When it comes to deli crackers at this time of year, it’s all about embracing the spike in sales and seeking out new ways to enhance them and stand out from the competition. And when it comes to standing out, there are really only two things you need to consider this year: perimeter product placement and going gluten-free. And if you’re not already on that last bandwagon, or making a move to hop on, the following insights into what’s become more of a movement than a trend may well convince you to take the plunge.

“Sales of deli crackers, a $2.7 billion category, have been relatively flat across channels, with only 0.4 percent growth in the last year, with the last 52 weeks ending October 2,” says Kora Lazarski, senior strategic alliance manager at market research firm SPINS. “However, deli crackers labeled ‘Gluten Free’ have grown 84 percent in the same time period, with most of the growth coming from the conventional channel, and nearly half of all products labeled gluten-free also bearing the Gluten-Free Certification Organization’s third-party certification.”

Genelle Chetcuti, senior director of marketing for RW Garcia, might as well be working for a guru company, as they keenly foresaw this trend coming and established their clean labels long ago. A three-generation, family-owned business that started by selling tortilla chips out of a van, RW Garcia has since expanded their business nationally. They now offer nutrient-dense Artisan 3-Seed Crackers, made with ingredients such as flaxseed, chia and sesame inclusions, as well as their new Pulse Chip line. The company is also a member of the Sustainable Food Trade Association, and incorporates ancient grains, pulse crops and root vegetables into their products. In sum, they’re in full-swing, riding the wave of the new conscientious food movement, and so poised, are taking full advantage of this fourth-quarter boost.

“We know that eating occasions spike during the holiday season, when more people are hosting parties or cooking at home,” Chetcuti says. “The versatility of our crackers makes them perfect for holiday appetizer spreads; they can be displayed on their own or paired with dips and toppings.”

The trick to exploiting the holiday spike for crackers, she says, revolves around catering to the many consumers who will be trying to watch their weight amidst two months of endless cocktail parties and festive dinner spreads, as well as those who have dietary restrictions and/or strong convictions concerning their food’s origins.

“The holidays are one of the most diet-conscious times of year,” Chetcuti points out, “and consumers want to keep from overindulging or gaining weight. Our better-for-you crackers deliver festive flavor and crunch without being heavy or packed with sodium or artificial ingredients. Because they’re Non-GMO Project verified and certified gluten-free, they’re also suitable for party guests who may have dietary restrictions or preferences.”

Selling to this audience isn’t the only thing to consider, however — where you’re placing your crackers can also have a considerable impact on sales. As more and more companies embrace the trends that RW Garcia has, shelf space in the center-store aisles is growing scarce, and placing these specialty crackers along the perimeter is paramount to exploiting their popularity during the holidays. Placement beside deli meats and cheeses, as well as other prepared foods offerings, will directly influence impulse buys as well.

“That’s part of their strategy for not getting lost on the shelves,” said David Van Laar, president of the Biscuit & Cracker Manufacturers’ Association, to Baking & Snack magazine in October. “The newer startups that we’re seeing, that’s where they’re getting put for several reasons. There’s no space on the shelf now.”

This shift in product strategy is also backed up by numbers. According to market research firm Nielsen, those crackers sold along the perimeter have increased their sales by 7 percent in dollars and 6 percent in volume in the last year, and have also contributed 74 percent of deli-snack dollars — and a number as high as 74 percent is nothing to
be ignored.

“The perimeter is where growth is happening, whereas center aisles may be stagnant or overloaded with a bunch of brands,” Sarah Schmansky, director of business operations for Nielsen, also told Baking & Snack. “To break out and be in that perimeter, and hopefully ride the wave of some of that growth, would prompt cracker manufacturers to go beyond the center store.”

And it doesn’t hurt to be a little unusual in an eye-catching way, either. RW Garcia’s Artisan 3-Seed Crackers come in varieties such as sweet potato, sweet beet, kale, quinoa, sweet pea and harvest. Using these ingredients not only catches the attention of the coveted consumer looking to explore new ingredients and flavors, Chetcuti says, but also draws the eye to the unique colors the vegetables lend to the crackers and ultimately, to the spread they’re laid out on for guests.  

Of course, sales of snacks in general have soared in 2016, and crackers are no exception to the ever-growing phenomenon of snacks acting as meal replacements, a trend which has now ballooned far beyond the coveted millennial generation. The NPD Group recently released a study on consumers’ daily snacking behaviors, and it showed that prepared-food snacking by Baby Boomers has actually eclipsed that of millennials by 20 percent. That means that Boomers alone pull in an estimated $90.4 billion in snacking a year, the study says, whereas millennials are bringing in $7.3 billion less, at $83.1 billion total.

None of this, of course, has escaped Chetcuti (or anyone else’s) attention this holiday season, just as gluten-free, sustainability and other better-for-you-options haven’t. And these closely-monitored trends have only served to increase sales, competition and innovation in this booming product category.

“Consumers no longer view snacking as a mindless act,” Chetcuti says of the sea change that’s so benefited the industry. “They are very label-conscious, and look for products with a clean ingredient deck and third-party certifications such as non-GMO or gluten-free. At the same time, consumers want to be wowed by their snacks, so they look for innovative flavor combinations. This has made brands get creative with their ingredient profiles, varieties, and delivery.”