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Expert Column: Shopping for Healthy Snacks


Worldwide, the snack industry is worth $300 billion in revenue, and is expected to exceed $380 billion by 2017. The industry is driven by consumers' changing tastes and health considerations. Since 2004, the number of consumers categorized as “healthy snackers” has grown from 29 million to 41 million. But the landscape is competitive, and saturated with brands such as Special K.

Mondelēz Canada recently set out to launch Potato Thins -- a low-calorie, baked, potato-based “cracker chip” savory snack -- in that country. Potato Thins are packaged in a resealable pouch, differentiating the product and allowing the consumer to consume small portions of the 115-gram bag at a time.

As supermarket sales account for 50 percent of all snack sales, Mondelēz wanted to uncover shoppers' logic and motivations when it comes to in-store navigation. This is particularly important because the average size of supermarkets is declining. The aim was to conclude where in store Potato Thins should be placed -- in the chip aisle or in the cracker aisle. The study was conducted by Toronto- and New York-based research agency Fresh Intelligence using the Revelation Global digital qualitative platform.

Accessing Consumers in the Moment

Healthy snacking is particularly difficult to understand because of discrepancies between consumers' declared and real behavior. Decisions are often unconscious and profoundly irrational, making an instant-feedback medium, such as qualitative research carried out via mobiles, perfect for understanding this category. Taking a mobile-qualitative approach gave Mondelēz access to behaviors in-store as they happened, before they were rationalized or filtered by memory, delivering unobtrusive insight into everyday shoppers’ lives. The Revelation Next platform also allowed researchers back in their offices to moderate a community of shoppers who could then partake in activities to grant a deeper understanding of logic and motivations.

The study unfolded over a period of four days. To identify what consumers define as "healthy" and "unhealthy" snacks, it initially asked participants to categorize them. Unsurprisingly, snacks that are overprocessed and high in fat, carbs, salt and sugar were considered unhealthy. But almost all participants recognized that there’s a time and a place for these snacks, such as "in the evening," "when I have a craving for snacks," or "when watching a movie or sports." Healthy snacks were characterized as low in fat, sugar and salt; unprocessed; low in calories; having high nutritional value; and gluten-free. Consumers said that healthy snacks are more likely to be consumed earlier in the day: "in the morning," "before or after exercise," and "as a substitute for cookies," but also to "kill" the craving for chocolate.

Walking Down the Aisle

The study, which asked people to record their shops by taking photos on their mobile phones, showed two distinct behaviors when shopping for snacks -- consumers were either "hunting" or "browsing."

When hunting, consumers tended to ignore signage, as they knew which aisles to head for. When browsing, participants went up and down the aisles of the store gathering the items they needed, but also keeping an eye out for new items. This most often happened during a larger weekly shop. It was also more common in stores where healthy snacks are interspersed among regular snacks. One participant noted: “Unless I am visiting a grocery store with a single purchase in mind, I normally just go up and down all the aisles. However, if I’m trying to avoid the unhealthy snack options, I’ll just avoid the chip aisle and save myself from the temptation.” This demonstrated that the chip aisle is a bad option, as shoppers who were trying to be healthy avoided it altogether.

The Outcome

The study concluded that the cracker aisle was the best location for Potato Thins. This was not only because people actively avoided the chip aisle, but also because the pouch packaging stood out among crackers and the small size didn’t feel as important when not being compared with giant chip bags.

For Mondelēz, the study validated initial theories, meaning that that Mondelez Canada’s shopper insights manager could confidently communicate the placement strategy within the United States.

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