Ah, the good life

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College promises piles of books, new friends, and the perfection of procrastination—followed by all-night study sessions. Each year, more than 21 million students find the endless energy it takes to maintain the college lifestyle.1 How do they do it? They load up on plenty of coffee and snacks. In fact, the serious snacking habits of college students contributed heavily to the $18.5 billion worth of snack sales in US restaurants, vending machines, and mobile vendors that was expected last year.2 With muffins, pastries, cookies, and other snacks providing big profits, operators are catering to students' round-the-clock and grab-and-go eating preferences.

While money isn't exactly easy come, easy go for most students, they don't mind dropping cash for snacks that promise immediate satisfaction. Stocking foods that offer pleasure and value requires insight into which food trends influence 18- to 24-year-old consumers. Recent findings confirm what operators may already suspect about these trend drivers: impulse, crave-ability, price sensitivity, portability, bundling, and late-night availability.

An Affair to Remember
Americans love their snacks, which represent nearly 50% of all food consumed in the US.3 What's fueling this love affair? Many of the same feelings that influence real love and relationships: Impulsive choices, the promise of comfort and familiarity, and powerful cravings. People buy snacks on impulse. In a recent poll, 62% of participants admitted to impulse purchases for snacks they ate away from home.4 The importance of impulse purchases underscores the effectiveness of a technique many operators use: prominently displayed baked snacks—think chocolate chip cookies, brownies, muffins—to grab each patron's eye. Baked goods displays are an easy add-on for every on-campus location from c-stores to dining halls.

Better yet, why not fresh bake sweet baked goods frequently, so that the aroma of tasty and familiar comfort foods can stir up students' cravings? Many consumers (28%) cite the siren call of craveable offerings as a selection criteria, and college-age consumers expect numerous craveable options.2 Further supporting the love affair analogy, "in-the-moment feelings and desires" compel people to snack,and younger people often go for "limited-time offers."3,2

To capture the college dollar, create a menu with limited-availability snack foods that play to students' impulsive nature while offering crave-worthy comfort foods that remind them of home.

If The Price Is Right
While the notion of the broke college student is commonly held, the reality is that hungry college students don't mind spending for high-value sustenance. Students do, however, need to feel like they're getting a deal. Feature different pleasantly priced snack items regularly, and use social sites as a simple way to spread the word around campus. To make it even easier on students, ditch the printed coupons; tell them to swing by and simply mention your tweet or post.

Thankfully, finding snacks that allow discounted pricing and good margins isn't difficult. Foods that are profitable for operators are often enticing to college kids: cookies, soft pretzels, and fries send sales rising and food costs falling.5

Driving Profits
A life on campus is a life on the go, and students' eating habits reflect their anything-but-sedentary ways. A recent survey showed that 60% of all participants snack in the car, and college-aged consumers are even more likely (by 27%) to snack on the fly.6 These results line up with what one would expect from busy college students—snack options are almost as popular for portability as they are for affordability.6

To capitalize on that appeal, focus on the portable nature of wraps, poppers, and other bite-sized treats. Or tout easy-to-handle options like cookies, brownies and muffins, which eliminate the need to dip and drive. College life can be filled with challenging decisions, but a menu packed with portable snacks will offer students their easiest choices of the day.

Study Buddies
In coffee shops and campus cafeterias everywhere, students sit flanked by familiar study buddies: Laptop? Check. Coffee? Check. Something to nibble on? Check. Let the cramming session begin.

By bundling coffee drinks with quality munchies—coffee cakes, cinnamon rolls, or high-protein options like chicken tenders or banana nut muffins—operators can bring in the bookworms. It's also known that college-aged consumers "spend the highest percentage of their income on snacks and non-alcoholic beverages,"6 making such bundles even more appealing for study groups.

Night Life
It doesn't take a report to convince most operators that college kids are out late, looking to keep the good times rolling. It's also not a stretch to deduce that these students will likely pick a place where they can afford something to eat and drink. Still, hard statistics never hurt: According to a Mintel report, 18- to 34-year old consumers are the biggest late-night snackers.7 With that in mind, take a cue from the big chains, which use the later hours to offer high-profit snack items "that cater to younger customers."6 Many places even offer snack items during late-night happy hours, and the approach is paying off.7

Understanding the mindset of the average college student can prove quite lucrative for operators located on or near a campus. As you plan your next menu or set of specials, remember their core demands and behaviors: They're impulsive—show them the goods. They want what they can't have—offer limited-time options. They crave pleasure and familiarity—bring on the comfort foods. They’re not rich—give them affordable options. They're busy—let them grab and go. They study, study, study—bundle coffee drinks with baked goods for great study buddies. They're up late—seize the night with midnight snack options. What's in it for you? A bigger stake in the multi-billion dollar snack food market.

Sources
1National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics: 2011
2Mintel, Trends in snacking and value menus in foodservice—U.S. June, 2012
3monkeydish.com, Snacking goes global, 2012
4monkeydish.com, Snacking takes a bigger bite, 2012
5monkeydish.com, I would like to know the most profitable snack bar items, 2012
6monkeydish.com, Snacking strengthens restaurant spending, 2010
7Mintel, Snacks & In-Between Eating: How menus meet the demands of new dayparts, 2012