Headwinds and tailwinds
Bold flavors, Mr. Brick said, are only part of the story.
“Like the rest of snacks, it’s about not only flavors but also portability,” he said. “That just continues to be important for everybody. Snacks are a fill-in or meal replacement. Pretzels are pretty well-positioned in the market.”
However, skyrocketing sales of ready-to-eat (R.-T.-E.) popcorn may have dampened a bit of momentum from pretzels, especially as a more healthful alternative in the snack aisle. That may be partly because of shifting consumer preferences. Additionally, some savvy marketers tout R.-T.-E. popcorn in terms of calories per cup on the front of the package instead of calories per serving found on the back. Nutritionists claim such front-of-packaging marketing allows producers to promote that some R.-T.-E. popcorn has 15 to 20 calories per cup while it actually has around 130 calories per serving, which is similar to a serving of pretzels.
“Popcorn became that low-fat, low-calorie favorite and exploded,” Mr. Martin said. “In the past couple of years, popcorn has been amazingly strong. For a long time, pretzels were viewed as the low-fat alternative, and pretzels from a calorie standpoint remain a balanced alternative.”
Sales of R.-T.-E. popcorn/caramel corn jumped 16.9% to $1,213.3 million for the 52 week period ending Sept. 4, 2016, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. In comparable data, IRI reported pretzels slipped 2% to $1,185.5 million. While popcorn is the rage right now, the question remains if it has a sustaining power to be called a trend or fad.
“We’ve seen people move back into the pretzel category,” Mr. Martin said. “People tend to get in and out of various categories. Popcorn is still going to grow, but we’re seeing the move back to classic pretzels.”
Partnering pretzels with other items such as cheese snacks, nuts and even candy has stoked sales. Nutritional snack/trail mix sales rose 6.3% to $1,125.6 million, according to IRI.
“We are seeing significant growth in pretzels as a component in snack mixes and various other products — whether they are dipped, enrobed or even seasoned,” Mr. Carpenter said. “They can be a more cost-efficient alternative that can not only add value to the ingredient panel, but with distinctive shapes, sizes and ingredients, can really help differentiate a product.”
Often it may be a matter of economics when it comes to incorporating pretzels into snack mixes. Mr. Green said pretzels are much more affordable than nuts, and combining the two can create a mix that appeals to consumers who crave a little bit of everything.
“It’s on the rise,” he said. “During the past five years, pretzels as a component have definitely grown.”
Mr. Brick suggested that the potential for pretzels in snack mixes remains strong. Utz Pub Mix for club stores remains one of its most popular items, for example.
“There is a lot of interest there, and we have to take snack mixes forward and play with them more,” he said.