We’re Here for the Snacks

Consumers rely on convenience stores for their favorite salty snacks.

We’re Here for the Snacks

September 2023   minute read

By: Chrissy Blasinsky

Let’s kick this off with Cheez-It.

From June 5 to 11, Kellogg’s 102-year-old cheese-flavored cracker brand took center stage at an old convenience store turned pop-up store in Joshua Tree, California. The store sold Cheez-It mementos, merchandise and hard-to-find Cheez-It flavors. And the defunct fuel dispenser pumped Cheez-It bags to customers.

If you’ve driven through that neck of the woods before, and by woods I mean the desert in Twentynine Palms, seeing a store like this would definitely have an “OMG!” oasis vibe. And, of course, cheese.

“The Cheez-It Stop truly proved how far our fans will go for the irresistibility of Cheez-It. Fans camped out as early as 6:30 a.m. to experience the Cheez-It Pump firsthand, grab a piece of exclusive merch or snag their favorite hard-to-find flavor,” said Erin Storm, brand senior director for Cheez-It, adding that the store was restocked several times throughout the week.

“From the lines to get in every day to the social shares and engagement from near and far, the Cheez-It Stop took the absurd cheeziness of our fan’s favorite snack out of the pantry and brought it to life as an unforgettable immersive experience,” Storm said.

Snacking and snack foods have come a long way. Today, products warrant their own pop-up destinations and drive excitement to brands, like Cheez-It, that have been around for a century and that consumers continue to appreciate and embrace.

A snack itself, by definition, is what we eat between meals. But even that has changed. Add some flair and a snack could be your favorite bite—or bites—of something delicious, nutritious, exotic, tasty, salty, sweet, indulgent, meaty, cheesy, crunchy, chewy … you get the gist.

The data shows that nearly 27% of snackers said they chose a salty snack because the product looked appetizing.

Snacking options are endless, which is fantastic for convenience stores. According to the recently released NACS State of the Industry Report® of 2022 Data, salty snacks was the only category that had unit increases among the top six in-store merchandise categories.

In 2022, salty snacks accounted for 4.57% of inside sales, up 0.42 points from 2021, and was the sixth largest sales contributor and fifth largest margin contributor inside the store, with a gross margin contribution of 5.18%.

According to NIQ data, there are 1,500-plus salty snacks brands selling in convenience stores, and 11 of those brands comprise more than half (57%) of category sales. Each of those 11 brands was up in sales in 2022 except for Fritos, which saw a very—emphasis on very—slight dip in sales.

Pretzels and ready-to-eat popcorn experienced the largest growth inside the store, while potato chips maintained its long-held top spot among the salty snacks subcategories.

Speaking of pretzels and popcorn …

In 2021, The Hershey Company acquired Dot’s Homestyle Pretzels, a business founded by Dorothy “Dot” Henke from her home kitchen in Velva, North Dakota. The $1.2 billion deal furthered Hershey’s commitment to snacking beyond confections.

In December 2017, Hershey acquired Amplify Snack Brands and added ready-to-eat SkinnyPop Popcorn and Pirate’s Booty, as well as Paqui Tortilla Chips, to its salty snacks portfolio. These acquisitions also allow Hershey to create sweet and salty twists on its own iconic brands, such as Reese’s Drizzled Popcorn and Hershey’s Dipped Pretzels.

“We’re now well on our way to transforming Hershey from an iconic confection company to a leading snacking powerhouse,” said Michele Buck, CEO of Hershey, in the November-December 2022 issue of Harvard Business Review, adding that the company’s confectionery—including better-for-you options—and salty snacks businesses are growing by double digits each year.

Hit the Road, Jack

You may have seen the meme floating around the Internet that sums up a memorable aspect of road trips:

It doesn’t matter how old you get, buying snacks for a road trip should always look like an unsupervised 9-year-old was given $100.

Suffice to say, a road trip without snacks could prove disastrous, no matter the age of the passengers.

Pretzels and ready-to-eat popcorn experienced the largest growth.

“Snacks have solidified their pantry staple status, and the snacking occasions have grown and diversified with it,” said Storm. “For this [Cheez-It Stop] experience, we capitalized on road trips, and no road trip is complete without snacks! We’re always keeping a pulse on those developments and how our fans are talking about our brands to determine the most meaningful ways we can engage with them.”

In May, Frito-Lay and Quaker released a U.S. Summer Snack Index, which suggests that road trips and snacking are like peas and carrots: Nearly three out of four people say road trips are a chance to enjoy snacks they’ve never tried before.

Respondents also said that snacks can provide an important morale boost during road trips (43%) and are key to staying sane in traffic (39%). Meanwhile, 44% of people report hiding snacks from other passengers, and nearly one-quarter say they have used snacks to break an awkward car silence.

This one is a bit surprising, but 41% of people said they would rather have control over the snacks on a road trip than the music. That could be dangerous!

Snacking Behaviors

People’s attitudes toward snacking have definitely shifted, with “snackstituting” (snacks for meals) becoming a quick, easy and common option.

A recent Del Monte survey found that most adults regularly replace meals with snacks, and parents are more likely to do so (8 in 10 parents vs. two-thirds of non-parents). The same survey cited that parents look for snacks that work well on-the-go for their kids and themselves. Convenience and portability are among the qualities they consider when purchasing snacks (85% parents vs. 70% non-parents).

The lure of a snack also attracts c-store customers who purchase gasoline, which is good news for building baskets and boosting transactions inside the store.

A 2023 NACS consumer survey found that 32% of adults who went inside the store after buying fuel also purchased a snack, like chips, candy or a protein bar. Also, “to buy food, meal, gum, snacks” was the No. 2 reason consumers shopped a c-store, with buying gas being No. 1.

According to Mondelez International’s State of Snacking 2022 global consumer snacking trends study, morning daypart snacking is on the rise. The study notes that morning (6 a.m. to 10 a.m.) snacks consumption has grown 42% since 2013, with 24% of consumers (and 29% of Gen Z) saying they eat a snack before breakfast. The motivator? Convenience. Two-thirds (65%) say it’s easier to grab a quick snack in the morning than a full meal.

Here for the Snacks

Keeping up with America’s affinity for snacking, c-stores are also capturing high-margin selling opportunities with salty snacks.

NACS Convenience Voices data shows that mobility and comfort (33%) are driving consumer demand for snacking, as is the desire for small indulgences (22%).

We also know that snacks and beverages go hand in hand—two category strengths of convenience retailers. Inside the store, Convenience Voices data found that packaged and cold dispensed beverages are most often purchased alongside salty snacks, followed by candy.

The NACS State of the Industry Report® of 2022 Data is available for purchase at convenience.org/store.

Gas/fuel is the second-most purchased “item” alongside salty snacks, suggesting that customers are making that transition from the forecourt to the store to satisfy their hunger or craving. They are also motivated by gas prices. The data shows that 55% of snacking shoppers would shop at convenience stores more frequently if there were fuel discounts.

Convenience Voices data suggests that your salty snacks customers shop with their eyes, particularly for impulse purchases. Nearly 27% of snackers said they chose a salty snack because the product looked appetizing, almost 11% said it was because the packaging was appealing and 9% said the product display caught their attention.

Yes, convenience store shoppers are here for the snacks, but they shop other channels. When asked where else they purchased salty snacks in the past two weeks, the top channel cited was grocery at about 35%, followed by mass merch (27.5%).

Convenience stores are best positioned to satisfy consumers’ demand for what they want, when they want it—or for something they didn’t know they wanted—especially when it comes to salty snacks.

Chrissy Blasinsky

Chrissy Blasinsky

Chrissy Blasinsky is the digital & content strategist at NACS and can be reached at cblasinsky@convenience.org.