KANSAS CITY — The coronavirus (COVID-19) threw gasoline on an already hot fire. Consumers began stockpiling food, especially snacks, as they hunkered down to wait out stay-at-home orders. Now, pretzels, both hard and soft, which trailed some other snack categories in previous years, are seeing new life in today’s new normal.

According to IRI market data for 52 weeks ending Dec. 31, 2019, pretzel category dollar sales grew, but volume sales were down 1.8%. The reason for this difference was increased prices for many pretzel products, said Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president and practice leader, IRI.

During the eight weeks ending April 26, dollar sales grew 20%, and IRI projects that the category will grow 13% in the remainder of the year.

“Increased distribution points, items on shelf and velocity contributed to the category growth,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said. “Snack products, especially larger sizes, have done well since early March.”

"We have seen an accelerated adoption of online food and beverage sales, and pretzels have benefited." — Sally Lyons Wyatt, IRI

The spike in dollar sales was the result of a stockpiling period of the two weeks ending March 15 as consumers prepared for weeks of at-home eating. At the beginning of the pandemic, grocery store shelves went bare as demand outpaced supply. However, supply has now caught up even as people still purchase pretzels as a way to mix up their snacking routines.

“We have seen fatigue set in for many consumers of being at home throughout the day,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said. “Therefore, they are consuming a variety of snack products, and pretzels have been a recipient of their shopping dollars.”

This category encompasses many forms — soft and hard, large and bite-size — and has a healthy halo that many other snacks don’t. These attributes make them well positioned for success in 2020 and beyond.

Savoring soft options

Soft pretzels haven’t seen the same increase in dollar sales as snack pretzels over recent years. IRI data from 2019 shows that dollar sales dropped 3% and volume sales dropped 5%. However, these numbers changed with COVID-19. And frozen pretzels that can be baked at home benefited from the home baking craze during the early days of the pandemic.

“For some, it was therapeutic. For others, it was a fun thing to do with children, and it brought out their inner chef,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said.

Dollar sales of frozen pretzels increased 45% during the eight weeks ending April 26, while unit and volume sales increased 45% and 40%, respectively. And consumers keep buying pretzels beyond the initial stages of the pandemic. Between May 3 and July 12, frozen pretzels realized a dollar sales increase of 31%, according to IRI.

“Soft pretzels are experiential,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt added. “You bake them, then you get to smell the aroma while baking, and then you can coat them with your favorite seasoning and/or dip them into a favorite dip.”

Within the category, innovations have been in filled bite-sized products as well as spicy flavor options. Ms. Lyons Wyatt said savory flavor combinations are winning over sweet varieties in today’s market.

“Flavors continue to drive growth and flavors like southwest style, garden vegetable, sea salt and parmesan garlic all hit the market,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said. “In addition to flavors, pretzel bakers introduced products like pretzel balls and holiday shapes and innovated with ingredients like cauliflower.”

Super Pretzel Soft Pretzel Bites from J&J Snack Foods, Pennsauken, NJ, come in several varieties including Mozzarella Bites, which are filled and topped with mozzarella and oregano. Other flavors include Pub Cheese Bites and Pepperjack Bites. Sales of J&J Snack Foods’ soft pretzels in the supermarket segment rose 14% in the second quarter of 2020, the company reported.

Sweet toppings for pretzels make them a tempting indulgent snack any time of day.

“We worked diligently to research and develop a product that would enhance our long-standing iconic soft pretzel, while providing fans with a deliciously simple snacking solution,” said Alissa Davis, vice president of marketing for J&J Snack Foods Corp. “As we strive to be innovative within the category, we also stay mindful of what is sought out by consumers in-market, which we believe to be easy, cheese-filled snacks for solo snacking, entertaining and even quick mini meals.”

The pandemic also spurred innovation that had been lagging for years in the pretzel category. Innova Market Insights shows that launches of pretzel products in the United States dropped at a compound annual growth rate of 11.6% from 2017 to 2019. The same could be seen in pretzel snacks. Launches were down in this category 13% over the same period.

“This would suggest that pretzels may be losing ground to other types of snack options,” said Tom Vierhile, vice president of strategic insights, North America, Innova Market Insights.

That said, there were some notable launches in the pretzel snack category over the last year. Cambpell’s Snacks, Camden, NJ, released several new products under several of its popular brands. Pepperidge Farm rolled out Pretzel Goldfish, and Snyder’s of Hanover introduced Braided Twists Garden Vegetable made with real vegetables. Snack Factory released Garden Vegetable Pretzel Crisps in addition to Dark Chocolate Drizzlers and Milk Chocolate & Caramel Drizzlers.

Opportunities to keep pretzel sales growing beyond the pandemic may lie in their perceived healthier halo. Healthy sales across channels Consumer research done by IRI shows that shoppers are seeking a balance between indulgent and better-for-you snacks. And the research shows that pretzels are a go-to better-for-you snack that offers different textures and forms to keep consumers buying within the category and from different channels.

Because pretzel snacks often feature savory and higher- protein doughs, they align with several trending diets. Low-sugar diets have been outperforming others since last year. In 2019, low-sugar claims in food and beverage dollar sales saw a 27.3% uptick, according to IRI figures. That growth jumped to 60% during the first months of COVID-19, and IRI projects it will maintain 49.7% growth through the rest of 2020. High-protein diets have seen tremendous growth during the pandemic, with 41% sales growth during the first month and 33.5% since May.

In 2019, Fitjoy, Austin, Texas, released its first grain-free pretzel, which is plant-based, gluten-free, dairy-free, corn-free, soy-free and non-GMO. The crunchy twists are made from cassava and chickpea flour and tossed in pink Himalayan sea salt. Each serving (approximately 30 pretzels) contains 130 calories, 3 grams of fat, 1 gram of fiber, 0 grams of added sugar and 2 grams of protein.

“We know more and more people are trying to limit the amount of grain they consume, whether for digestive reasons or health issues or because they’re on a diet,” said Scott Sturgill, head of innovation and product development at FitJoy. “We wanted our consumers to have fun and tasty options that would align with their diet choices.”

Consumers are also purchasing pretzels more often from home. This cross-channel success may be a glimpse into the future of snack sales.

“We have seen an accelerated adoption of online food and beverage sales, and pretzels have benefited,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said. “And now we know that the rest of 2020 is poised to have more at-home occasions than ever before, so conversion to e-commerce will continue to rise into 2021 and beyond.”

According to IRI, pretzel dollar sales grew online 54% in 2019. In April, sales shot up 158%. And from May 3 to July 12, pretzels had a 101% increase in dollar sales.

“Pretzel bakers will need to look at their omnichannel strategies and ensure they have a differentiated portfolio across the channels at a price consumers are willing to pay,” Mr. Lyons Wyatt said.

She added that consumers are comparing prices across channels and retailers now more than ever. Pretzel producers need to work with retail customers to create a brand presence on platforms and to ensure online searches align with their product attributes. For example, searches for low fat, no sugar added, gluten free and more should direct consumers to the pretzel product. These attributes, combined with the right flavors, create the differentiation needed to succeed in the market

“The best way to ensure category growth is to find complementary assortments to keep consumers coming back for more,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said.

Data on the shape of the pretzel marketRiding the storm out

The ups and downs of the pandemic have impacted every corner of the world, including changes in how everyone eats and where they buy their food. Pretzel bakers can implement several tactics to drive growth for the category and their own sales.

“Consumers have widened their online searches for holistic health and wellbeing foods and beverages with functional benefits like obesity support and other attributes like gluten-free are still relevant,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said. “Highlighting on the package and in communications and/or within innovation would be beneficial.”

Additionally, she said bakers can share at-home consumption ideas with consumers that will engage and excite them with options for versatile shelf stable and frozen pretzels. Bakers can leverage personalized messages to get relevant ideas to consumers.

“Adapt price and size architecture to ensure a good mix, and price and value in conjunction with private label across channels to maximize foot and click traffic as well as sales,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt argued. “This should include finding the right balance of large sizes, variety packs and single-serve packages.”

By increasing their focus on e-commerce, reviewing promotional strategies with retailers and launching innovative products to differentiate their products, pretzel bakers can twist and turn their businesses into winning shape.