Buoyed by prolific brand activity in ready-to-cook and food delivery segments, frequent snacking emerged as a biproduct of WFH over 18 months. As offices reopen, will the bingefest wane?
Waking up right before a Zoom call, a cup of Joe in one hand while trying to login with the other, no early to bed and early to rise, multiple open tabs and what to eat plaguing our mind. If ‘work from home’ (WFH) was a deity, then the above lines are like a prayer, and snacks are our offering to the new God.
Our eating habits have changed quite a bit over the last 18 months. Gone are the days when we’d have three square meals a day, and indulge in a few snacks here and there. Today, we’re devouring anything that comes our way – biscuits, cookies, chips, instant noodles, kachoris, sweets and whatnot on a near-constant basis.
The main reason for this insatiable appetite is our changed lifestyle. “From the way we work to the amount of time we spend on social media, there is a lot of pressure now. Snacking is an easy route to distract you from that. It gives you a break and makes you feel good,” says KS Narayanan, a food and beverages industry expert (formerly with McCain Foods and Unilever).
“We have lunch at 1 p.m. and dinner is at 8 or 9 p.m. An eight-hour gap between meals gives rise to the many snacking occasions.” Add a serious dearth of physical activity, and no wonder that we feel hungry all the time. As expected, brands now see another golden opportunity to occupy our minds through our tummies.
In the last 3-5 months, we, at afaqs!, have observed several brands focusing on their snack offerings, more than ever before. Some took a step further and placed themselves as the chief snack of choice for a particular time of the day.
We have the McCains and ITC Masterchefs of the world that best represent the ready-to-cook (RTC) category. Ever since the COVID pandemic struck, this category has become quite popular. Then there are the new entrants – momos, with brands like Wow! Momo and Prasuma coming into the picture.
These are just a few choices that we have, when it comes to snacking, and here I thought the excess of choices only plagued the streaming category.
Desi snacks going strong
When it comes to snacking options, Indian brands are not all that far behind their western counterparts. Narayanan talks about packaged potato chips, Kurkure-like snacks and ethnic snacks like bhujiyas.
“These ethnic snacks used to be made by our mothers and grandmothers, or by caterers for special occasions, or by halwais in the streets. Today, none of them exist in a big way. Now, we have packs of regional snacks.”
A couple of weeks ago, Parle Products added three new namkeen flavours to its ‘Chatkeens’ brand, taking the total count to 19. “The pandemic has triggered a lot of snacking. People are awake till 12-1 a.m., after eating dinner at 8-9 p.m…,” remarked Krishnarao Buddha, senior category head, Parle Products, adding that “about 45-50 per cent of traditional namkeen sales happen during the festive season.”
Return to office, a threat to snacking?
As most, if not all, of us are currently at home, we can just go to our kitchen to pick up something whenever we are hungry. But what will happen to our habit of bingeing on snacks when we return to office.
“Snacking won't go anywhere, but it's the format which will make a difference,” says Kalyan Karmakar, a food writer and brand consultant at Finely Chopped Consulting.
He feels that snacks coming out of a packet, like chips or biscuits, will become practical once people return to office. Employers, who may want to “create a bubble, will start putting basic things in office, like microwaves, electric ovens, induction cookers...”
Asheesh Sharma, vice president marketing, Agro Tech Foods, says, "Irrespective of the pandemic, there has been a strong trend globally, as well as in India, towards increased snacking occasions, as compared to larger main meals." (Agro Tech Foods markets US-based Conagra Foods' ACT II Popcorn and Nachoz in India.)
When asked about the snacking category's state once offices resume, “from a simple pasta and seasoning, the consumers will now like to go for a pasta plus sauce and, hence, both the ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat categories will witness strong momentum in the near future,” answers Sharma.
Too many chefs ruining the category?
With each passing week, there seems to be a new snack brand in the market. We've got fried snacks, packaged snacks, snacks ordered from restaurants, ready to cook/eat snacks, healthy snacks... Are so many options bad for the category?
The category was bound to explode after what happened over the last 18 months, feels Karmakar. “Once things start going back to normal, then there won't be much demand.” He adds that players whose “products are relevant, have a distinctive good story and distribution, and grounded on strong consumer insight” are going to stay.
Sharma talks about margins, saying that there are many players, but most struggle to achieve a viable business model. “Many gain initial traction by offering high trade margins,” he says. Growth is difficult to sustain, unless one invests in retail coverage… “In the absence of this, companies try to beef up growth through increased offerings but, if not executed with a clear strategic filter, they become less relevant.”
Snacking affecting ordering-in?
Akshar Pathak, a social media influencer and former art director at Zomato, uploaded a sponsored post with McCain Foods on Instagram. In it, he touted how home-cooked fries are better than the ones you order in because, by the time they reach your home, they’re like “aloo ka halwa”.
We wonder if the prevalence of RTC snacks will impact the ordering of similar items from restaurants and cafes.
Ruchira Jain, founder of Elevate Insights (ex-VP, consumer insights, Swiggy), says that in the last few months, her company has had the opportunity to dive deep into the eating habits of consumers across pop stratas.
“COVID and ‘life@home’ have heightened the need for ‘release’ from the daily routine for homemakers and a ‘break from the monotony of the day spent in front of a screen’ for working professionals, only to be followed by binge-watching Netflix, etc., late into the night. Hence, we have seen a spike in both evening and late-night snacking.”
"Like in developed markets there is space for both RTE/RTC categories and ordering-in to grow the pie as more Indians look for convenient but restaurant style food at home," she adds.
Snacking won’t desert us, regardless of the occasion. Just like the God(s), it will come (back) to us in a form when we least expect it to (healthy snacking, fried snacking, desi snacking, air-fired snacking…).
On that note, I am hungry again. “Mum, can you please bring me two vada pavs from the uncle downstairs?”