THOSE PIONEERING souls who toil away in the new product development (NPD) departments of the nation's snack manufacturers must, one imagines, sometime stare into the dark in the dead of night and ask themselves why they bother.
Despite all the effort that goes into coming up with new flavours to tempt the nation's jaded snacking palates, it's seemingly impossible to knock the most popular varieties off their perch.
Although admittedly, Mintel recently published research showing that ready-salted crisps have been overtaken by cheese & onion as the number one crisp variety.
The total market for cheese & onion crisps is now worth £256m, with sales having increased by 15 per cent in the past two years alone. Valued at £244m in 2006, ready-salted crisps have slipped into second place, despite an increase in sales of five per cent over the same two-year period. The third-placed flavour, salt & vinegar, saw sales fall seven per cent between 2006 and 2008, while at number four, beef grew more than 10 per cent.
For other crisp flavours, though, this activity is like watching the four top clubs in the Premiership change places across the course of a season, knowing they can never truly be part of the action. Prawn cocktail, for example, is the Tottenham Hotspur of the crisp market, big in the 1970s but with sales down almost seven per cent over the past two years and frankly, struggling to maintain its standing.
Emmanuelle Bouvier, senior market analyst with Mintel, says: "Interestingly, despite the ongoing development of new and exciting flavours, the traditional favourites still win hands-down."
However, for the snack operators the aim of new product development is not to replace the biggest sellers, it's to keep customers interested in the snack sector as a whole. Kettle Chips regularly introduces new seasonal flavours, and this month announced that roasted tomato & basil would be added to the range across summer.
The brand's marketing director, Andrew Slamin, says: "Seasonal editions play a key role in delivering flavour innovation in the category and generate consumer excitement. It will give a seasonal boost to our strong core range."
United Biscuits (UB), owner of brands such as McCoy's and KP, makes the point that more than 30 per cent of snack purchases are made on impulse when consumers go to the bar. A combination of familiar favourites and intriguing variations on display will help pubs maximise this incremental sales and profit opportunity.
"Ensuring customers are aware of a pub's full range of snacks is integral for a licensee to achieve those incremental sales," says Nick Stuart, commercial manager at UB. "This is particularly relevant when it comes to limited-edition flavours. Customers tend to ask for what they know but will often trade up to something different if it is pointed out to them."
McCoy's, in particular, has been the focus of this approach to flavour innovation. January saw a new sizzling king prawn flavour individual pack added to the core McCoy's range. This was followed in February with its latest limited-edition variant, McCoy's Twisted. This took a classic McCoy's flavour and added a twist of chilli, with salt and malt vinegar with chilli the first to get the makeover.
However, the biggest snack 'event' of recent months has clearly been the announcement by Walkers of the six finalists of the 'Do us a flavour' campaign. The flavours, suggested by members of the public, are fish & chips, onion bhaji, chilli & chocolate, crispy duck & hoi sin, builder's breakfast and Cajun squirrel.
It would be a safe bet to assume that Walkers does not expect any of these to replace its best sellers, even though the plan is that an overall winner will go on sale permanently. In pubs nationwide, though, this has sparked a fierce debate about which of the flavours works best - exactly the reaction a brand owner hopes for from investment in such a high-profile promotion.
Heston Blumenthal, who headed up the judging panel, says: "I love to experiment with flavour and to see the public getting so excited about taste has been absolutely inspiring."
Mintel's figures show that all this NPD has helped to bolster the snacks market, which experienced a recovery during 2007 and 2008 after a period of slowdown between 2003 and 2006. In 2008 alone, sales grew by five per cent as the nation crunched its way through £2.53bn-worth of crisps and snacks, with crisps accounting for almost 60 per cent of total market value.
"The rate of innovation in the crisps and snacks market remains high, and this is a driving factor in sales growth," says Emmanuelle Bouvier of Mintel.