A New Consumer Appetite For Snacking, Treating

Peter Picard, of Blue Chip, sorts out the shifts in consumer snacking habits brought on by the pandemic and predicts which will take root.

Cleveland — The pandemic has upset the CPG-consumer landscape. Parents juggled working from home and full-time childcare. Urbanites relocated to suburban and rural communities. People of all ages lost jobs across industries and locales. As people changed routines, their consumption needs and purchasing patterns varied significantly. 

The result is a vastly altered audience for candy and snacks. In addition to demographic and generational influences, life displacements shaped new consumer appetites. 

To understand what these new consumer appetites entail and the longer-term impact, Blue Chip surveyed 1,000 consumers across life stages about their snacking behaviors during the past year to identify how the role of candy and snacks differs by life stage and how marketers can successfully reach this new multi-faceted treat and snack consumer. 

Stay-At-Home Orders Accelerate Snacking

The pandemic uprooted “normal” in many ways, but one constant Americans clung to during the past year was snacking. Not only did they cling to it, they doubled down on it — 44 percent of consumers increased their snacking. Young singles and households with kids top that list. With newfound access to a stocked kitchen at all hours of the day, snacks became readily available, enticing solutions to satisfy hunger, fuel up, distract or relax. And for those who didn’t up their snack intake, they kept pace with pre-pandemic snacking habits — only 6 percent of consumers said they snacked less. 

But easy access to a kitchen at home didn’t diminish the desire for pre-packaged convenience. Store-bought packaged snacks continue to be the most preferred options for 56 percent of consumers, which is 38 points higher than fruit and veggie snacks, the second most preferred category, and 42 points higher than homemade snacks, the third most preferred sector.

Satisfying cravings is the number one reason people snack — and that’s consistent across all life stages, from young singles to empty nesters. Snackers have made it clear that cravings are both physical and emotional. On one hand, consumers claim to be seeking purpose and function from their snacks: 54 percent of consumers reach for a snack as a treat and 47 percent snack to relieve hunger. On the other, emotional drivers also lead snackers into the pantry — to relieve boredom (41 percent), to relax (32 percent) or simply to take a break (25 percent).

Occasions Play A Role In Snack Choice

People are snacking when they are relaxing. Relaxing is the most common occasion for snacking across all life stages: 68 percent of consumers grab a bite to eat when watching TV or surfing the web. Watching movies, the second most common occasion for snacking (53 percent), has snackers reaching for salty (56 percent) and sweet (37 percent) treats. In fact, five of the top six occasions for snacking revolve around relaxation or social settings.

Consumers favor salty and sweet selections for occasions including casually hanging out with friends and family, entertaining or watching a movie. Snackers are more likely to opt for healthy foods when seeking a meal replacement, refueling after exercising or packing a pick-me-up for outdoor activities such as hiking or golfing. 

While social settings and snacking go hand in hand, snacking is not confined to specific occasions. Snack time is any time. Newfound 24/7 access to the kitchen means satisfying cravings is only a few steps away, all day. However, certain times of day see more snacking activity. The most popular time for snacking is in the evening, with 55 percent of consumers snacking after dinner. Empty nesters are the largest cohort to enjoy post-dinner snacks.

Pantries Hold Staples, New Finds

In addition to changes in snacking motivations and occasions, the past year ushered in shifts in snacking preferences: 56 percent of consumers say they’ve changed the snacks they keep stocked on hand since COVID-19. Young singles were most likely to shake up their snacks, while young adult couples and empty nesters were more consistent with their choices. 

The types of snacks newly integrated into household pantries varied across salty, sweet and healthy options. The snacks that top the list of new additions include chips (20 percent), fruits (20 percent), nuts (20 percent), popcorn (17 percent), crackers (17 percent), yogurt (16 percent) and cookies (16 percent). 

The desire for variety has increased since the onset of the pandemic: 27 percent of consumers say they have different kinds of snacks on hand, 23 percent are trying different flavors and 21 percent are trying new brands. In addition to more variety, consumers upped their stock of snacks (35 percent) and their snacking (26 percent). 

One group in particular that changed their snacking behavior is young singles. In the eyes of these snackers, the line between snacks and meals is blurred. Young singles are more likely than other cohorts to replace lunch or dinner with a snack. This behavior is not common among households with kids: less than 10 percent of households with kids say they replace breakfast, lunch or dinner with a snack. 

Not only are young singles replacing meals with snacks, 50 percent are snacking more than they did before COVID-19, and one-quarter are buying larger pack sizes of snacks. They’re on the hunt for substantive snacks to curb hunger (58 percent) — the second most popular driver for snacking among young singles and a significantly higher motivator versus other cohorts.

Snacking, like everything else during the pandemic, experienced shifts — in motivations, occasions and preferences. This favorite American pastime took on even more relevance during the past year, with half of consumers snacking more. Looking forward, half of consumers plan to carry their pandemic snacking habits into their post-pandemic lives.

Contributor Info

Peter Picard is vice-president, strategic planning & research at Blue Chip Marketing Worldwide, with more than 25 years of experience in consumer research, account management and strategic planning at global communications agencies. As a consumer investigator, he identifies not just what people say they want, but what will really move them. He can be reached at [email protected]