Nurture Those Nibbles

January 14, 2010
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It’s no secret that North American consumers love to snack, and often - on fare ranging from a pre-dinner nibble to a mini-meal between breakfast and lunch. And with the economy forcing many folks to skimp on restaurant visits, easy-to-prepare frozen snacks and appetizers only are growing in popularity.

Data from Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. show dollar sales for the total frozen appetizer/snack roll category (which also includes the frozen breaded vegetables and pretzels subcategories) up 7.4 percent during the 52 weeks ending Nov. 1 (U.S. supermarkets, drugstores and mass merchandisers, excluding Walmart), and unit sales up 1.5 percent. A similar scenario is playing out on store brand side, with dollar and unit sales posting 13.0 percent and 1.5 percent respective gains.

In its April 2009 “Frozen Foods in the U.S.: Dinners/Entrées, Pizza, Vegetables, Appetizers/Snacks and Breakfast Foods, 2nd Edition” report, Rockville, Md.-based Packaged Facts reports that frozen snacks and appetizers are particularly popular among children and teenagers - and their parents - because they often are easy to prepare in a microwave even “when mom is still at work.” But challenging these and other convenient frozen items, Packaged Facts notes, are a growing array of retailer-prepared fresh foods, including refrigerated meal solutions.

Trends in the frozen snack and appetizer category tend to be influenced by restaurant menu developments. According to a 2009 National Restaurant Association survey of 1,600 chefs, the latest menu trends include the likes of mini-burgers, amuse bouche (chef-presented bite-sized hors d’oeuvres), edamame (soybeans harvested right before they reach the “hardening” stage), combo platters and appetizer salads.

Julie Fetherstonhaugh, marketing manager for Plats du Chef, Montreal, also points to a mega trend influencing the category: the movement toward “nostalgic, retro and comfort eating.” She says this trend is expected to continue for 2010.

“Traditional flavors are retaining their appeal as consumers continue to seek flavors with positive evocative associations that provide a sense of comfort [to] their increasingly stress lifestyles,” Fetherstonhaugh says. “We’re also seeing this comfort food trend evolve into new ‘packaging’ formats. Mini bite-sized versions of traditional favorites such as burgers - sliders - and desserts are appearing under both national and private label offerings.”

Ethnic flavors also will gain steam, Fetherstonhaugh adds, as consumers continue to experiment with different “foreign and exotic flavors.” Here, diversification, fusion and blended cuisines will open up a new world of food ingredients, cooking methods and presentation styles to these consumers.

Frank Benso, vice president of Nampa, Idaho-based Great American Appetizers, also sees strong interest in ethnic fare.

“Diversity in flavor, with ethnic flair, speaks to our mosaic society that is eager to try new and exciting meals,” he says.

Keith Chen, president of Toronto-based Culinary Destinations Ltd., adds that consumers are becoming more familiar with spring rolls, samosas and other ethnic appetizers. In fact, consumers often view these ethnic appetizers as healthful morsels that make a wholesome alternative to potato chips or cheese curls.

Speaking of healthful fare, Fetherstonhaugh sees that as another overall trend in the frozen snack and appetizer category.

“We’re seeing the emergence of a generation of label readers who will become more conscious of nutrition and food ingredients than ever before,” she stresses. “Their focus is on foods that are low in sodium, high in fiber, satiating, have no trans fats, [and claim] reduced sugar, fortification, etc. The next wave of product differentiation will be to provide fresher, more nutritious foods in the most convenient forms possible.”

Weigh the Options

Yes, convenience still rules - with hectic lifestyles the norm, not the exception - even for the trendiest of frozen nibbles.

“Fixed times for meals [are] becoming less prevalent, and consumers now grab bites in between work and activities,” Fetherstonhaugh says. “This, in turn, has made consumers even more disconnected from food preparation.”

This reality is creating a huge demand not only for quick, portable and easy-to-prepare foods, she says, but also for convenient packaging. But retailers increasingly need to balance convenience features with environmentally friendly attributes in packaging for private label frozen snacks and appetizers.

“Consumers are becoming more mindful of the materials used to package their foods and get it to their plates,” Fetherstonhaugh adds. “This growing awareness is also translating over into ingredients - think eating local and sustainable.”

Beyond on-trend convenience-minded products, Ricardo “Ric” Alvarez, president and CEO of, Holland, Ohio-based Frozen Specialties Inc., sees a store brand opportunity outside tried-and-true national-brand-equivalent frozen snacks and appetizers. After all, he says, retailers already have done a great job of bringing quality store brand products into the stores - and have earned consumers’ trust. Now is the time to expand with new flavors and more.

Benso recommends a “twist” on mainstream items. For example, macaroni and cheese is a kid favorite, so retailers could take this popular and familiar item and invent something new. (In fact, Great American Appetizers did just that recently, creating a convenience-minded mac and cheese appetizer bite for private label consideration.)

But do not get too carried away, Fetherstonhaugh warns, unless you are prepared to refresh the lineup frequently. “Convenience and health are the two [trends] with the most staying power,” she explains. “Products that cater to current flavor trends and profiles will have a shorter product lifecycle and require constant updating to stay current.”

Get 'Em to Nibble

No matter how convenient and trendy store brand frozen snack and appetizer items are, retailers still might need to deploy some “encouragement” strategies to get those products into shoppers’ carts. That strategy begins with the right price point, Fetherstonhaugh says.

“You need to know your target market, their constraints, wants and concerns,” she says. “Trends have to fall into a price range that a consumer feels is a fair price/quality ratio.”

And both the manufacturer and the retailer need to make margins adequate to sustain their businesses, she adds.

On the merchandising and promotion side, Benso emphasizes, you won’t find a one-size-fits-all strategy that works. Although retailers understand their particular shopper demographics - and the competitive nature of their business - they still have to work to meet or exceed the consumer expectation level for each of their store formats.

“If they do, they are successful,” he says. “We’ve all heard the adage, ‘Advertise for volume and merchandise for profit.’ [It’s] no different today, but the consumer is much more educated and discriminating and carries a level of expectation.”

In general, Chen says, retailers will not want to downplay the importance of major holidays and sporting events. The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are prime times for promoting private label frozen appetizers, as are the Super Bowl and the World Series. And just about any time is a good time for cross-promoting such appetizers with frozen meals and even side dishes.

Party packs and appetizer collections also are a big draw around holiday entertaining season, and Fetherstonhaugh says in-store end caps, signage and demos are very effective during this and other peak seasons. “Flyer promotions are always a success,” she notes. “Consumers enjoy looking at flyers, comparing prices and looking for new products.”

Some retailers also are growing sales with their own house brand catalogues that feature promotions tailored uniquely to store brands, Fetherstonhaugh adds. PLB

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