In snacks, taste, convenience, price, and brand are prominent, yet packaging is also an ongoing consideration.

Couple sitting on the supermarket floor and eating chips

Our penchant for snacking has expanded dramatically during the pandemic. Our latest report on the topic, Snacking: Emerging, Evolving and Disrupted, found 35% of consumers saying they were snacking more during the pandemic compared to a year ago, which, of course, translated into fairly dramatic increases in overall snack revenues. As noted in a Winsight Grocery Business article, “Across the board, snack sales are up. According to Nielsen, dollar sales of salty snacks were up 14% for the year ending Feb. 6, 2021, while sweet snacks were up 11%. Comparatively, the year prior, both snack categories were up 4% and 3%, respectively.”

Within the consideration set of why consumers snack so much today, there are several baseline criteria that snacks must meet. While no one of these is non-negotiable, taste, convenience, price, and brand feature prominently into the calculus of snack choices. Compared to baseline criteria, packaging isn’t necessarily the tail that wags the dog, but the topic does emerge as part of the criteria connected to how consumers experience and use snacks in terms of physical and mental health (e.g., portion control), brand (design), and their values (e.g., packaging and sustainability concerns).

Packaging and snack consumption habits often intersect when we see consumers attempting to limit unplanned snacking through curation of options and limiting their portions: for example, some consumers report that their snacking is “out of control” or speak of “too much TV grazing.”

Such mindless, uncontrolled snacking can lead to so-called “snaccidents” (loosely defined in food culture today as “when a person accidentally consumes an entire snack when he/she initially meant to eat just some of it”), but consumers are finding ways to prevent such mishaps. Limiting what is at hand in the home, coordinating specific snack times with others in the household, or buying snacks in single-serve packaging all help constrain how much is consumed on any particular snacking occasion. Or in the words of two consumers:

“I don’t want to put on weight, and I like to portion things out — that’s why I buy the portioned snacks, because at least it controls it. I buy the big bags with the individual bags of chips inside.” – Debra, Female, Gen X

“I purchase the Breyer’s 100 calorie ice cream cups, and that controls my TV time grazing. You always pay more for the portioned sizes, but for me and my wife, that seems to help — in the long run, it is better health-wise.” – Kevin, Male, Boomer

In terms of brand, the design and appearance of packaged snacks help position products within consumers’ consideration set. Packaging design for snacks can be a powerful draw for those consumers looking for a more interactive or pleasing experience. The ritual of opening certain packaged snacks can help slow down the process, focus one’s attention on the occasion, and align it as one more oriented to pleasure. Packaging aesthetics can also make or break consumer decisions in purchasing, either by undermining or reinforcing confidence in the product quality. A consumer described it this way:

“The appearance of a package generates confidence in the product. If you have a package that’s very “blah” and not well put together, obviously the product is not going to be well thought-out either.” – Jesse, Male, Millennial

Sustainability Values Intersect With Snacking and Packaging

Prior to the pandemic, packaging (especially single-use plastic and recycling itself) was a major concern for consumers. While sustainability and related considerations are typically less important snack selection criteria than taste, convenience, or price, some consumers note that they are especially bothered by packaging that seems excessive, unrecyclable, or wasteful.

Such concerns do seem to be trending toward interest in purchasing snacks with packaging perceived as sustainable — especially among younger consumers. Almost one in five (17%) consumers said they consume sustainably packaged snacks five (or more) days a week, a number that rises substantially among younger generations (30% of Gen Z and 29% of Millennials). As described by one respondent:

“I don't really think much about [snack] packaging itself, but I think it should be good for the environment. If I saw something with excessive packaging, I might not buy it. It should be safe and not harmful for people. It should be something you can recycle.” – Alicia, Female Gen X

Key Considerations

Open bag of chips

In a year with significant added stress, anxiety, and health concerns, it is unsurprising that we have seen among some consumers an additional level of attention devoted to mental and physical health, one part of which includes packaging linked to snacking habits. For some consumers, focusing on health means looking for snack product attributes that indicate purity, positive nutrition, or the avoidance of negatives. To limit “snaccidents” and general overeating, other consumers may incorporate strategies of portion control into their snack consumption or limit the types of snacks that come into the household.

As a means of portion control, consumers appreciate the versatility of individual, single-serve packaged snacks but experience levels of tension when they see excessive or unnecessary waste in packaging. As the pandemic eventually subsides, excessive packaging is likely to be reprioritized among consumers. Packaged-snack manufacturers can help bridge this tension between consumer needs for convenience and portion control, on one hand, and desires to mitigate plastic waste, on the other, by investing in technological solutions that include compostable and biodegradable materials as well as new-to-market materials that mitigate stress on landfills. 

The role of design in packaging and communicating brand to consumers cannot be underestimated, especially as emerging brands regularly launch with design aesthetics that are edgy, youthful, clean, and often playful when compared to iconic brands. Design and packaging play into the Pleasure dimension of snacking occasions (Pleasure being one of four snacking drivers identified in our snacking research along with Nourishment, Optimization, and Distraction), and whether through delight in the product design or engaging with a brand’s story, nostalgia, or iconicity, the overall experience of a product can elevate an occasion and engender pleasurable moments.

Beyond packaging, consumers’ growing consciousness of the impact of food supply and operations on individual, community, and environmental health and well-being is leading consumers to expect businesses to take greater accountability for their actions. Being open about long-term, company-wide commitments to sustainable practices (including environmental impact, social justice issues at home, and ethical practices in sourcing overseas) will help ensure continued relevance in the evolving snacking market.

Explore America’s snacking culture through The Hartman Group’s Snacking: Emerging, Evolving and Disrupted report. Download the report’s overview to learn more: Snacking Report Overview