Examine a variety of methods used throughout the category to generate sales.
More consumers view sweet potatoes as a nutritious and versatile staple to be enjoyed year-round, and not just for the holidays anymore.
Producers, meanwhile, are creating all-new products to make this classic favorite the convenient choice. The result is that sweet potatoes are on the rise, as sales increase at a pace that is unusual for a mature produce item.
Last year, 2013, the sweet potato category grew 11 percent in dollars and more than 7 percent in volume, according to FreshLook Marketing Group, a data anaylsis company using scanner-based information to provide sales statistics of perishable products, headquartered in Hoffman Estates, IL.
“That’s exciting,” says Jeff Scramlin, director of business development for sweet potatoes at Wada Farms Marketing Group, Idaho Falls, ID. “More consumers are trying sweet potatoes, and the sales are proving it.”
“Ten years ago, you’d find fresh sweet potatoes in the store at Thanksgiving and Easter. If you went into the center of the store, you’d find a section of canned sweet potatoes. Today you can find fresh sweet potatoes displayed year-around, and you can also find frozen sweet potato fries, sweet potato chips, sweet potato bread, and so on.”
Wada Farms is the exclusive supplier of sweet potatoes, potatoes and onions for Dole Fresh Vegetables.
The continuing sales growth in sweet potatoes offers myriad retail opportunities, and here are 12 ways to sweeten sales and help ensure against lost opportunities.
1. Order Early For This Summer
The time to order for the middle of summer is today, if not sooner, because sweet potatoes will be scarce prior to the fall harvest.
“The supply is short, so the market is active,” says Steve Ceccarelli, president of Farm Fresh Produce, Faison, NC. “We pack out of inventory from our September to December harvest. The yields were down this year; we’re about 30 percent short compared to last year. There’s a possibility some growers or packing facilities will run short before the next harvest — so, order in advance.”
California shippers hope to pick up some of the slack with an earlier harvest this year.
“We start harvesting in late July, but we may try to start in mid July this year,” says Frank Mesa, sales manager at Garcia Farms Produce, Livingston, CA. “We’re at low inventories already. I think that’s going to be true for the whole country. There have been weather issues elsewhere, and we’re dealing with drought in California.”
However, the California supply, in the middle of the summer, figures to be too little and too late to make up for the predicted national sweet potato shortage. “By strategic pricing, and consistent business, we are able to sell our sweet potatoes year round,” says Hannah Hughes, marketing manager at Market Fresh Produce, Nixa, MO. “This year is going to be especially interesting for many suppliers as a gap is expected during the summer months. ‘Interesting’ is not a word that retailers want to hear when it comes to the supply and price of an item as important as sweet potatoes. It is advisable to get on a shipper’s best customer list as soon as possible.
“It’s going to be real tight in July and August, but I’m going to make sure my best customers get theirs,” says Jimmy Burch Sr., partner at Burch Farms, Faison, NC.
2. Display As A Year-Round Staple
The simplest way to keep sweet potatoes moving is to keep a prominent display after the holidays.
“They don’t need to hide them, that’s for sure,” says George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, NC. “The opportunities for sweet potato sales have increased every year, and too many people cut down their displays after the holidays. It’s not just a holiday food.”
Shippers report that demand goes down a little, but they no longer see a drastic decline after Thanksgiving and Christmas. “There is a peak at the holidays, but there’s steady demand the rest of the time,” says Matt Garber, partner at Garber Farms, Iota, LA.
Retailers who maintain their displays are being rewarded with increased sales.“It’s become almost a staple item for most of the country. Consumers are aware of the nutritional value of sweet potatoes. Retailers have done a good job the last four or five years with bigger displays,” says Garcia Farms’ Mesa. “Sweet potatoes are getting a little more exposure than we had in the past.”
To entice consumers to keep buying sweet potatoes during this long “off” season, informational signage can help.
“Stock sweet potatoes year-round in a well-signed location so consumers can find them; then communicate the powerhouse nutritional message and usage ideas that are seasonal, like snacking, grilling, etc.,” says Gina Nucci, director of healthy culinary innovation at Mann Packing, Salinas, CA.
3. Maintain The Display
This is such an crucial point that it makes sense to have a plan for what hour the sweet potato display will be refreshed. “Refurbish the bin in a timely manner,” says Benny Graves, executive director of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, Vardaman, MS. “When you know you have a rush hour coming on Friday, you have to freshen up the bin. That moves product. Have several feet of display. There are nice moveable tables you can use for end caps. Have the potatoes at eye level, you don’t want them real low.”
A large display of sweet potatoes in the most prominent location possible will not help unless the product looks good. “The sweet potato display, like any other fresh produce display, needs to be worked. Ensure sweet potatoes that have cuts, deep bruises, or are really misshapen are culled from the display. The better the display and the product looks, the better the sales. Also, if a retailer is carrying multiple varieties, it’s going to help the consumer if those varieties are clearly identified, even if it’s by color designation, red, white, etc.,” says Wada Farms’ Scramlin.
4. Offer Convenience Products
The value-added sweet potato category is relatively small, but continues to grow at an impressive rate.
“The market is growing; volume sales of fresh-cut sweet potatoes grew 28.8 percent from 2012 to 2013,” says Mann Packing’s Nucci.
Producers have done their part by introducing a range of interesting new products that increase convenience, and retailers can do their part by carrying a variety of these products.
“Anything that makes eating healthy easier and more convenient is attractive to shoppers. Sweet potatoes are high in fiber, which means they take a lot of time to prep and cook. Buying value-added items cuts down prep time in the kitchen and allows for variety of usages; both are valuable to a growing number of home cooks,” says Nucci.
“We recommend stocking fresh-cut sweet potatoes as part of the overall convenience vegetable display in the department. If there are roasting blends or butternut squash, they would go great next to those items. We don’t recommend stocking sweet potatoes as a specialty niche item.”
Other suppliers launched sweet potatoes that are triple washed and ready for the oven, or microwave.
“Offer sweet potatoes in multiple packs. Historically, people have offered bulk sweet potatoes. We do a sweet potato steamer. It’s 1.5-pounds and triple washed. It retails for $1.99 to $2.99. We have a freestanding unit that holds 12 boxes. We also have individual microwaveable sweet potatoes for snacks or lunch,” says Bailey Produce’s Wooten.
Convenience remains a mega trend in produce, and it influences demand for sweet potatoes.
“We noticed some interest in ‘value-added’ packaging for sweet potatoes. Our microwaveable single-sweet potato has been successful when it comes to appealing to the convenience-oriented consumer. These ‘value-added’ items give the customer meal application,” says Hughes.
These products also have the added advantage of helping consumers who might not know how to prepare sweet potatoes.
“Value-added is still a small portion of overall sweet potatoes sales, but it continues to grow. There are some consumers that like sweet potatoes but still are unsure of how to prepare them, and there are a growing number of consumers that are time constrained and need to get dinner on the table fast. The value-add sweet potatoes play a good role in both these instances,” says Wada Farms’ Scramlin.
5. Highlight The Health Benefits
Experts say that one major reason sweet potato sales are up is because more consumers know about their nutritional value.
“Consumers are more familiar with sweet potatoes today since more restaurants are serving them as a side dish and as an alternative to French fries; also consumers have responded positively to all the health benefits associated with sweet potatoes; they are low on the glycemic index, high in antioxidants, beta-carotene, etc.,” says Mann Packing’s Nucci.
Telling customers about these health benefits can drive sales. “It’s all about information. The health aspect of sweet potatoes is helping. I believe per capita consumption is up a little,” says Garber Farms’ Garber.
This aspect of sweet potato merchandising proves particularly important among some demographics.
“I was just in Austin, [TX], and that’s a real health-conscious community. You need signage about the health benefits,” says Mississippi Sweet Potato Council’s Graves.
But good nutrition is a draw everywhere and one of the major reasons many people are making sweet potatoes a regular part of their diet all year long.
“You should try to stress the nutritional value — the beta-carotene and the vitamin A. It’s also good for diabetes,” says Winifred Wood, co-owner of J. Roland Wood Farms, Benson, NC.
6. Go Green
The local and organic food enthusiasts are an emerging group, one that cares deeply about produce. And these enthusiasts have the cash to back up their convictions.
“Many are passionate about their consumption of locally grown or organic products. We don’t find this criteria as a necessity for the average consumer, but the expectation for this type of item is becoming much more common,” says Market Fresh Produce’s Hughes.
Both locally grown and organic have become mega trends in produce, including sweet potatoes. “There are many consumers that are very supportive of ‘locally grown’ and their state’s agriculture. Those opportunities certainly exist with sweet potatoes, especially in the major producing states, but it needs to be communicated to the consumer using signage that clearly highlights locally grown,” says Wada Farms’ Scramlin. “Organics represent a small portion of the sweet potato crop, but it’s a sector that’s growing, especially as we see more retail formats specializing or promoting organics.”
7. Provide Recipes
Sweet potatoes are versatile, and it can only help to let consumers know more about the many ways they can be utilized and enjoyed. “There is a diversity of recipes. There are thousands of sweet potato recipes,” says Garcia Farms’ Mesa.
Demonstrations of how to prepare sweet potatoes or how to use them as an ingredient also can increases sales. “Our responsibility is to have the product selection, and the friendly, knowledgeable associates to provide assistance. As part of Aprons Simple Meals, we also offer weekly in-store demonstrations of meal solutions, which incorporate produce selections,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations at Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, FL. “Each week, one to two recipes are featured and sampled. Recipe cards are provided and the ingredients necessary to recreate the meal at home are located in an adjacent refrigerated case for customer ease and convenience.”
For customer ease and convenience, Publix also has recipes available online. “To view some samples of sweet potato recipes, please visit publix.com, and click on the Aprons header, then recipes. Type in sweet potatoes and an array of recipes appear,” says Brous.
If a food is sweet, it can probably be cross-merchandised with sweet potatoes all year long.
“They go well with a variety of fruits, and with marshmallows. They go well with everything that sweetens them,” says Garcia Farms’ Mesa.
The most obvious cross-merchandising opportunities for sweet potatoes come with the holiday favorites.
“In much the same way you see displays of mushroom soup, onion rings and green beans around the holidays, you can do the same thing with sweet potatoes, marshmallows, nuts and brown sugar. Try non-refrigerated pie shells and sweet potatoes for sweet potato pies, or a holiday meal bundle with a ham, sweet potatoes and green beans,” says Wada Farms’ Scramlin. “There are a lots of possibilities, many of which we are discussing with our retail partners.”
Some retail chains are already actively cross-merchandising with sweet potatoes. “Our stores are encouraged to cross-merchandise produce, including sweet potatoes, with as many complementary items as possible for customer convenience and ease of serving suggestions. We also offer recipe cards as a convenience,” says Brous.
9. Use POP Materials
Shippers and grower organizations have a wealth of POP material with nutritional information or recipes – it’s free, and it may help.
“The United States Sweet Potato Council has some materials that are available to retailers. Additionally, several of the large state organizations, like the major ones in North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and California can also supply some support. Then major suppliers, like ourselves, will always work with a retailer on POP and signage, or other promotional ideas,” says Scramlin. “Giving consumers recipe ideas and utilizing POP will grow sales, so we always encourage it.”
The largest shipper of fresh-cut sweet potatoes also has its own line of POP materials for retailers.
“Mann offers a full line of marketing materials to support the sales of fresh-cut sweet potatoes, including POS, recipes and coupons,” says Nucci.
10. Partner The Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are a staple and they are a potato, so logically they belong next to the other potatoes. That’s also where most consumers think they should be.
“The best location is near or with the potato display — when consumers want sweet potatoes they gravitate to the potato display. Display them where the consumer expects to find them,” says Scramlin.
Market Fresh Produce’s Hughes agrees. “Usually sweet potatoes are merchandised most effectively with other potato items. As sweet potatoes grow in popularity, many consumers are willing to give them a try. Placing them near the other potatoes may sway a shopper to purchase. During the holidays, sweet potatoes should have a more prominent, eye catching display near other holiday favorites.”
11. Know Your Customer’s Varieties
The purple sweet potato is a variety from Japan, and it remains popular in many Asian communities.
“It’s always good to have a nice display with different colors — some whites, orange flesh, and purple — if you have ethnic markets. Some of the Asian markets like to stock the purple Murasacki and they make a real good color distinction,” says Graves. “Some customers like them large, and some like them small. You need to know your customers.”
Among the orange flesh potatoes, the variety differences generally have to do with local growing conditions. Growers in the Carolinas, for example, prefer the Covington variety, while growers in Louisiana usually go with Beauregard.
“North Carolina is 95 percent Covington. It’s a good potato, it stores well,” says Burch Farms’ Burch.
There are regional differences in consumer sweet potato preferences that have developed over time, and it is worth taking the effort to learn what your customers want.
“Some of the specialty varieties are popular in a particular area because of the history of the variety. They have a white sweet potato variety that is popular mainly from New Jersey to Boston. When it comes to orange flesh, it’s that variety the growers are producing. They are all pretty much the same. They also have a purple sweet potato,” says Garber.
Some shippers have found consumer loyalty to one or the other of these varieties.
“We find that customers prefer the Covington’s short and blocky shape, which resembles a russet, over the longer and less uniform Beauregard. Since a sweet potato shape and size varies, we have found by-the-pound pricing works best for bulk merchandising,” says Hughes.
12. Embrace This Growing Opportunity
A rule of thumb on the sweet potato display is that it should be about the same size as the bulk potato display.
“Sweet potatoes are gaining in popularity, and on a year round basis, not just Thanksgiving and Easter,” says Scramlin. “So to capitalize on this, sweet potatoes need to be given adequate display space year round. In general the sweet potato bulk display should be approximately the same size as the bulk potato display.”
This may seem like an exhorbitant amount of space but the word from sweet potato country is that promotion helps, and should continue to help.
“It always drops off after the holidays, but people eat sweet potatoes year round now. Keep promoting them, because it’s working,” says Burch.
For some retailers, the decline in sweet potatoes after the holidays is still very substantial.
“We get about a 50 percent drop off in sweet potatoes after the holidays,” says Dave Erickson, produce manager at Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, WA.
Rosauers is an independent chain with nearly two-dozen supermarkets in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
Easter has already become the next big day for sweet potatoes.
“They definitely still move after the holidays. The volumes are still consistent, especially leading up to Easter,” says Chris Wada, director of marketing at Wada Farms, Idaho Falls, ID.
But they have become a staple in demand all year, not just for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.
“Over the years, sweet potatoes have become more mainstream with restaurant offerings including sweet potato fries. As such, we have supported this rise in interest, and raised continued awareness through ad placement. We offer organic and conventional sweet potatoes, as well as loose, bag steamers and individual steamer options,” says Brous.
Sweet potatoes figure to keep growing for retailers who recognize the opportunity. “Keep them visible,” says Bailey Produce’s Wooten. “And keep different kinds of packs.”