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The pandemic has dramatically altered the way Americans snack

The pandemic has dramatically altered the way Americans snack
(Image credit: (Unsplash/Amanda Vick))

The Hartman Group has been tracking the changes and evolution of America’s eating behaviors for more than three decades. In the past few years, the modern era of snackified eating fully emerged. The traditional eating patterns centered on the idealized notion of three “square,” structured meals a day is now, in practice, an eating culture characterized by frequent snacking throughout the day — so much so that, according to our Snacking: Emerging, Evolving and Disrupted report, 48% of all food and beverage occasions are snacking occasions.

In the past year, however, the coronavirus pandemic emerged to disrupt consumers’ food and beverage purchase and consumption routines and significantly alter the current nature of snacking in America.

Snacking, more so than meals, is highly vulnerable to lifestyle changes. Where meals provide an anchor around which life happens, snacks are entirely structured around and woven into established daily activities. Sudden changes in daily routines and general outlook on life can then have a strong effect on snacking habits.

The tumultuous year of 2020 has elevated distracted snacking to the status of its own pillar (within The Hartman Group’s Modern Snacking Framework along with Nourishment, Optimization and Pleasure), with special emphasis on snacking due to both boredom and stress.

With the new normal of COVID-19, snacking for Distraction has taken on new relevance and prominence in the lives of many consumers. Its inclusion within the framework aligns to how consumers understand changes in their own snacking habits, as many continue to stay at home and remain relatively less mobile than in previous years.

Our Snacking: Emerging, Evolving and Disrupted report finds that 40% of all snacking reflects some need for Distraction (vs. 34% for meals).

Finding comfort in familiar brands

While snacking for Distraction has always been present for consumers, and is regularly viewed as a problematic, less intentional approach to snacking, this driver has taken on more significance as the COVID-19 pandemic carries on. The frequency of this driver among all snacking occasions has increased significantly since 2019, by 8% points, and feelings of boredom are over twice as likely to occur during snacking occasions vs. meals.

With many consumers returning again and again to their go-to, favorite snacks, brand iconicity and familiarity are attributes of rising importance, especially over the past year when many consumers have returned to some of their favorite comfort snack choices. Our report finds consumers stating a preference for favorite brands: 

  • 87% say they “usually buy the same brands of snacks every time”
  • 58% say that when they snack, they “prefer to stick with a few favorite brands instead of seeking a lot of variety”
  • 46% say they “just gotta have my favorite brand”

Turning to a favorite brand, or a small set of favorites, is another way consumers seek some familiarity in an unfamiliar world. When deciding which snacks to eat or drink, 27% of consumers say it is very important that the snack is made by a brand I like.

Familiar brands can provide comfort in a changing world. While exploration and trial of new, interesting products is an important feature of the snacking world, so is familiarity. Across demographic groups, favorite brand is one of the top snack selection criteria, especially among consumers in the lowest socioeconomic tier. The propensity to stick with a set of familiar brands has increased from 2016 — an unsurprising trend since familiar foods can bring a sense of comfort in uncertain times.

Thoughts to munch on

The pandemic has altered consumers’ schedules, increased their time at home, changed work environments, reduced social interactions, isolated household units, introduced fears around food procurement, and shifted emotional states in the direction of both boredom and heightened anxiety. With these changes, snacking needs and routines have also evolved. 

The challenge for food companies to understand these nuanced and changing rhythms continues today as we go through yet another new era of retail and foodservice disruption that snacking — and the pandemic — has unleashed.

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As CEO of The Hartman Group, Demeritt drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company’s associates as The Hartman Group furthers its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global marketplace.


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