How consumers might snack differently in a pandemic

From Shopper Marketing Report: Canadians snack for convenience and indulgence. Will that change while they stay home?


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Busy lifestyles and indulgence are the traditional drivers of the snacking sector, but with consumers shifting their shopping behaviours in response to COVID-19, what was once convenient might be less so now, and what was once an indulgence may be more important than ever.

Though snacking tends to imply more indulgent foods like chips, candy and cookies, it also includes “healthy snacks,” like protein bars. A recent FMCG Gurus consumer survey done before the pandemic found that half of Canadian consumers snack as a lunch replacement, and that consumers turn to healthier snacking to fulfill needs as a surrogate for traditional meals. The primary driver is simple: 83% of respondents say they snack to satisfy hunger.

Still, there’s a sizeable contingent (56%) that report they get a health benefit from the likes of protein bars, and half of consumers snack to increase their protein intake. On-the-go snacking is no doubt appealing to consumers, but what happens to that when they are not going anywhere?

soberman-imageDavid Soberman is a professor of marketing and the Canadian national chair of strategic marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business. One of the things that is standard when you are going through a crisis, Soberman says, is that consumers gravitate to comfort foods: salty and/or sweet, but not usually both at the same time. Soberman tells strategy that, broadly speaking, consumption of both these and more healthy snacks will be increasing during the pandemic because, in pre-crisis mode, consumers got a significant number of their caloric intake from QSRs and cafes, and now that people are spending more time at home, they require caloric substitutes.

The FMCG Gurus study finds that although consumers say they are snacking for health benefits, 39% say they snack for an indulgent treat and that 62% say they typically snack on chocolate.

“There is a lot of confectionery bought for home consumption, rather than just on the run,” Soberman says, both in terms of single-serve portions as well as larger formats typically found at grocery and pharmacy aisles. He says while we will see a dip at vending machines and at pharmacies, there will be a corresponding increase at grocery stores. During periods of extreme difficulty, like World War II when even army rations often included chocolate, people turn to comfort eating and sugary treats. Back then, like now, he says, it’s a “small enjoyment in a sea of misery.”

“I think that any time you are in a time of crisis, things that are bought for home consumption, will tend to increase” Soberman says.

On that note, ice cream as well could be a beneficiary. Spring has begun and summer is on the way, and Soberman points out that temperature positively correlates with consumption anyway, but in this pandemic environment the desire to self-treat could position the dairy product even better.

While snacking in place of meals is often thought of as being done out of convenience, people may substitute meals because they are tired of cooking and lacking the same restaurant options. There are also people still serious about working out and going for runs that are looking for extra protein, and Soberman imagines those sales will hold up, but a significant uptick is less likely.

“Something like yogurt is going to do just fine in a crisis like this,” Soberman says. “It’s one of those products that is both healthy and flavourful so it’s going to do quite well in an environment like this.”

With respect to shopper marketing, Soberman says, “when people are being forced to do something they don’t want to do, or looks unpleasant, they tend to want to do it quickly.” When this happens, consumers turn to rules of thumb to make decisions, like buying what they’ve bought before. With COVID-19 fears, there won’t be as much comparison shopping or brand switching as people don’t want to touch anything, try to minimize their actions and get out of the store as quickly as possible. And marketers tend to target switchers, on average.

“When people are in a stay-at-home situation, it’s hard to engage in marketing and have it be affective,” Soberman says. “You need awareness, interest, desire and action, and there are problems with all four right now.”

In a time when more consumers are turning to Instacart or Cornershop, even the vehicles markets might think are more effective, like merchandising, promotion and display, they might not be useful. Half of people in store right now, Soberman says, could also just be shopping for others. A lot of the marketing you would generally do, can’t be done, he says, and the prescription is if your marketing is not effective, is to simply wait.