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What consumers want from snacks

4 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Snacks used to be those after-school occasions when children savored milk and cookies, or an adult grabbed an apple to tide herself over until dinner. Now snacks are edging in on meal territory, representing half of all eating occasions.

The reasons for this shift are embedded in U.S. food culture. People’s time — and therefore their traditional meals — have become increasingly fragmented, leaving snacks to carry a greater proportion of the physical, emotional, social and cultural desires people have around food, according to The Hartman Group’s 2013 report, “Modern Eating: Cultural Roots, Daily Behaviors.” For example:

  • 73% of snacking is physically driven: That includes 44 percent hunger abatement, often between meals, plus 15 percent nutritional support to recover from physical exertion or meet specific nutrient needs and 12 percent pick-me-ups for a burst of energy to combat lethargy or mental fatigue.
  • 36% of snacking is emotionally driven: That includes 23 percent “time markers” to create structure in the day and provide moments of anticipation, plus 13 percent boredom alleviation and 6 percent reward, encouragement or temporary alleviation of discipline. An example of reward snacking comes from Michael in Chicago, who said, “If I close a deal, I may grab a little Ferrero Rocher and treat myself. I’ll use my phone to find the nearest 7-Eleven.”
  • 28% of snacking is socially or culturally driven, including people wanting to bond around food without committing to a full meal and people looking to discover new cuisines and flavors.

The percentages don’t add to 100, because there is overlap. However, they do not overlap with aimless snacking, which represents a whopping 27 percent of all snacking. Like most food experiences, this phenomenon has cultural roots, boosted by the explosion in the constant availability of food and beverages. Consumers are aware that food is always nearby and will grab something even when they have no physical, emotional, social or cultural desire. Aimless snacking often happens while people work, read or browse, and in surveys they are likely to underreport it, because they’ve forgotten it happened or because they recategorized it as “purposeful” to justify it. It has major implications for obesity and other health and cultural issues.

Although aimless snacking happens spontaneously, people often plan to some degree for other types of snacking. The phenomenon of the “roadside pantry” — the culturally driven abundance of food choices— is something people have come to rely on when thinking about where they might get a snack when they’re hungry or need a reward. They also turn to home pantries; to lunch bags packed with lunch plus snacks for eating throughout the day; and to food stashes in their cars, desks and gym lockers.

Food companies can capitalize on these cultural shifts by figuring out how their current products already fit with consumers’ snacking behaviors, by paying attention to the ingredients and flavors used by popular restaurants, and by adapting packaging and store formats to customers’ snacking needs. Although consumer behaviors around food can seem capricious at times, they are actually rooted in a cultural rhythm that is exciting and fun to follow.


As CEO, Laurie Demeritt provides strategic and operational leadership for The Hartman Group’s research and consulting teams. Laurie and The Hartman Group’s analysts are recognized for their ability to blend primary qualitative, quantitative and trends research to help clients develop marketing strategies by understanding the subtle complexities of how consumers live, shop and use products, and how to apply that understanding in ways that lead to purchase. For more about The Hartman Group, visit the website: www.hartman-group.com or contact Blaine Becker, Senior Director of Marketing at: [email protected].