- Americans are embracing humble popcorn as the new trendy snack, and research from Mintel shows consumers are hungry for indulgent and savory flavor innovation. Driven by the increasingly popular ready-to-eat (RTE) popcorn category, total U.S. retail sales of popcorn grew 32% in the past five years to reach $2.5 billion in 2017, the Mintel report finds. RTE popcorn leads the flavor innovation wave, growing 118% from 2012 to 2017 to reach $1.1 billion.
- The report notes that traditional varieties of specialty popcorn, such as cheese-flavored (49%) and indulgent varieties such as chocolate- or caramel-covered (32%) are high on everyone's list of favorites. But other varieties are gaining popularity as well, such as mixed-flavor varieties, which might offer salty, sweet and cheesy popcorn in one bag (39%), or those with mixed-in toppings such as dried cranberries or candy (20%). Seasonal flavors, such as pumpkin spice or gingerbread (12%) are also popular, but most buyers still prefer traditional flavors, with research showing nearly half (45%) of popcorn purchased is an all-natural variety.
- “RTE popcorn brands are finding success not only through an expanding array of creative new flavors, but also by tapping into growing interest in healthy, natural and portable snacks and eating occasions,” said John Owen, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel, in a news release.
Why the current boom in popcorn? One expert thinks the market is exploding because the salty snack satisfies top consumer needs. The treat offers both taste and nutrition and makes people happy, Fauzia Haq, senior director of marketing at Pepsico — which owns popcorn brand Smartfood — told Baking Business earlier this year.
"How could something so light and airy actually be satisfying? It’s more of an emotional satisfaction," Haq told the publication. "You get so many hand-to-mouth trips when you're eating popcorn, so that in itself is very satisfying."
Food companies are eager to capitalize on this popularity, adding more flavors, as well as natural and low-calorie versions that marry consumer perception of the snack as an indulgent move theater treat with the benefits of a better-for-you snack.
The opportunity in this segment is reflected by a wave of M&A sparked by Big Food firms. Last fall, Conagra Brands bought Angie's Boomchickapop for $250 million, bringing the trendy RTE popcorn alongside its more traditional Orville Redenbacher brand. In December, Hershey acquired Amplify Snack Brands, parent company of SkinnyPop, for $1.6 billion. Amplify's portfolio also includes Tyrrells potato chips, Oatmega protein bars and cookies and Paqui tortilla chips.
"The acquisition of Amplify and its product portfolio is an important step in our journey to becoming an innovative snacking powerhouse as together it will enable us to bring scale and category management capabilities to a key sub-segment of the warehouse snack aisle," Hershey CEO Michelle Buck said in a news release last year.
Hershey's purchase of Amplify was a savvy one, as SkinnyPop is currently the largest brand of popcorn in the U.S., taking up almost 25% of category market share.
It seems likely that more acquisitions in this space are around the corner, as consumer interest in snacking and healthier lifestyles show no sign of slowing down. Popcorn brands like Boomchickapop could serve as a bridge to younger demographics, such as millennial and Gen Z consumers, for slower-moving legacy companies and give them new paths to growth. Food manufacturers could also benefit from analyzing the flavor trends that are benefiting popcorn and applying them to other better-for-you snacks, such as veggie chips or crackers.