Microwave popcorn is the grandaddy of snack foods. It’s been a popular accompaniment to movies and lazy evenings at home for decades, and it’s helmed by fusty brands like Orville Redenbacher (the logo: Redenbacher himself, a smiling old white guy). But when’s the last time you actually popped a bag of popcorn in your microwave? Traditional fresh popcorn is losing its footing, while ready-to-eat gourmet brands are growing in popularity. So much for the trend of consumers looking for fresher foods; in the popcorn category, at least, it’s the packaged, less-fresh items that are winning.
Microwave popcorn sales are declining, while ready-to-eat (RTE) popcorn sales are growing fairly rapidly, from having less than a third of the market share in 2010 to having nearly 45% by the end of 2014, according to a recent white paper from Rabobank International. The big brands–like Redenbacher–still haven’t caught up to the trend, however. It’s smaller brands like Chia Pop, Pop! Gourmet, and 479 that are dominating the RTE market.
But how has RTE popcorn bucked the fresh food trend? The answer, says Nicholas Fereday, executive director and senior analyst for Food and Consumer Trends at Rabobank, is that convenience trumps all.
“If the effort is too much, then the convenience factor kicks in,” he says. That small extra step of putting popcorn in the microwave has, apparently, been enough to send consumers in the direction of RTE popcorn. That, and the fact that these brands have done a good job of highlighting their organic, “natural,” and gluten-free status (all popcorn is gluten-free, but no one thought to brand it as such until the gluten-free craze took hold).
The move towards convenient, pre-packaged foods goes beyond popcorn. Rabobank points to a study from Euromonitor that shows the $42 billion packaged snack sector–including popcorn, nuts, potato chips, and pretzels–is growing at twice the rate of packaged foods in general. This can be at least partially attributed to the trend of snacking multiple times per day instead of eating three square meals.
With such a huge market for packaged foods overall, clearly not everyone is buying into the trend towards all things fresh. “How much of the population are we carrying with us with this trend? Thousands if not millions of people just don’t care,” says Fereday.
The decline in microwaves hasn’t helped microwave popcorn, either. Microwave sales have been dropping for a decade because of–wait for it–the trend towards fresh, quality foods. Strangely enough, this has probably aided the transition away from fresh-popped popcorn.
And yet, popcorn has successfully reinvented itself. “It’s an interesting case study. You can never write off a category,” says Fereday. “It’s a question for mature categories: Will it be a managed decline or is it really possible to reinvent yourself this way? The idea is that you don’t give up on a category just because you’re off-trend.”
Now the big brands just need to get onboard. Rabobank suggests that companies could start taking advantage of heirloom popping corn varieties, ranging from colors like white and black to blue and red. “People get obsessed about everything–olive oil, coffee, even potato chips,” notes Fereday. Why not popcorn varieties too?