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Meal delivery services are fine, but what about between meals? Snack delivery services are hot

03/12/2015 03:54 EDT | Updated 05/12/2015 05:59 EDT
Tired of snacking on cheese sticks or single-serving packs of hummus? A new genre of home delivery service is taking aim at boring snacks, promising novelty, nutrition (sometimes), and a sense of surprise.

Meal delivery services have been a booming business for a while. But what about between meals? During the past five years, a growing number of companies have rushed to help snackers who want their afternoon and midnight munchies satisfied by mail. And true to the meal delivery form, you can hyper-customize your snacks based on whatever sort of treats you crave.

Want only healthy snacks? There's a delivery service for that. Artisanal? Retro? International? It's covered. One even comes with comic books. Fueled by changing food habits and a growing demand for doorstep delivery of everything from books to shampoo and groceries, these services offer customers novelty and convenience. Meanwhile, the food industry gets a bold new way to market and sell.

"Food subscriptions have grown as a category over the last couple of years," says Craig Kanarick, chief executive officer of Mouth, a delivery service specializing in what it calls "indie" foods. "And snacks are easy. They're things you can open up and eat. You know that people are going to enjoy them. Pickles, you gotta be a pickle person. Everybody loves snacks. Everybody loves popcorn."

More than half of American consumers say they snack at least twice a day, according to market research firm Technomic. Mouth appeals to those who favour artisanal vanilla cashew butter, smoked chocolate chips or black truffle popcorn. Services such as Love With Food and Nature Box target health-conscious snackers, offering items free of hydrogenated oils, artificial colours and sweeteners, and a range of other qualifications. Meanwhile, Graze and Nibblr, two of the early companies on the scene, focus on portion control, sending individually packaged servings of items such as garlicky chickpea snacks or date-and-almond treats.

And so the snack subscription market is growing quickly, according to a report by market research firm Mintel, which noted that U.K.-based Graze launched in the U.S. in 2014 with 55,000 subscribers and began adding 1,000 new customers every day. Many of the services overwhelmingly target moms, millennials and the increasingly health-conscious American public.

Boxes range roughly from $6 to $60, and are delivered weekly or monthly. Many of them include full-sized bags of treats, not sample sizes. These companies offer varying degrees of customization, allowing clients to choose some or all of the items in their box. But many companies say their customers like the element of surprise and leave at least some of the picking to them.

"A lot of people just want that surprise every month," says David Watkins, founder of Minneapolis-based Karepax, which bundles offbeat snacks such as Japanese corn-flavoured gummies or pig-shaped pound cake from Thailand with independent comic books. "There's a lot of stuff we're putting in there that you just can't find, and that's the real appeal: trying something new. We're also adding a prize, which in our case is comic books."

Critics see snack subscriptions as a cynical marketing ploy, a way to have customers pay to taste items the companies are testing. For snack makers, the goal is to seed the boxes with products they hope to get customers hooked on. Some boxes even include coupons for discounts on such purchases.

Mintel food and drink analyst Marcia Mogelonsky says snack subscriptions are the industry's best bet in a difficult retail environment. Subscriptions offer companies instantaneous feedback on what works, she says, as well as a direct line to the customer, sparing the companies the epic battles for shelf space in highly competitive supermarkets, convenience stores and other outlets.

The subscriptions also provide retailers and brands with invaluable specifics about the tastes and habits of each and every individual they serve.

"Every box we send out is a snowflake," says Gautam Gupta, chief executive officer of NatureBox, which allows customers to filter selections by more than a dozen categories such as protein, fiber and carbohydrate content, as well as "non-GMO." ''On average, a new product takes 10 to 12 weeks to develop, but within two to four weeks we have enough data to know whether it's going to succeed. Instead of waiting for a quarterly report, we're getting real time feedback from the customer."

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Michele Kayal is co-founder of AmericanFoodRoots.com

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