What’s happening to America’s traditional eating behaviors and patterns? We now eat and drink what we want, when we want and anywhere we want. Sometimes planned, more often on a whim. An energy bar or fruit smoothie may replace breakfast one day or serve as lunch the next day. Perhaps a bowl of cereal before bedtime. Nothing seems to be as it once was. We long for the good old days when meal planning and eating was all so routine and predictable.
In our Modern Eating 2013 report, we found that traditional eating patterns built around three “square,” structured meals a day had given way to modern eating styles characterized by frequent snacking that often occurs unsystematically and varies from person to person.
As haphazard as that behavior seems, the patterns are not random. Eating is tied viscerally to the changing rhythms of people’s daily lives, including their perception that they are overbooked and their need to feel healthy and satisfied by food at the same time they take care of their families’ disparate eating needs.
The challenge for food companies to understand these new and changing rhythms continues today as we welcome food culture’s new era of retail disruption and diversification that snacking has unleashed.
“How we go about planning, acquiring and consuming food has been disrupted, and the result of that disruption has been in many cases the displacement of meals and a lot of variation in when and how and what gets consumed. An elevated focus on food and beverage for nutrition and a growing interest in global flavors have fueled an evolution in snacking behaviors and preferences,” said Tamara Barnett, Vice President of Strategic Insights at The Hartman Group.
Evidence of this shift in behavior can be seen in the emergence of restaurants as a source for snacks. The Hartman Group’s Future of Snacking 2016 report finds that, despite being the source for 81 percent of snack occasions, traditional food retailers are losing share to a divergent array of alternative retail sources — notably restaurants. Restaurants have become increasingly savvy about emerging consumer needs for smaller menu items within the now-blurry space between meals and snacks.
“Snacking was about diversion and fun before,” Barnett points out, highlighting a shift toward health and wellness, fresh and premium. “The food industry has responded to this desire for fresh and minimally processed food and beverages, and there has been a proliferation of small, premium-quality brands that are now competing with those larger legacy brands.”
But it’s not just restaurants that are vying for snack shoppers. In the landscape of food retailers, less traditional retail formats and individual banners are also jockeying for position to meet the needs of snacking occasions and more fluid eating occasions. Mass market, natural/specialty and dollar retailers are now demonstrating significant gains as sources meeting the needs for snack occasions.
With so many channels and stores available to consumers, shoppers keep a working geography of stores and restaurants that reflects certain patterns in snack purchasing and consumption behavior. These behaviors include:
What do consumers take into consideration when shopping for snacks?
Barnett says that, as our Future of Snacking 2016 report finds, while the phenomenon of snacking is messy and at times hard to fully describe, coherence is brought to snacking by examining how three key drivers — Nourishment, Optimization and Pleasure — represent a thematic shift in food values and are connected to the needs driving snacking occasions.
“Snacks should be developed to deliver on the increasing need for nourishment, optimization or pleasure on the go. Consider not only how package design can simplify on-the-go user experiences but even how the product itself can really enable a mobile lifestyle.”
The future of snacking, Barnett said, will fully embrace freshness. Retailers and manufacturers alike should consider offering a product mix that reflects the desire for fresh but also recognizes the role of iconic and more processed favorites. “Think about fresh expectations that consumers now have when it comes to snacks. Does your product formulation as well as all aspects of the product signal contemporary notions of freshness and quality, or does it need to be revamped?”
As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.