microwave popcorn are up about 50 percent and raw kernels are up 70 percent to 80 percent since then. “That means Mom’s digging out the old skillet or corn popper that was collecting dust and teaching a new generation of kids how to pop popcorn,” he says. “I find that very encouraging.”

Microwave popcorn had seen little innovation beyond some tinkering in flavors, Smith adds. “It was just kind of sleepy,” he says. “Nothing much was happening, and then boom! We couldn’t keep up.”

SkinnyPop has observed continued growth in the multipack segment as consumers seek out healthy and convenient snacking solutions, says Lauren Stacy, associate brand manager, Amplify Snack Brands, Austin, TX, owned by The Hershey Co. She also notes continued proliferation of both flavors and popping RTE products in non-conventional oils.

Stacy says that original, cheese, and sweet popcorn continue to comprise a majority of the category’s volume, but other types are growing quickly as consumers aim to avoid flavor fatigue. “Spicy and indulgent flavors are driving the most growth. From the ingredient side, we’ve seen growth coming from the use of different oils, such as coconut and avocado, as the popularity of the keto diet has driven consumers to seek out healthy fats.”

Consumer desires for healthier dietary choices also has been apparent to Mark Zoske, founder and CEO, SaltWorks, Woodinville, WA. “In the past, people wanted extra-buttery popcorn similar to what they’d get at the movie theater,” he says. “This often meant artificial ingredients and a high calorie count. In recent years, due in large part of a more health-conscious consumer, coupled with a growing ‘foodie’ culture, the demand has shifted toward all-natural ingredients and cleaner labels.”

This has, in turn, led to a boom in gourmet popcorn, Zoske says. “Today, you can find a variety of popcorn on the shelf, ranging from heirloom popcorn to exciting, bold flavors made with gourmet salts,” he says. “We’re seeing more popcorn producers using avocado, and coconut oils, and all-natural sea salt.”


Looking forward

Going forward, Smith believes the trends of the past few months will continue into late 2020 at least. “People’s lifestyles are going to slow down dramatically,” he says. “This whole thing has had people take a pause and think about what they’re doing, and that maybe home isn’t such a bad place. That will be good for popcorn sales.” He projects that sales increases could range from 20 to 30 percent for the year. “Popcorn’s a comfort.”

Even if theaters and sporting events allow for some seating, Smith notes that institutional sales will not immediately rebound. “I don’t think people are going to rush back,” he says. “Everything is going to stay slowed down until there’s a vaccine—and maybe beyond that.”

In the coming year, SkinnyPop and Amplify expect an expansion of seasonal occasions for salty snacks, such as Halloween and holiday time, where Stacy believes popcorn can compete with candy. Secondly, as consumers spent more time at home, she expects continued growth in microwave popcorn. Finally, Stacy expects to see continued flavor proliferation, especially in the indulgent space, as consumers try to strike a balance between their cravings and their desire for healthy snacks.

The ingredients that SkinnyPop always has offered will dovetail nicely with better-for-you desires going forward, Stacy believes. “As a naturally low-calorie ingredient, popcorn benefits from a ‘health halo’ that has allowed us to experiment with added functional benefits, such as protein and collagen,” she says. “We’ll continue pushing the boundaries of better-for-you to meet the growing consumer need for clean, healthy, and delicious snacks.”

Zoske expects to see expanded better-for-you options with more variety in the ingredients used, ranging from nutritional yeast for vegan-friendly, cheese-flavored popcorn, to seaweed for creating an umami-rich flavor. He says SaltWorks supplies many snack manufacturers with high-quality sea salt in a range of grain sizes, textures, and flavors to meet their specific needs. “As consumers seek out products made with clean, all-natural ingredients, manufacturers are shifting to sea salt. In fact, many popcorn producers are exclusively using sea salt and even touting it on their label.”

About three years ago, the Jolly Time brand introduced a clean-label microwave popcorn, dubbed Simply Popped, that’s been very successful, says Smith. And Jolly Time had planned to roll out a new flavor this summer, but that’s on hold. “We’re going to stick it in our pocket,” he says. “Introducing a new product when we can’t keep up with sales, as it is, doesn’t make any sense.”

The latest addition to SkinnyPop’s flavor line has been the SkinnyPop Twist of Lime, which keeps the brand’s consistency with regard to formulating products to be free from GMOs, gluten, peanuts, tree nuts, and artificial ingredients, Stacy says. The brand also has released SkinnyPop Chips, crispy and crunchy snacks made with 100 percent popcorn, she says. Also, after Pirate’s Booty was acquired by parent company Hershey last year, the brands launched the combined SkinnyPop & Pirate’s Booty Family Snack Pack, she says. “Every multipack comes with a mix of Pirate’s Booty Puffs, and SkinnyPop Original and Kettle.”

Forward-trending flavors can be another way to capture shoppers’ attention. SaltWorks offers a line of Fusion Salt, handcrafted in a way that naturally bonds ingredients, in flavors such as truffle, ghost pepper, black garlic, vintage merlot, and Spanish rosemary, Zoske says. “These salts work really well for artisanal popcorn producers looking to keep their ingredient lists short while still offering the unique flavors consumers crave.”

The newest additions to this sea salt lineup include the all-natural Pacific Blue Micro Flake and Mini Flake, designed to stick to foods better and offer saltier flavor with less salt—and no chemicals, Zoske says. “Micro Flake is comprised of super-fine sea salt flakes made to evenly coat popcorn, delivering delicious, crisp sea salt flavor with each kernel,” he says.

SaltWorks also recently relaunched a line of all-natural smoked sea salts using its Perfect Smoke Technology, which uses real wood that’s hand-selected for aroma profile, ocean-harvested salts, and the company’s proprietary cold-smoking process.

“The result is a clean, real-wood smoke flavor with nothing artificial,” Zoske says. “Flavors range from robust hickory smoke to subtly sweet and milder applewood smoke, which enable manufacturers and end users to target the exact taste profile they desire. Our smoked salts can be used alone or combined with other flavors for a whole new gourmet popcorn experience.”