Sweet and salty snacks

The sweet and salty snack category lost slight market share last year due to the ailing economy, notes VendScape Data Service, Pittsburgh. In a look at products sold in snack vending machines, VendScape found that when comparing 2002 vs. 2001, the industry declined slightly overall.

"We shouldn't be surprised when I say it was a slight decline, given all that's going on. When I say industry, I mean total snacks and confections," says Hena Akhtar, senior business analyst of Management Science Associates, a producer of VendScape.

"The trend we're seeing is confections are gaining slightly and snacks losing. We broke down snacks and confections: In first quarter 2002, snacks had 67% share while confections (chocolate, non-chocolate, gum and mints) had 33% vs. first quarter 2003, which showed 65% for snacks and 35% for confections in all unit sales." The snack industry continues to test healthy alternatives, and the data bears out this strategy, Akhtar reports.

Consistent growth: "When we looked at all other categories comparing first quarter 2001, 2002 and 2003, we saw that nuts and seeds gained consistently—1.2%, 1.4% and 1.6% respectively—of all unit sales. It's a small category but showing consistent growth. If you look within the snack category, granola bars also increased incrementally a couple of points."

She adds that these snacks might be experiencing slight growth because they've had less exposure than the leading chips and candy bars. "Other categories have matured, and these are the not-so-mature categories. They may be in a growth phase, especially granola bars," Akhtar points out.

In the turf battle between local brands and national, not all results were predictable. Vendscape looked at machines that carry both regional and national brands and surveyed crackers and cookies, and compared the performance—units sold per item. Because there are generally more national brands in a machine than local or regional, the firm can't make a direct comparison.

"In the cracker category, national brands were the top two performers, followed by regional brands. In cookies, a national brand was a top performer, second place was a regional brand and third was another national brand," says Akhtar.

Going for volume: Bob Zahrt, manager of vending at self-op Brigham Young University (BYU), Provo, UT, found it isn't always necessary to use all national brands. He noticed vending sales were stagnating. Zahrt had supervisors go through the university's program and based on their reports, he decided to eliminate the bottom 10 products. "I said, 'Let's just go for volume.' We got rid of some national brands and got some second-tier items in, and we ended up selling 30,000 more units after the switch—we started the first of January," he recalls.

Zahrt switched about 10 to 15 items from sweet to salty, sometimes even dropping a lot of chocolate selections. "They wanted more of the Mike & Ikes and Runts vs. chocolate bars. We dropped Hershey almonds, Butterfingers and other things. Sales on eight of the 10 items that we switched more than doubled. And one went up more than 500%: the Welch's fruit snacks."

Zahrt was not surprised by the results, as it was what he predicted, based on customer preference surveys. "We asked the students what they wanted. We have student drivers run our vending routes, so that they have a job if they need one on campus. They would ask students, 'Here are products, which ones do you think we should bring in?' and that seemed to work. Then we conducted 1,000-member surveys, which said 'Drop these seven or eight items,' confirming our informal poll.

Forecasting for cost efficiency: "We didn't drop national brands across the board, just some of them. It will drop my rebates a little bit, but if it's not selling, what's the point? Why not get something that sells and gets the volume up there. Now we're looking at different software programs to help us forecast what we should be taking out, and to help us avoid having trucks full of everything. This, in turn, will help us be more cost efficient, reduce routes and reduce number of labor hours. It will also increase our productivity," he states.

BYU has 62 snack machines, 32 that are a combination of drinks and snacks and 12 machines that are pastry and snacks to serve its 30,000-student population as well as faculty and staff. Zahrt says he's bringing in some beef sticks and Jimmy Dean strips as a new salty snack alternative. He just completed another 1,000-person survey in which respondents asked for healthier foods across the board. "However, they haven't shown that they'll buy them," he notes.

Joyce Hagen-Flint, director of food and nutrition services, Bon Secours-St. Joseph Hospital, Port Charlotte, FL, agrees that consumers talk the talk but don't walk the walk when it comes to purchasing healthful items at the 212-bed, acute-care facility. Hence, in her one snack machine she carries potato chips, candy bars, cookies and popcorn. She also has two food vending machines, offering "everything from breakfast or full meal items to cheese crackers."

Candy sells out first: The self-op hospital does all its own vending. "We prepare and purchase items and put them in the machines ourselves, and we have not seen much change (in spending habits). People talk about wanting healthy choices but we really aren't experiencing a lot of variance in what people are eating. The candy sells out first in the snack machine; the good old Hershey bars are the first to go. We do probably sell more pretzels than potato chips than we used to, and we also sell more of the baked potato chips—they're more popular now."

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