In many ways, the tumultuous COVID-19 pandemic has catalyzed continued growth of existing patterns across snacking. For many consumers, day-to-day snacking increased, sometimes fueled by external pressures related to disrupted work, school, and the overall societal status quo. We seek solace in comfort, and the snack industry delivered.
Now, as we begin to emerge from the dark clouds of the past 18 months, society overwhelmingly seeks normalcy, while some signs point toward impending changes to snacking.
The power of e-commerce
More consumers defaulted to the online environment during the pandemic. According to IRI, Chicago, COVID-19 accelerated the growth and adoption of e-commerce to an estimated $175 billion in CPG sales in 2020, and most consumers expect to continue shopping online as we return to normalcy. Online grocery shopping will continue, with IRI estimating e-commerce will represent about 12 percent of total edible sales in 2021.
“Pre-COVID, snack brands and retailers were more adept than ever at reaching consumers where they are,” says Elizabeth Avery, president and CEO, SNAC International, Arlington, VA. “This means that companies raised public awareness of their brands through non-physical channels like social media, e-commerce sites, podcasts, and even television and radio. COVID-19 necessitated a light-speed acceleration of this trend, as consumers took fewer trips to stores and some stopped visiting traditional retailers altogether. According to IRI, e-commerce snacking sales grew 84 percent in 2020. Now that consumers are more familiar with the idea of stocking up on their favorite snacks via nontraditional channels, we expect more growth post-pandemic.”
Reaching consumers is more complex today, says Rob Sarlls, president and CEO, Wyandot and Chairman of the SNAC International Board of Directors. “E-commerce went into turbo drive over the past year, expanding the number of consumer channels and increasing the importance of direct-to-consumer sales,” he says.
“It will take time and a shared understanding of what we have all experienced over the past 18 months to adjust appropriately,” says Sarlls. “Yet we are among the fortunate. Our industry continued to evolve and grow. And prospects are compelling. That said, the first priority is to help ensure that workforces better understand the dynamics of our businesses.” He points to some top priorities moving forward:
- Develop corporate messaging that resonates with all employees
- Take long looks at our respective company cultures, and don’t be afraid of change
- Establish a mutual understanding that work, home life, and community balance is important—develop policies to help ensure this balance
“I feel that most, if not all, of the trends that have seemingly emerged during COVID were more of a fervor of trends getting ready to pounce,” says Justin Spannuth, vice president and chief operations officer, Unique Snacks, Reading, PA, and a member of the SNAC International Board of Directors. “COVID only sped up their increased awareness.”
Consumer habits have recalibrated back to in-store shopping—but not completely, says Spannuth. “This trend though will continue to grow again, and I feel some of the barriers that were broken during COVID will ultimately make this transition to more e-commerce more permanent and easier.”
A SNAC International representative from Frito-Lay, Plano, TX, notes accessibility and convenience are now essential mainstays. “Over the past year, we’ve seen shifts in how and where consumers purchase snacks, and in some cases, which snacks they’re purchasing. For example, it was important early on in the pandemic to be accessible for consumers when stockpiling was high. Now, we are seeing through Frito-Lay’s U.S. Snack Index survey that people are returning to the store, but retailers are also ensuring they’re keeping pace with today’s consumer—who is now used to convenience at the touch of a button.”
For Frito-Lay, e-commerce has already been on an accelerated growth path, and the snack producer anticipates it to double by 2025. “However, at the same time, we are hearing that retailers are seeing a return to weekend shopping, and Snack Index data echoed that an overwhelming majority of consumers will continue to buy snacks at the grocery store,” the company representative reports. “One-third are picking up snacks at convenience stores—a channel that has seen a large uptick with consumers getting out of the house more.”
Pandemic-era shopping patterns spurred Frito-Lay to shorten the timeline for its e-commerce capabilities from five years to only six to nine months, says a company representative. “Frito-Lay was able to bring a direct-to-consumer shopping option through its first e-commerce site, Snacks.com, in just 30 days in the height of the pandemic. With key features like Make Your Own Variety Pack on the site, we’ve seen consumers purchase unique combinations they may not have bought otherwise. For example, we’ve seen an uptick in demand in our ‘Better Options’ brands, such as Smartfood, SunChips and Simply.”
“After a two-year layoff since SNAC International was able to hold its annual main event, we are pleased to provide the industry with a first opportunity to reconnect in person at SNAXPO 2021, August 22–24, in Charlotte, NC,” says Avery. “SNAXPO is the only vertically integrated supply-chain trade show for the snack industry, featuring an exhibit hall full of equipment, packaging, flavors/seasonings, and other important innovations designed to spur success. SNAXPO exhibitors are eager to showcase their latest solutions, and snack producers are looking forward to seeing state-of-the art equipment and packaging solutions in action, tasting on-trend flavors, and hearing from thought leaders in-person.”
The pandemic closed some of our traditional routes for gathering business intelligence over the past year. “Despite the immense challenge of being unable to convene members in-person over the last 16 months, SNAC has created new opportunities for its members to engage with its three pillars of education, advocacy, and networking,” says Avery. “In 2021, hundreds of members engaged with us through our ‘Bite-Sized Insights by SNAXPO21’ series. The series included webinars and podcasts focusing on the industry’s most-pressing issues and prevalent trends in the areas of global market insights, e-commerce, packaging sustainability, and regulatory issues. All 12 editions are available to view on-demand via the SNAC website.”
In continuing with SNAC International’s commitment to underwriting professional development opportunities for its member companies, the association hosted its second annual Excellence in Marketing Program with Kellogg School of Management last June, notes Avery. “The theme of this year’s program was ‘Agile, Digital, and Customer-Focused Marketing.’ The event drilled deep into the topics of disruption and digital marketing transformation, two topics that are more important today than ever before, as the pandemic drastically changed the way consumers think about shopping.”
Looking ahead, SNAC International will continue to identify new ways to allow its members to connect and learn how the industry is evolving in meaningful ways, says Avery. “That is why we created SNX, a new Education and Collaboration Forum that will take place on a biennial rotation with SNAXPO.”
Launching March 27–29, 2022 in Phoenix, SNX will offer snack producers and suppliers a venue to collaborate in a private setting through the use of suites for business meetings. “Rather than a traditional trade show format, SNX will feature Experience Zones, which will allow attendees to journey through the snack manufacturing process, visiting with companies leading the way in innovation each step of the way,” says Avery. “SNX will be full of opportunities to gain a deeper knowledge of industry advancements, trends, challenges, and opportunities than ever before.”
SNAC International’s Government Affairs Committee, chaired by Brian Greth, senior vice president, corporate affairs, Utz Quality Foods, Hanover, PA, met in early June to prioritize the public policy challenges impacting growth of snacking. “The overwhelming concern relates to skyrocketing supply chain costs and workforce shortages,” says Avery. “Double to triple digit inflation in the cost of goods, from oil to pallets and transportation services, is matched only by the ongoing severe shortage of labor that is resulting in some facilities being unable to keep up with strong consumer demand for snacks.”
While the cause of these dual concerns is multifaceted, there is no doubt that lack of coordination in COVID-related policies from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, coupled with pandemic unemployment benefits and varying approaches at the state and local level, in-person school, and access to childcare all contribute to a real shortage of labor, notes Avery. “SNAC International’s June Legislative Summit, held virtually for the second year, provided the opportunity to educate members of Congress on these substantial challenges, many of which were accelerated by COVID,” she says.
Looking forward, SNAC International anticipates continuing to work closely with allies in the hunger community to ensure that efforts to address food insecurity appropriately focus on meeting critical nutrition needs while recognizing the appropriate role for snacks in a healthy diet, says Avery.
Workforce strategies will play a central role in snack production moving forward. Frito-Lay has operations in more than 200 communities, making it a business imperative to invest in areas like workforce development, notes the company representative. “At more than 20 of our manufacturing sites, we are partnering with local colleges and implementing vocational programs to build our future pipeline of talent. We also recently launched a program as part of our Southern Dallas Thrives program, the Women’s Workforce Readiness Initiative, which is a three-year program created in collaboration with United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, CitySquare, and Dallas College. It will equip 550 women in Southern Dallas with the necessary social support, as well as technical and soft-skills training needed to secure employment in high-growth industries—in an area of Dallas where one in three adults live in poverty and women, in particular, are significantly impacted and have difficulties in accessing the workforce in the Southern Dallas sector.”
Sustainability is also a primary focus. “The industry’s longstanding work to ensure our manufacturing processes are as sustainable as possible related to the sources of energy, re-use of water, and reduction of waste turns to consumer packaging,” says Avery. An upcoming SNAC International webinar series on sustainable snack packaging will include strategies to help the industry stay on the leading edge of packaging innovation, with the goal of being one step ahead of government regulation, she notes.
Spannuth also sees a greater desire for industry transparency. “The capabilities of blockchain are just getting started, which for the food industry will include true ingredient and product transparency at a consumer level,” he says. “This is beneficial for many reasons, but the biggest will be food safety. But many more benefits will ensue from using this technology.”
New snacking essentials
Moving forward, snacking will grow more diversified to meet emerging consumer concerns. “Consumers are focusing on safety, health, and convenience,” says Sarlls. “Smaller, personal-size packaging supports COVID-19 concerns and emphasizes portion-control issues. Also expect consumers to drive demand that reflects adventure, fun, and novelty as they emerge from their pandemic cocoons.” These trends will bring significant change to how brands position and market themselves, especially related to better-for-you products, he notes.
“More consumers than ever became aware of the role food plays in supporting holistic health goals, and more specifically their immune health,” says Avery. According to IRI, a majority of consumers want additional health benefits beyond nutrition from the snacks they choose, she says, including vitamins A, B, C, and D. “We expect this heightened focus on holistic health to remain prominent as we emerge from the pandemic.”
The last few years have seen consumers become more adventurous with their taste buds, says Avery. “With many on lockdown for several months, trying new, bold flavors became a way to feel a much-needed sense of excitement. Snack makers will continue to lead the way in experimenting and innovating to take consumers on a flavor adventure.”
As we emerge from the pandemic, a return to a more-active, mobile lifestyle will act as a catalyst for innovation in the category, says Avery. “In the next 12 months, expect to see an explosion of all-new snack products made with alternative ingredients, added health benefits, and daring flavors, all to meet the ever-present demands for health, convenience, and fun for the on-the-go consumer.”