Munch on this: How the pandemic impacted the snacking industry

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Posted Nov 03, 2021
Trevor Brown

The pandemic changed a lot in consumers’ lives. And as our lives change, so do our behaviors. One of the more significant shifts we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic revolves around our snacking habits. Yes, the “midnight snack” is now the “after-a-conference-call snack” and the “this-is-my-dinner snack” has finally been normalized, but most importantly, Americans are snacking more frequently—with 88% of adults saying snacking has become their “lifeline” during the pandemic.

So, knowing that not a single minute goes by where someone in the US isn’t snacking, let’s look at how these habits have evolved since the start of the pandemic. What are the reasons behind all of this snacking? And how can brands stay in continuous touch with constantly shifting consumer preferences? Grab something to munch on. Let’s dig in.

Understanding the pandemic’s impact on the snacking industry 

Consumer lifestyles have become very centralized on staying at home. Houses have become offices, entertainment arenas, and Amazon delivery destinations all rolled into one. So it makes sense that as consumers moved away from dining out now that almost all the eating happens at home too. In fact, during the pandemic, meals sourced from home rose to 86%, an increase from 83% in 2019.

But as pandemic limitations lifted and vaccinations rates rose, consumers started cautiously taking steps to venture outside their homes. They began gathering again for prime snacking celebrations, like summer barbecues. We saw that more than 80% of Americans in 2020 stayed home for Memorial Day. But that number flipped the very next year, with 80% planning to go out in 2021. We even saw that eight in 10 consumers cite summer snacks as a staple of the season, and 80% say they are absolutely essential to moments they enjoy.

Furthermore, as self-care became a priority, another snacking trend born from the pandemic is the tendency for consumers to reach for healthy options. Yes, people have realized the importance of their own health, and 44% claim they’re eating healthier during the pandemic. This push for healthier lifestyles means consumers are turning to snacks that have additional health benefits beyond nutrition, such as antioxidants and micronutrients. Choosing healthier snacks is a trend that is expected to continue after the pandemic as consumers have made a habit out of focusing on good nutrition.

A rundown of the changing consumer snack preferences

Let’s start with a big evolution over the last thirty years or so: Snacks used to be “just a kid thing” but have remained a favorite of both GenX and Millennials. These generations are not only snacking to cope with pandemic stress but to manage boredom or frustration. It’s an indication of the constant evolution that snacking has undergone, and it’s why there’s a need to stay current on consumer preferences and look ahead to future snacking needs. 

As these evolutions continue to take place, we can see that consumer behaviors tied to snacking have been riding the highs and lows of the pandemic. Here are three areas that companies should keep a pulse on: 

Streaming and snacking

Binge-watching became the norm as consumers clamored for both escape and entertainment. In fact, the amount of time people spent watching television is up for the first time since 2011—and we all know watching and snacking tend to go hand-in-hand. A survey of 2,000 Americans found the top five preferred snacks for binge-watching to be popcorn (56%), chips (52%), crackers (37%), cheese (35%), and candy (35%). Three in five Americans admitted they sometimes finish their entire snack before they’ve decided what to watch, and 63% even described that empty bowl moment as “devastating.”

Emotional snacking

There’s nothing like the indulgence of a snack to help ease the stress and isolation of the pandemic. In 2020, 43% of consumers said they snacked to cope with boredom or frustration—that’s up seven points from a 2016 survey. We saw that comfort was the number one driver, followed by relief (or the need to unplug) for emotions experienced while snacking during the pandemic. Consumers are finding comfort by turning to snacks for a sense of familiarity in what feels like a very unfamiliar world; a whopping 87% said they “usually buy the same brands of snacks every time.”

Online snack shopping

The shift from in-store snack shopping to e-commerce is not a surprising one, given the pandemic hesitation of visiting retail stores. But as the economy and job market struggles endure, consumers will continue to seek out value-based snack products, and for that, they’re going online. Plus, online shopping offers convenience and availability, and 69% of global adults are still planning to continue shopping for snacks online once the pandemic is over. What’s more, a majority say the pandemic has opened their eyes to so many more ways to get snacks, citing social media as a key tool for snack discovery.

How agile research tools can help track preferences

Just like an Amazon snack delivery, it’s expected for market research to arrive very quickly. There’s a wide demand for research to keep pace with swiftly changing consumer preferences, and in a world that is moving minute by minute, traditional research methods simply aren’t cutting it.  

The advantage of agile research is that it helps brands find insights quicker, keeping them in step with ever-changing consumer snack behaviors. Agile research allows for the quick collection and efficient processing of data on consumers’ changing snacking sentiments. That means faster, more actionable insights. These insights empower better decision-making for marketing efforts, new product development, or other business initiatives—helping brands evolve their ideas according to their consumers’ wishes.

There are a variety of agile research tools available, but the idea is to provide the flexibility necessary to deliver for unique and dynamic to research needs. And in the case of snacking, some of these tools can even simulate in-store experiences to get a look at how customers shop for snacks right off the shelf. 

Last bites

All this talk about snacking may have given you the munchies. So, what are Americans reaching for when they need a snack? Everything. Americans love the salty as much as the sweet, with ice cream, chips, and chocolate all ranking high. How do we know this? From referencing agile research designed to keep tabs on consumer snacking throughout the pandemic. Interestingly, we also learned that consumers are getting very specific with their snacking choices. Online searches relating to particular taste and flavor profiles of snacks are trending. For example, searches for “dried mango with chili powder” are surging in the dried fruit category. But give it a few months, and something completely new will come along. And as consumer snack preferences continue to evolve, agile research tools will be right there to track everything—mangos, chili powder, and all.

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