Beefed Up

Increase in eating occasions, flavor choices widen appeal of meat snacks.

By
Dana Squilla, Freelance writer

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The run on low-carb foods may have come to an end, but consumers’ appetite for meat snacks continues unabated.

“The meat-snack craze came back four or five years ago with the Atkins Diet fad, and the desire for it has never really died down,” says Robert Perkins, director of marketing for York, Pa.- based Rutter’s Farm Stores. “The zerofat, low-carb [product] reaches a wide range of consumers who are still very keen on those types of snacks.”

The category, which continues to beef up and intrigue customers with new products, has found a home on the shelves of convenience stores around the country. According to the NACS State of the Industry Report of 2009 Data, the protein-laden treats emerged as the No. 1 subcategory in alternative snacks, accounting for 65% of sales.

Chicago-based market-research firm Mintel attributes meat snacks’ popularity to several factors, especially an improved image. Twenty years ago, the snack was mainly consumed by bluecollar- type men such as construction workers, hunters, truckers and outdoorsmen. Today’s consumer base is more diverse, including the health-centric crowd.

7-Eleven Inc. spokeswoman Margaret Chabris says women have taken a liking to meat snacks of all kinds. “The low fat content of the snack publicized during the low-carb movement widened the consumer base to include females,” she says.

A HEALTHIER OPTION

Meat snacks are also benefiting from an emerging trend: the growing snack occasion, which is rapidly erasing the lines of traditional day-parts. Customers are tapping meat snacks as a meal-bridging food, which has helped catapult the category into a more mainstream market, according to Jeff LeFever, marketing director for Jack Link’s, Minong, Wis.

And now, even moms and other adults are recognizing the strong, healthful attributes of meat snacks, compared with other grab-and-go snacks such as chips and other salty options.

“It is a hearty, quick and convenient no-mess eating for the time-pressed consumer,” Chabris says. “Meat snacks fulfill the same snack needs as a candy bar, with less sugar and more protein to quickly satisfy a hunger pang, but in a nutritional way.” Susser Holdings Corp., the Corpus Christi, Texas-based operator of more than 500 Stripes stores across three states, allocates 8 linear feet to its meat snack section. “We see the majority of meat snack sales occur … between 5 and 8 p.m.,” says Stripes category manager Chris Switzer. “Typically, there’s a jump during this time period because consumers haven’t or will not get the opportunity to sit down and eat dinner until the later hours. They need something filling to hold them over, and meat snacks do the trick.”

EASY ON THE POCKET

Another important aspect of the consumer’s draw to all things “meaty”: The portable bite is cost-efficient. “We have a variety in the category where you can purchase two sticks for $1. It’s appealing to someone who doesn’t want to spend a lot, which is very common with the economic downturn,” says Tom Rosenberger, sales manager for Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz Inc., which has more than 365 locations across six states.

“Slim Jims are priced well, ranging from $1 to $2,” says Jason Richeter, senior brand manager for Omaha, Neb.- based ConAgra’s Slim Jim Brand.

 And even though 7-Eleven relies mainly on Jack Link’s to provide a branded product to their customers nationally, in addition to Slim Jim and other regional best sellers, they also offer customers an affordable value through the company’s meat-snack brand, 7-Select Snack Stick, which retails for 25 cents. Chabris says, “It’s affordable for everyone.”

Rosenberger also found that when the economy plummeted, the opposite happened to his meat-snack sales. “When everything started to go downhill for the economy, our sales went up in the meatsnack category … because it is a low-cost snack that won’t make a huge dent in your pocket,” he says. “I’d say we’ve seen a 6% to 7% increase.”

Stripes stores have experienced similar growth as well. “The category has held its own and continues to do well within our stores,” Switzer says. “There has been 8% to 12% growth.”

FLAVOR FAVORITES

What is powering retail growth of meat snacks? While price and health are key attributes, more than anything else, it’s the variety. According to Mintel, Americans have a “preference for spicy, barbecue, teriyaki and smoke flavor profiles.”

The selection in Stripes stores aligns with this finding, because those are the flavors that tend to fly off the shelf the most. “Depending on the geographic location of the store, we carry anywhere from eight to 10 brands and around 50 different items,” says Switzer, “But generally we focus on the flavors like original, peppered and teriyaki because they seem to be the most popular among our customers.”

But do retailers rely solely on key suppliers to weigh in when choosing the right assortment for convenience-store chains? Not necessarily, according to Switzer. “While I take into consideration new product offerings and recommendations from our major suppliers [Jack Link’s and ConAgra], I also focus on researching what brands and items are working for other retailers in our market,” he says.

Having a large variety of shapes and textures to choose from also boosts sales, according to Perkins of Rutter’s. “We always make sure to have a diversity of sticks, nuggets and bagged jerky in different sizes for our customers to choose from,” he says. “The key is to offer taste varieties that encourage more frequency among current users, and attract new ones as well.”

LOCATION MATTERS

Gone are the days where consumers have to search the aisles to find their meat snack of choice. Stores now have dedicated sections, inline sets and endcaps.

Indeed, predictability is essential, according to Susser’s Switzer. “The meat-snack consumer is less impulsive than the cookie/cracker consumer is,” he says. “Customers are more likely to treat meat snacks as a destination than an impulsive purchase.”

A product-placement strategy for Stripes: to grow their private-label brands (Thunderstick and Smokin’ Barrel). “We focus on execution of bag jerky clip-strip programs on beer or soda endcaps, and merchandising product on vault doors via suction-cup displays,” says Switzer.

And although Sheetz stores offer meat-snack sections that can range anywhere from 15 to 24 linear feet, they also employ other highly impulsive areas of the store to drive meatsnack sales. “Besides our variety of endcap displays, we also put our topselling items in point-of-purchase counter merchandising and some front-end merchandising at checkout lanes to attract consumer attention and ultimately increase rings at the register,” Rosenberger says.

Retailers have also boosted sales by cross-merchandising, especially with meat snacks’ market-basket allies, beer and soft drinks. “We took notice of the most common items purchased with meat snacks and decided to start bundling the protein goodies with those items,” Switzer says. With continued rollouts of flavors and sizes, industry observers expect meat snacks to remain a c-store staple. According to LeFever of Jack Link’s, the category is well positioned to continue growing, given it meets three key consumer trends in snacking: convenience, healthy choice and satiety.


Growing Meat-Snack Sales

  • Focus on an appropriate SKU selection and category-management best practices. Promotional activity, from two-fors to cross-merchandising, should deliver a short-term increase in sales. Long-term growth is driven by eliminating out-of-stocks and carrying sufficient variety based on size and flavor.
  • Pay attention to local consumer demands. Flavor preferences run regionally. Midwesterners opt for regular or smoked varieties while peppered and other spicy flavors appeal to meat-snack consumers in the South and Southwest.
  • Play into the meal-replacement trend and use bundling promotions with fountain or cooler drinks to attract buyers.
  • Offer free samples at the registers to garner new users.

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