Opinion: The Choice Behind Bars

Have manufacturers saturated the bar category? Not according to our sources.

By  Abbie Westra, Editor-in-Chief, Convenience Store Products

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It’s noon, and I’ve already eaten two bars today. I grabbed a Luna fiber bar from an airport kiosk on the way to a 6 a.m. plane, and I swiped a Nature Valley protein bar from the CSP kitchen an hour before lunch. I have a few other bars packed in my suitcase from my pantry at home—a gluten-free bar from my husband’s stash, and a dark-chocolate-something-or-other that was floating around on the shelves for a late-day indulgence.

As I cracked into that second bar of the day, I thought of a recent conversation I had with Eric Stangarone, creative director of The Culinary Edge in San Francisco. We had meandered onto the subject of the boom of the bar category. High protein, low carb, antioxidant rich, gluten free: Whatever your needs, there’s a bar for that.

“It’s like we’ve started an arms race with ourselves with all these different items,” he joked.

(That wasn’t the only quotable from Eric during that call. He also told me: “For every disco movement, there’s a punk movement behind it.” Translation: Don’t worry if your brand doesn’t fit a trend; an opposite one is right around the corner.)

Have manufacturers saturated the bar category? Not according to Kelly Fulford, senior category development manager for General Mills, who recently explained that while bar growth is in the double digits, it’s still a relatively small category with huge potential.

But it’s not just bars. The proliferation of the bar category also reflects a growing consumer desire for products that are customized to their very specific needs at that moment—not just curbing hunger.

“It’s something we’re hearing particularly from millennials; they talk about these nagging day-to-day quality-of-life issues,” says Laurie DeMerrit, CEO of The Hartman Group in Bellevue, Wash. “ ‘Is there a way via food and beverage that I can help improve my quality of life?’ ”

Other categories are experiencing this splintering. We keep waiting for the e-cig category to be pruned from the 250-some manufacturers currently in the game—but what if that doesn’t happen? In fact, just wait until the vaping storms our industry in full force, with myriad manufacturers touting every e-cig flavor imaginable.

Our consumer culture continues to cleave into different subgroups and sub-subgroups with very niche needs, and individuals keep making what Eric calls “schizophrenic purchasing decisions.”

“You’ve got everyone changing their minds constantly and making their decisions so much in the very moment of purchase,” he says. “That POP has to be perfect every time, and that’s nearly impossible.

“I can stand in [a store] for 20 minutes and look at all the different bars and still not find the one for me. How picky am I that I can’t find a bar out of these 100 bars that are being offered?”

What do these ultra-custom product lines and fragmenting consumer groups with ever-changing needs mean for the retailer, besides the challenge of fitting it all on your shelves? Perhaps it’s an opportunity to reimagine the entire store layout, organizing by need states beyond the basic categories. Or maybe it’s an opportunity to learn from an emerging competitive channel and embrace technology to enhance the consumer experience.

Imagine a hybridization of e-commerce and the bricks-and-mortar experience: touch-screen kiosks in the aisles where customers can punch in whether they are hungry or thirsty, tired, watching their weight, just leaving the gym or monitoring their sugar intake. A list of product options pops up based on their needs and preferences: bold flavor or traditional tastes, salty or sweet, food or drink. It would be followed by customer reviews, as well as recommendations for complementary products—all of which are still within arm’s reach on the shelves and in the coolers.

It’s the great basket-building user experience of Amazon and Zappos melded with the impulsive, tactile experience of the c-store.

That’s just one idea of how the retail experience may change based on this splintering, schizophrenic, bar-crazy customer—and change it will.

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