Originally printed in the September 2020 issue of Produce Business.
Whether it is caused by pandemic-buying or the increase in varieties and sizes, there’s been a real revival in the potato category.
Once feared as poisonous — since it’s a member of the nightshade family — the potato today is staple fare on plates across the U.S. There is a trio of facts to back up this vegetable’s popularity:
• First, nearly three-fourths (73%) of respondents surveyed for the 2020 Consumer Attitudes and Usage Survey by Denver-headquartered Potatoes USA, say they eat potatoes at least once a week.
• Secondly, potatoes ranked third behind prepackaged salads and tomatoes as the top-selling vegetable category at retail in 2019, according to the Washington, D.C.-headquartered United Fresh Produce Association’s (UFPA) FreshFacts on Retail, Year in Review, for 2019.
• Third, the potato category represented 5.9% of total produce sales during the 52 weeks ending Aug. 15, 2020, up 14.7% over the previous year, based on data supplied by Nielsen, a New York -based data analytics company.
“Idaho has had a more than ideal growing season this year, with almost perfect weather, setting the stage for a very high-quality crop.”— Ross Johnson, Idaho Potato Commission
There’s no question, potatoes are a hot commodity. “Potatoes have always been a good category,” says Vince Mastromauro, director of produce operations for Sunset Foods, a five-store chain based in Highland Park, IL. “This year, sales are way up. Whether it’s pandemic buying, like we saw this spring, or the increase in all the varieties and sizes we’ve seen over the past few years, overall, there’s been a real revival in the potato category.”
Here are 9 ways to keep potato sales on a roll:
1. WATCH SUPPLY & DEMAND TRENDS
Start with a weather-related 6% decrease in the 2019 U.S. potato crop. Then add COVID-19 pandemic buying at retail that saw potato sales jump 32.9% during the six months ending Aug. 15, 2020, compared to the same time last year according to Nielsen data. Plus, although foodservice sales declined, spuds found their way into other avenues like home delivery services and government box programs, which both experienced an uptick. These factors added up to potato supplies that were tighter than usual this past summer. While the weather could still affect harvests this month and next in potato-producing states across the nation, the seasonal outlook for supplies of fresh market potatoes appears bright.
“Idaho has had a more than ideal growing season this year, with almost perfect weather setting the stage for a very high-quality crop,” says Ross Johnson, director of international marketing for the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC), in Eagle, ID.
Idaho grows nearly one-third of the nation’s total potato crop. Washington ranks second, followed by North Dakota, Wisconsin and Colorado, based on October 2018 data from the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, in Ames, IA.
“Demand at retail by consumers seeking nutritional and local foods, like potatoes, will continue to stay well above last year’s levels for the foreseeable future due to the lingering pandemic and more consumers cooking at home,” adds Christine Lindner, marketing manager for Alsum Farms & Produce, Inc., in Friesland, WI.
2. SERVE A GREATER VARIETY
Russets represented nearly half (41.8%) of potato category sales at retail during the 52 weeks ending Aug. 15, 2020, according to Nielsen.
“We work closely with the University of Wisconsin to test and identify new potato varieties. This year, we planted four new russet potato varieties,” says Alsum’s Lindner.
Red-skinned and yellow-fleshed potatoes made up 15.7% and 14.1%, respectively, of category dollars, based on Nielsen data.
“Year over year, we’re seeing more movement with our red and yellow varieties, and our quality and sizing continue to improve,” says Lance Poole, executive vice president of Eagle Eye Produce, in Idaho Falls, ID.
Yellow-flesh varieties are steadily increasing in popularity, while red sales have been flat or declining slightly, according to Dana Rady, director of promotion, communication and consumer education for the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA), in Antigo, WI. “Yukon Gold is the most popular yellow variety, while Oneida Gold and Molli are newer yellow varieties that are gaining favor with growers.”
White potatoes accounted for 4% of category dollars, according to Nielsen.
“Round white potatoes customarily from Maine have a following in New England, the North East, the Carolinas and Florida,” says Marc Turner, general manager of the Bushwick Potato Commission, in Farmingdale, NY. “Even so, there’s more russets, reds and yellows now grown in Maine.”
Specialty potatoes, such as fingerlings and purples, represented only 0.5% of category dollars based on Nielsen data. However, both registered sales growth over the past year.
“Customers are trading up to better tasting potatoes,” says John Pope, vice president of sales and marketing for MountainKing Potatoes, in Houston, TX. “Our company produces a full line of high-flavor offerings, such as Satina (Golds), Mozart (Butter Reds), Rickey (Butter Russets), Penni (Golden Creamers), Austrian Crescent (yellow fingerlings), and Ciklamen (red skin white flesh); all varieties scored very high for taste and cooking performance.”
3. OFFER DIFFERENT POTATO & PACK SIZES
All fresh potato types increased in volume sales from July 2019 through June 2020, according to Potato USA’s July 27, 2020-published report, Potato Sales at Retail Reach Record Highs. However, petite potatoes had the highest increase in both volume and dollar sales.
“It isn’t a surprise that the smaller potatoes demand a higher dollar ring at the register,” says the IPC’s Johnson. “However, we have seen a shift toward larger pack sizes since the beginning of COVID, as consumers make fewer, yet larger, shopping trips. We have had meetings with several retailers across the country where their markets are indicating a drastic trend toward larger pack sizes.”
Pack sizes greater than 10-pound bags saw an increase of more than 20% in dollar and volume sales, based on Potato USA’s July report.
“We are seeing more packaging overall, with 3- and 5-pound retail bags with the highest demand,” says Eagle Eye’s Poole. “Our value-add programs with steamable, microwaveable, single-serving and fresh-cut packaging options also continue to see growth as customers like to see innovation and fresh ideas.”
4. TRY SOMETHING NEW
The success of offering something new was the single greatest take-home message learned by Danny Kim, produce manager at the single-store Pick-Rite Thriftway, in Montesano, WA, when creating his first-place winning display for the IPC’s 2020 Idaho Potato Lover’s Display Contest in February.
The IPC’s 2020 Idaho Potato Lover’s Display Contest first place winners (clockwise from above): 1-5 registers — Pick-Rite Thriftway, Montesano, WA; 10-plus registers — Strack & Van Til Supermarkets, Highland, IN; 6-9 registers — Broulim’s, Shelley, ID.
“I built the display with bagged and loose russets, reds, yellows, whites, one-bite mini reds, two-bite yellows, and a medley with purple potatoes.
Customers really liked the display, but the more they took time to look at it, the more they saw potatoes they never bought or tried before. We told them about these products and how to use them. As a result, potato sales rose some 20% to 25% during the contest, and sales have stayed up 6% to 7%, especially on the specialty types,” says Kim, whose win was in the 1 to 5 register category.
Most retailers today offer 75% of the category as russets and 25% as colors, according to MountainKing’s Pope. “We suggest 60% colors and 40% russet. Our proposed assortment mix will drive more demand and dollars, an increase of about 23% based on our models.”
5. ADD ORGANICS TO THE MIX
Organics is a small niche in the potato industry, representing less than 5% of overall production, according to the WPVGA’s Rady.
However, organics continue to be a growing category at retail amidst the pandemic, adds Alsum’s Lindner. “We started our organics program in 2000, and volume and sales dollars have experienced steady growth. Millennials are an audience that continues to redefine trends and embrace the organics potato category.”
6. BUILD EYE-CATCHING DISPLAYS
Stack ’em high and watch ’em fly. “That was how we went about the business when I was introduced to the retail industry,” says the IPC’s Johnson. “Many retailers have forgotten the power of a display to catch shoppers’ attention. Potatoes are the most consistent vegetable, in terms of velocity, in the entire fresh department. Yet, potatoes are always relegated to the back of the produce section. Moving the potatoes to a display where shoppers can find them will not only lead to increased sales but also drive total store growth.”
According to Potatoes USA’s Fresh Potato Merchandising Best Practices, 2019, arrange potatoes within the display vertically by the variety in the following order and with the following shelf space allocation to optimize sales: white (15%), yellow (22%), russet (45%) and red (18%).
Additionally, the same report shows that shelving plays a factor in sales lift. Specifically, raised bins versus vertical shelving or flat bins, are the only type of shelving associated with a positive lift of 4.1% in potato sales.
Rotate and cull displays regularly, recommends Ted Kreis, marketing and communications director for the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association (NPPGA), in East Grand Forks, MN. “Greening and sprouting are problems. One rotten potato can ruin a whole display. This means having adequate and trained produce staff.”
7. TAP INTO THE HOME-COOKING TREND
With customers cooking at home more often, Eagle Eye Produce has placed a big focus on recipe development and meal ideas for the end consumer, according to Poole. “We have several products with QR codes to guide customers to our collection of recipes, and we always recommend produce departments find ways to give customers meal and recipe ideas. When you show shoppers finished products, they are more likely to buy.”
According to Potatoes USA’s 2020 Consumer Attitudes and Usage Survey, over three-fourths (77%) of respondents surveyed said they used recipes when preparing potatoes.
Potatoes are such a versatile vegetable that they are perfect for cross-merchandising, says Lauren Boyce, customer service representative for MountainKing. “Retailers can pair potatoes with items in dairy such as cheese, butter and sour cream. They are perfect for a meat cross-promo with beef, chicken and even red boilers with seafood. Toppings and seasonings of all types are excellent partners, as well. These days cooking techniques and applications offer a good opportunity to highlight fresh potatoes. With the invention of air fryers, instant pots, etc., home cooks are venturing out and trying new things. Providing exciting and delicious recipes that are on-trend using these new cooking techniques are a great way to boost sales in fresh potatoes.”
It also helps to have point-of-purchase materials in stores such as recipe tear pads and posters with mouth-watering images, recommends the WPVGA’s Rady.
“Retail dietitians can influence consumers by sampling healthy potato recipes in-store, pending the retailer’s sampling policy due to COVID. These professionals can also share information about the health and nutrition benefits of potatoes,” says Alsum’s Lindner.
8. PROMOTE, PROMOTE
Placing and pricing are ideal ways to promote potatoes, says the NPPGA’s Kreis. “Placement reminds shoppers to buy, and price gives them an incentive.”
The IPC recently conducted a test with a prominent grocer in the U.S. Northwest where the retailer was encouraged to run russet potatoes on ad. “To the retailers’ surprise, they were able to drive growth throughout the entire potato category in every variety. Too many retailers assume they need to advertise the new potatoes to drive category growth. What we have learned is that by advertising russets with a strong price point, retailers can then benefit by offering in-store temporary price reductions or cross-merchandising other varieties and sizes,” says Johnson.
9. SEASONALITY SELLS
Potatoes remain consistent in volume sales throughout the year, with key spikes for holidays. The two biggest tater holidays are Thanksgiving and Christmas, followed by Easter, then Labor Day and the Fourth of July, according to a Potatoes USA Fact Sheet that reported the results of a 2018 IRI Basket Study.
“The theme for Q1 is cold-weather cooking with baby-size and fingerlings ideal for roasting. In Q2, emphasize St. Patrick’s Day and Easter and 3- and 5-pound reds and golds,” recommends MountainKing’s Pope. “Q3 is summer and all about grilling. Use grill bins to cross-promote potatoes with grilling veggies, such as corn and onions. Q4 feature jumbos when russets are large and offer the best value, along with 5-pound reds, butter russets and golds for holiday sales.”
Finding fun new ways to celebrate potatoes during every season is sure to boost sales, adds Eagle Eye’s Poole.