US consumers increasingly “snackers”, research shows

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 30th September 2013

The age-old image of a family seated around the dining room table enjoying a home-cooked meal is falling by the wayside, and US consumers are moving more towards snacks or “meals on the run”, according to market research organisation Information Resources Inc. (IRI).

While 79 per cent of US consumers are planners and eat “three square meals” or several “mini meals”, IRI found that a new segment is also emerging: those who eat “on the run”.

Dubbed “opportunists” by IRI, these eaters represented 21 per cent of US consumers, and tend to get food and drinks throughout the day as the opportunity arises, with little consideration as to whether they are eating a meal or a snack. IRI said on-the-go eaters represent a US$90 million market.

“The eating habits and attitudes of traditional three-square-meals-a-day eaters have been studied extensively for years,” said Susan Viamari, Editor of IRI’s research report, Times and Trends “How American Eats: Capturing Growth with Food on the Run”.

“While this segment is still important, you simply cannot deny the emergence of this new on-the-go eating segment,” Ms Viamari said. “Since very little has been uncovered about these eaters, we are addressing how this group’s demographic, lifestyle and attitudinal characteristics impact their food and beverage shopping, buying and consumption behaviour,” she said.

“CPG marketers who truly understand this emerging and growing segment at a finite level and serve them well stand to reap disproportionate growth in the years to come,” Ms Viamari said.

Profiling opportunist eaters

Opportunity eaters hail from diverse backgrounds, cutting across age, income and household brackets, according to IRI. Two-thirds of opportunists were female, and 92 per cent of non-Hispanic origin.

Skewing slightly to lower end of the income spectrum, nearly two-thirds of opportunists came from single-member or two-member households. Many were living a bachelor or bachelorette lifestyle, or the life of a dual-income, no-child family, where life was a bit less scheduled. Just under half of these eaters were under 45 years of age.

How do opportunists approach ‘healthy eating’?

Both planners and opportunists followed a “moderation is key” approach to healthy eating, according to IRI, but planners were much more inclined than their on-the-go counterparts to factor healthy eating into their daily regimen. For instance, 36 per cent of opportunists split their healthy and indulgent behaviours equally, eating ‘healthy’ half the time and eating more freely the rest of the time, compared to 31 per cent of planners.

In addition, opportunists took a more laid back approach to exercising than planners. Nearly half (45 per cent) exercised less than two times a week, compared to three-quarters of planners, who were active for at least 20 minutes on a daily basis.

Balancing the value equation

According to IRI, the first step in winning with opportunist eaters is to understand their ‘value equation’. While price was a significant consideration for a vast majority of US consumers, it carried more weight in the value equation among opportunist eaters.

For example, 31 per cent of opportunists tended to buy whatever food or beverage was on sale with little concern for nutritional value. This compared to 18 per cent of planners. Likewise, available coupons or discounts were a key influencer of meal or snack decisions for one-third of opportunists, compared to about a quarter of planners.

IRI found that different consumer groups chose to shop the various CPG channels differently to find the best value. A higher than average share of opportunists were turning to value channels to stretch their budgets. The dollar channel’s focus on providing value and convenience had served it well with on-the-go eaters.

US discount chain Family Dollar’s positioning as a “neighbourhood convenience discount store”, similar to Dollar General’s “small-box discount retailer” are “hitting the right note”, according to IRI. However, retail food chain Kroger is fighting back with its “Refresh” program that includes price reductions across many high-turn products, and Walmart has escalated its Neighbourhood Market.

According to IRI, retailers must continue developing these types of programs as they heighten their focus value to protect and grow share.

Cranking up on-the-go options

Nearly forty per cent of opportunist eaters said they buy convenient foods with little thought as to whether those foods are playing the role of a snack or a meal, according to IRI. They do this with nearly triple the frequency of their planner counterparts.

But this is not to say that opportunists do not enjoy cooking. Even though they under-index in this area compared to planners, 49 per cent said they do like to cook but look for convenience when evaluating their food and beverage options. Two-thirds want foods that are quick and easy to prepare, and one-third prefer to eat heat-and-ready or ready-to-eat foods rather than preparing options from scratch.

As a result, opportunists spent 60 per cent more on frozen appetisers and snack rolls compared to planners in the last year, and the category grew by 5 per cent among opportunist eaters. Between 2013 and 2015, frozen appetisers and snack rolls, as well as a variety of other convenience-oriented CPG categories, are expected to continue demonstrating higher than average growth among opportunist eaters compared to the market as a whole.

“Capturing just a small share of this opportunity will add appreciably to the bottom line,” IRI said.

Winning with Opportunist Eaters

With 66 million opportunist eaters in the US today, IRI said CPG marketers must look beyond the confines of the retail store and rethink the competitive landscape by viewing all eating and drinking occasions as opportunities to engage shoppers and win share of stomach, not just home-based occasions.

“IRI’s ongoing analyses of changing consumer eating behaviors point to new and evolving opportunities for CPG marketers,” Ms Viamari said. “But, the only constant is change. The demographic composition of American eaters has and will continue to change, so CPG marketers must stay on top of the evolution of the country’s emerging demographic and lifestyle segments to get ahead of the opportunities,” she said.

US consumers increasingly "snackers"