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Snacks: The 'New Comfort Food' Atop Specialty Category Report

Apparently, America has a serious case of the munchies.

The chips, pretzels and snacks category now outsells meat and cheese in specialty retail sales, and leads all other categories, according to the State of the Specialty Food Industry 2023—2024 report from the Specialty Food Association.

“Snacks are a booming category, and 2023 will mark four straight years of spectacular growth,” said David Lockwood, a consumer market research and strategy consultant and author of the report. “In the process, snacks vaulted into the top spot of our 63 categories.”

Chips pretzels and snacks surged 14.7 percent in 2022, to tally nearly $6.1 billion in sales, marking the first time any category has exceeded the $6 billion mark. Cookies and snack bars grew at an even faster pace—15 percent, to reach nearly $2 billion in sales, and chocolate and confectionary sales shot up 13.8 percent, to reach almost $3.9 billion.

“What do you think of when someone mentions 'comfort food'?” said Lockwood. “Past generations may think of macaroni and cheese or chicken pot pie, but salty snacks and chocolate have rapidly climbed the list. And there has been lots of need for comfort in the past four years.”

Increased social activities with friends and family in 2022 also likely helped drive sales, according to the report.

Unlike many categories that showed inflation-driven dollar sales gains but declines in unit volume in 2022, the three leading snack categories all had strong sales gains, bolstered by small unit increases, the report found.

Innovation Drives Sales

Also buoying specialty snack sales has been innovation on the part of snack brands, which have been creating new items that appeal to specialty food consumers' adventurous palates and increasing mindfulness around wellness and sustainability.

“The specialty category has seen lots of [innovation], such as expanding base ingredients beyond potatoes to plantains, promoting single origin chocolate, upcycling, and catering to every kind of niche, such as dairy-free, keto, and probiotic,” said Lockwood.

Retailers agree that functional and mission-driven snacks have been on-trend this year.

“Specialty snack sales performance has been strong at Sprouts,” a spokesperson for Sprouts Farmers Market told SFA News Daily, citing the sales performance of products such as Wilde Brands Protein Chips.

“High-protein, good-tasting, clean items are on-trend,” the Sprouts spokesperson said.

Ellie Straub Huff, director of nonperishable procurement and merchandising, Straub's Fine Foods, said specialty snacks have been “very strong performers” at Straub's for a long time.

“Our customers historically love snack mixes like Jack'snak and Wicked Mix,” she said. “A recent top seller is a new local item called Ceci's Gourmet Snaakz, basically a homemade Chex mix.”

Huff said Straub's also always sees strong performance from local items, such as Goat Eats chips.

“Popcorn is a big seller at Straub's too,” she said, noting that the retailer recently brought production in-house, and is producing several varieties.

“It has been a hit so far,” she said.

The State of the Specialty Food Industry report noted that ready-to-eat popcorn “is on fire.” Along with pretzels, potato chips and snacks (other)—a subcategory that includes pork rinds and bean chips, for example—the four subcategories combined for more than $4 billion in sales in 2022. Pretzels and ready-to-eat popcorn both saw sales growth of 18.3 percent in 2022, while potato chips were up 19 percent, and snacks (other) rose 26.7 percent.

Future Snack Growth

The report also identified some other snack-food categories as “flyers” — which are among the fastest growers during the past five years, and are expected to maintain strong growth for the next five years. These include frozen appetizers and snacks; chips, pretzels and snacks; and chocolate and other confectionary.

Plant-based meat snacks have also showed relatively strong sales growth, the report found, bucking the trend toward lagging sales in some other plant-based categories.

At the other end of the spectrum, crackers and crispbreads, as well as nuts, trail mixes and dried fruits, are projected to have slower sales growth. The report also noted that wellness bars—a highly discretionary category when consumers tighten their budgets—showed strong dollar sales in 2022, but experienced sharp declines in unit sales.

Lockwood predicted that while growth in specialty snack food sales will remain strong, the categories are forecasted to grow only slightly faster than the market overall in the next few years.

“Whatever the growth rate, the greatest opportunities will continue to come through innovation,” he said. “There is always potential in new snack formats and processing techniques.”

Specialty food consumers will remain interested in family recipes and brands that support growers, communities, and the environment, Lockwood said.

In addition, look for social media platforms such as TikTok and other direct-to-consumer channels to influence snack sales going forward.

“Sometimes success is more marketing-based than it is about the product,” he said.

Lockwood also cautioned that although better-for-you snacks, such as those targeting gut health and brain health, are another potential avenue for growth, comfort-food snacks will continue to comprise the bulk of the market.

Related: Wegmans Sources Daily Crunch Snacks; Target to Source Volpi Foods' Charcuterie.