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Center Store

How Shelf-Stable Proteins Can Pump Up Sales

Photograph: Shutterstock

Healthful, protein-rich shelf-stable snacks and meal replacements are poised to make center store a destination for the wellness-minded on-the-go shopper. But maximizing sales in the shelf-stable protein category may hinge on strategic merchandising and multiple points of customer engagement.

At the West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee stores, healthful protein snacking trends are changing the face of center store, endcaps, checkout and more.

“With the trend of smaller meals and grazing continuing to rise, center store needed to follow the trend by making more portable options,” says Hailey Boudreau, a registered and licensed dietitian who works for Hy-Vee in Iowa City.

Boudreau finds that nearly all shoppers, from kids to grandparents to single professionals, have made the move away from three square meals to healthy snacking throughout the day. But with the proliferation of protein-powered bars, cookies, chips, cakes, cups, kits, drinks, bites and more, shopping for healthful snacks can be overwhelming for some customers.

Hy-Vee dietitians such as Boudreau make sense of the category and educate shoppers through store tours and informative displays.

“In-store signage and endcap displays are great for providing education, but when a customer is [on a store tour with me], they have my full attention to ask any questions they have,” she says. “It also gives us an opportunity to review their lifestyle and day-to-day activities together, and brainstorm where and when some of these products would be most appropriate.”

From oatmeal in a cup to protein-packed bars, desserts and water, Hy-Vee has healthful, satisfying snacking covered. “I always promote eating both protein and fiber,” she says. “You feel fuller, longer with a combination of the two.”

Throughout Hy-Vee’s fresh departments, Boudreau conveys this nutritional message by calling attention to new protein shelf-stable products near fruits and vegetables.

“Checkout aisles are known for their impulse snacks, so whenever I can add a clip-strip of nuts near the candy bars or protein bites on top of the soda case, I will,” she says.

For customers looking to refuel after a workout, Boudreau further recommends looking at the protein-to-carb ratio. “Although protein is important after working out, many bars and drinks have a great protein to carb ratio, ideal for refueling.” In turn, she advises shoppers to “look for 4 grams of carbs to 1 gram of protein. “As a retail dietitian, it’s important to have a plan for how you want to promote these items that will lead to customer adoption and product sales,” she says. “Promoting some of my favorites on store tours, pairing new items with already sampled items and using signage to call attention to the product are often in my plan.”

Meat Snacks

lawless jerkey aloha teriyaki
Photograph courtesy of Lawless Jerky

The market researchers at London-based Mintel continue to see strong performance from the nearly $12 billion salty snacks market, of which meat snacks, popcorn and cheese snacks are driving category growth. According to Mintel’s March 2018 U.S. Salty Snacks Market Report, nearly half of consumers who read ingredient lists are seeking preservative-free meat snacks and grass-fed meat snacks.

“People want to know more about where their meat comes from. They’re looking for grass-fed and grass-finished, and they want to know how the animals are treated,” says Matt Tolnick, founder and CEO of Lawless Jerky in Santa Monica, Calif.

Lawless recently rebranded its line of jerky to emphasize the quality in the packaging. “We put ‘100% grass-fed beef’ on the package. It stands for a healthier brand,” he says.

Tolnick sees the entire jerky category moving in a cleaner direction. “Even legacy brands have cleaned up some of their ingredients,” he says. “MSG, nitrates and corn syrup that are frequently found in jerky are giving way to ingredients that make it tasty and clean.”

Beyond Beef

“Meat snacks continue to trend upward in protein snacking,” says Ellie France, brand manager for Mighty Organic in La Farge, Wisc. “There are approximately 500 meat snack brands in this hypercompetitive category. Beef still dominates, but as consumers want leaner protein, we expect more of them to gravitate toward leaner protein options like chicken.”

Mighty Organic recently introduced the first organic chicken bar to the market. Citing SPINSscan/Nielsen data for the 52 weeks ending May 20, France says annual sales of chicken bars have reached $5.5 million, growing 34% in sales dollars over the past year.

The company produces a range of organic beef and chicken meat snacks from the same cooperative of farmer-owners who produce for Organic Valley. Its jerky, bars and sticks are made with certified organic, humanely raised, 100% grass-fed beef and free-range chickens, with no antibiotics, artificial hormones, GMOs or nitrates.

“We knew there were many consumers out there who don’t eat red meat but still look for high-quality protein snacks. We wanted to expand our presence on-shelf, give the consumers what they were looking for, and be the only ones doing it organically,” France says of the new chicken bars.

Lowering the Sugar Bar

After steady growth of 20% from 2012 to 2017, growth of snack, nutrition and performance bars slowed slightly in 2017, reports Mintel. “While consumer interest in snacking, protein and functional foods positively impacts the category,” writes Beth Bloom, associate director for Mintel’s food and drink sector, “category players will need to emphasize bar strengths (e.g., convenience, indulgence) and address challenges (e.g., high sugar content).”

Country Archer of San Bernardino, Calif., is ahead of the curve with its turkey, beef and pork bars that have 15 grams of protein and just 2 to 3 grams of sugar. The bars were recently reformulated with added collagen.

A top trend at the Natural Products Expo West in March, collagen is a sought-after ingredient in everything from bone broth to bars. “Collagen is big right now,” says Tim Bateman, VP of sales for Country Archer.

Sweetened with dates rather than a conventional sugar, the company’s bars also feature new packaging that emphasizes the protein and collagen content. “Our packaging gets a lot of high marks for its simplicity,” Bateman says.

Country Archer makes all of its own jerky from ethically sourced 100% grass-fed beef from New Zealand.

Tricked-Out Trail Mix

Dick Stevens Snacks in Charlotte, N.C., has announced a relaunch/refresh of seven new skus this fall, including three Jerky Trail Mixes and four Jerky Bites, all created with the on-the-go consumer in mind.

“The idea behind the Jerky Trail Mix has always been a better-for-you snack that is not just another flavored jerky in a pretty bag,” says Jeff Eckert of Dick Stevens Snacks. “What makes our Jerky Trail Mix unique is that it is all mixed in the same bag.” The result, says Eckert, is an easy-to-eat, deliciously satisfying smoky, sweet and nutty snack.

Dick Stevens’ new Jerky Bites offer bite-size pieces of tender and thick jerky in three new flavors, including Smokehouse Chipotle, Sweet and Hot and Chicken Teriyaki.

With sales of meat snacks leveling off, Eckert sees “a new resurgence in more back-to-basics products.” Dick Stevens trail mix is made with jerky that is low in sodium and sugar, and nuts with heart-healthy fats.

High-Protein Hydration

Protein2o in Elk Grove Village, Ill., is on point with its low-calorie, protein-infused water that offers shelf-stable convenience.

“According to Nielsen [2016 data], 64% of adults are trying to get more protein in their diet,” says Andy Horrow, president of Protein2o. “It ranks first among any functional ingredient, with fiber and whole grains following.

“That statistic underscores that consumers know the benefits of protein, which include muscle growth and recovery, weight loss and appetite control, and providing healthy energy,” he says. “But until recently, ready-to-drink protein has come with a lot of baggage—in the form of calories and sugar.”

Protein2o’s newest water is naturally sweetened and offers 10 grams of protein. The line, created to “appeal to people whose desire for natural ingredients is more important than the amount of protein per bottle,” says Horrow, joins Protein2o’s core line that contains 15 grams of protein but also has sucralose. All of Protein2o’s products have only 60 calories per 16.9-ounce bottle.

Protein2o recently began distribution to 970 Publix stores, where the product will sit in the enhanced water aisle. “We have great success in enhanced water, among sports drinks and in the nutrition aisle,” Horrow says.  

Plant-Based Protein

saffron road chickpeas
Photograph courtesy of Saffron Road

When it comes to plant-based proteins, consumers are driven by taste first and health-centric attributes next, according to Mintel: “These consumers are more likely to seek plant-based protein products with no artificial ingredients (41%), that are high in protein (35%) and fiber (28%), and those that are non-GMO (28%).”

“Products that offer great taste, value and clean labels are prevailing in repeat rates and long-term viability over brands that do not meet these traits,” says Bryan Dobson, VP/GM snack division for Saffron Road Foods in Stamford, Conn.

Earlier this year, Saffron Road introduced a line ofindulgent, better-for-you Crunchy Chickpea snacks. Each serving contains more than 3 grams of protein and no artificial ingredients.

“Given consumers’ rapidly growing demand to use snacks as meal replacements, high-protein snacks are playing a larger role in discerning American’s eating choices,” says Dobson.

Wendy Goldner, VP of marketing for Boulder, Colo.-based Made In Nature, agrees.

“There is a significant movement toward plants as a source of protein, and we believe this trend will continue as more consumers turn to plant-based diets for their health and for the planet,” she says.

Made in Nature’s newly launched organic Veggie Pops are made with whole foods such as kale, cauliflower, bell peppers, carrots and chickpeas that are rolled into a crunchy, savory, poppable snack that contains 7-8 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber per serving.

“We expect to see more whole food protein snacks as consumers are increasingly seeking clean ingredients,” says Goldner.

Protein Placement

Marty Glick, VP of sales for Farmingdale, N.Y.-based Harold Levinson Associates, a full-line convenience store distributor, knows what today’s healthier-for-you-snack seeker wants.

“The consumer who wants protein is looking for no less than 15 grams,” he says. “The millennial shopper doesn’t care if it’s Planters, Nabisco or Mars; they want a clean label, non-GMO, and it’s great if it’s organic.”

Seven years ago, Harold Levinson designed a multivendor endcap of healthful, protein-rich snacks for the convenience space that has been a runaway success, Glick said.

The challenge for supermarkets, he adds, is that shoppers often must traverse the entire store in search of healthier-for-you snacks: “Consumers make a decision in just seconds. If they go into a supermarket, and can’t find what they’re looking for, they are just going to leave.”

“Healthy snack items are spread out throughout the store,” Goldner of Made in Nature says. “Shoppers are not consistently seeing all the healthy snack products available on any given shopping trip, and retailers are not realizing the volume potential on all these growing snack items.”

“Jerky is a very impulsive item,” Bateman of Country Archer says. “Consumers are not going to the store with jerky on their list. We’ve had the greatest success with finding points of interruption—a free-standing rack or on an endcap.”

Glick’s advice for grocers: Take a cue from c-stores and leverage endcaps and the checkout for healthful snack displays.

While Glick says the checkout aisle is a “home run” for healthful, protein snacks, he also points to the cereal aisle as favorable real estate. “Doesn’t it make sense to have healthy snacks facing cereal rather than cookies?” he says.

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