Source: Nielsen


NEW YORK — Staying competitive in the $374 billion global snack food industry requires an understanding of what drives consumer snacking behavior and purchasing decisions.

Global snack food sales increased 2% in the year ended March 2014, according to a new report from Nielsen. The Nielsen Global Survey polled more than 3,000 respondents in 60 countries to determine what snack foods and product attributes appeal most to consumers worldwide.

“The takeaway for companies is to recognize the different need states of their consumers,” said Susan Dunn, executive vice-president, Global Professional Services, Nielsen.

In an interview with Food Business News, Ms. Dunn shared insights on what factors influence snacking consumption in the United States and how companies may stand out in this dynamic, multibillion dollar industry.

Food Business News: What product attributes do American consumers look for in snacks?

Susan Dunn: When it comes to snacks, American consumers want both indulgence and healthy options. In our global on-line survey, 63% of Americans said they snacked on potato chips within the past 30 days, 59% ate chocolate and 58% ate cheese within that time frame. Fifty-six per cent ate cookies, and 54% ate fresh fruit.

When asked what snack they would choose above all others, the highest percentage of American respondents chose chocolate, followed closely by fresh fruit.

In regard to product attributes, 65% of Americans seek products with natural flavors, 63% look for high fiber, 59% of American respondents do not want snack products with high-fructose corn syrup, and 58% want low salt.  

Is there still a stigma or association with snacking being unhealthy?

The perception of snacking has appeared to have changed somewhat. Americans still like to indulge. However, according to the Harris Poll, three-quarters of U.S. adults act on a high degree of awareness of health and wellness in their daily activities. They take into account the value of fresh foods, fiber and whole grains when shopping. More than 70% of U.S. adults stress the importance of protein, healthy fat and whole grains and calories when contemplating how to manage their diet and weight.

Intentions do not always translate to behavior, however. A recent Nielsen health and wellness study found that consumers aspire to better health and healthier eating, but half admit that healthy eating is a challenge, especially in the face of rising food costs.

Source: Nielsen

Is there a link between snacking occasions and the types of snacks consumed?

A recent U.S.-only Nielsen study examined snack occasions and found that men are more likely to snack while working, whereas women are more likely to snack while using their smartphones, laptops or tablets. We love snacking while watching TV; both sexes picked TV as their No. 1 activity while snacking. However, neither study looked at which snacks people reach for while doing each particular activity.

What is the takeaway for food manufacturers and marketers?

Consumers are increasingly eating snacks as a meal replacement. Fifty-one per cent of Americans reported often or sometimes eating snacks as a breakfast alternative, 52% of Americans reported often or sometimes eating snacks as a lunch alternative, and 41% reported often or sometimes eating snacks as a dinner replacement.

So, manufacturers and marketers would do well to provide and promote nutritious, convenient snacks that make sensible meal replacements.

The two opportunities for growth identified in the global study are snacking as meal replacement and addressing the needs of three distinct types of snackers: planner, purposeful, or spontaneous. And this is useful information for marketers who can cater to these three specific types of snackers through their messaging and in-store shopper marketing efforts.

Large percentages of global respondents are planners. They eat snacks at home, with family and friends, and they have a few snacks they keep in rotation. These consumers tend to buy snacks in the store aisle and know exactly what they want when they get to the store. A smaller percentage plans and carries the snacks they eat each day.

The takeaway: Marketers need to reach this type of snacker before they get to the store. Reach them through your web site, fliers, marketing and social media. They are less adventurous than other types of snackers, so your marketing efforts should educate them about the benefits of your snack. These types of snackers head straight to the appropriate aisle when they get to the store, so make sure your product is at eye level and accessible.

Susan Dunn is executive vice-president of Global Professional Services for Nielsen.


The second largest group is spontaneous. These global respondents like to try new snacks, buy a variety of snacks, and do not plan their snack purchases. These consumers often eat snacks as soon as they buy them and tend to buy snacks at the checkout counter.

North American respondents lead the way for buying a variety of different snacks. These are the snackers most likely to try out a new product on the shelves.

The takeaway: This group of snackers is the most adventurous and make their purchase decision in the store. Catch their eye with attractive in-store signage and sampling programs. These types of snackers are the first to try out a new product and respond well to messaging around the “new” and “innovative” nature of the snack. These snackers also make a large percentage of their purchases at the checkout counter from the impulse-buy section, so make sure your products are placed here for easy access and are offered in a pack size to encourage trial and immediate consumption.

Purposeful snackers are the third group of snackers and know what they want in a snack. They are very selective about what they choose. These global respondents prefer snacks with ingredients that are sourced sustainably and will pay extra for fair trade snacks. Confectionery such as fair trade chocolate and premium varieties of chocolate are good examples.

Purposeful snackers prefer to buy name-brand snacks, and many will only buy snacks that are on sale. North Americans have the highest percentage of respondents that buy snacks on sale at 43%.

The takeaway: To reach this third group of conscientious snackers, marketers need to tailor their messaging to emphasize the product attributes of sustainability, fair trade and premium, as these terms resonate the most with these consumers. This group of snackers is the most brand loyal and, while they are willing to pay extra for snacks with the qualities that are important to them, they are also most likely to be deal sensitive, only buying snacks that are on sale. To attract these snackers, reach them through your out of store and in-store promotional activities such as coupons.

Source: Nielsen

The study compares snacking behaviors among men and women, but what about generational trends? Are millennials a driving force in snack trends?

There are 77 million millennials in the United States, and they are 24% of the U.S. population. As millennials continue to secure employment, own their own homes and have families of their own, they will continue to be a driving force in all sorts of retail behavior.

Another recent report on consumers in terms of health and wellness found that fresh produce sales rise with income and have more appeal among Generation X and boomers. Fresh produce also has more appeal with people with bigger households and more mouths to feed.

According to a recent Nielsen millennials report, millennials put a premium on authentic, locally produced goods and are willing to pay more for products from companies with social impact programs. Millennials are more deal-oriented in their shopping than are other generations, and food that is locally sourced appeals more to this generation than to others.