WASHINGTON — Consumer motivation is the holy grail every snack manufacturer seeks. In the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic — and the economic fallout likely to follow — it becomes even more complex.  

In a webinar originally planned as the keynote address at SNAXPO20 — rescheduled for March 28-30, 2021, in Charlotte, NC — Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president and practice leader, Client Insights, IRI, identified key drivers from IRI’s annual snacking survey.

Ms. Lyons Wyatt noted that, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, millennial and Gen-Z consumers had essentially stabilized snacking frequency. On the average, she said, US consumers are eating 2.6 snacks a day, with 42% reporting they consume more than three per day.

“Since these numbers haven’t changed dramatically in the past five years, it’s become the norm for the way consumers eat each day,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said.

But in a new post-COVID reality, what will motivate the purchase?

She identified three critical factors that snack producers must consider, and the first is price. 

“The price-value equation will be more important than ever,” Ms. Lyons Watt said, noting that in IRI’s snacking survey, 72% of respondents — a 4% increase in two years — said they look at price before choosing a snack.

“That was before COVID,” she said.

Broad appeal, the second driver, is one that Ms. Lyons Wyatt identified as carrying weight in the 2009 survey, during the last recession.

“In 2009, when I talked to consumers, price along with broad appeal — appealing to more people in the household — had 81% of shoppers citing that these were important considerations when determining the affordability of a product,” she explained.

However, if the third factor — taste — can’t deliver, price and broad appeal can’t carry the weight.

“You can have a product priced right, but if it doesn’t taste good, then the repeat purchase won’t happen,” she warned. “Too many products on the market today fit the needs of consumers and also taste good, so the bar is high for taste.”

As consumers embark on a new normal, convenience is also a factor that looks different during shelter-in-place mandates and will likely evolve further in the face of the economic impacts they’ll bring.

“Convenience has been a driving trend for years, even during and post-recession, and I think it will still be a theme going forward, given the strong preferences from the younger generation,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said.

“For those consumers out of work, they’ll be busy trying to find employment; they’ll need something to fuel them on their quest,” she said. “Convenience coupled with the price-value equation.”

That said, snacks that focus on convenience over price will likely suffer a setback, she said, noting that precut and prepackaged produce such as fruits had gained popularity in recent years despite a higher price tag.

“I think that’s going to take a hit unless we can get pricing reasonable for some of those items,” she said.

All things considered, this is an unprecedented time, and it’s hard to completely predict how consumer behavior will change.

“People are going to want their indulgent comfort foods, and those snacks are going to have a good year if the price-value equation, broad appeal and taste are right,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said. “But there will also be consumers — especially who are coming out of COVID-19 and have been sitting inside their house — wanting to do more from a well-being standpoint who will be looking for snacks that provide benefits beyond just being a reward, comfort or answering satiety.”

In the end, balance will likely be key, as the IRI data originally suggested.

“The data points toward balance,” she said. “You have some healthy things on here and wellness-type products, and then you have some indulgence. And I think that combination will live on.”