With a little attention, this pantry staple can become a star, rather than a supporting actor.
Originally printed in the September 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Potatoes are a staple food, an economical choice, and a holiday delight. They are becoming popular for all seasons, in many varieties, in a range of packaging types.
Potatoes USA reported a 16% increase in potato retail sales from January to March 2023, compared to the same timeframe in 2022. All categories of potatoes increased in dollar sales, with fresh potatoes at 12.7%. Fresh yellow, petite, and medley potatoes grew in dollar and volume sales.
“The average sales price per pound for fresh potatoes was $1.01, an 18.7% increase from the prior year,” says Christine Lindner, marketing manager of Alsum Farms & Produce Inc. in Friesland, WI. “All pack sizes, except packages greater than 10 pounds, saw an increase in dollars. One to less than 2-pound bags were the only category to grow in dollars and volume, 4.3% and 3.7%, respectively.”
Many consumers buy potatoes on a regular basis. “We know from market research that 65% of shoppers plan their potato purchase before they leave the house. Additionally, a potato shopper is the most valuable shopper to any retailer, as the average basket ring is over $84 when a consumer purchases Idaho potatoes,” says Ross Johnson, vice president of retail and international at Idaho Potato Commission (IPC) in Eagle, ID.
Potatoes USA says russet, red and yellow potatoes sell the best — then white, purple and fingerling. But petite have been growing the most, specifically the 1- to 2-pound bags. Yellow and petite size potatoes are a favorite of consumers, as they are versatile and do not need to be peeled.
Retailers can benefit from these sales trends by following the eight suggestions below.
1. FOCUS ON THE DISPLAYS
Eye-catching displays of potatoes can grab consumers’ attention, and contests can build excitement among retailers.
The Idaho Potato Commission has an annual potato display contest for retail stores. Last year, there was a 19.6% increase in entries, and IPC awarded $150,000 in cash and prizes. Hormel and Fresh Gourmet provided free toppings for the potato displays.
Troy Murdoff, produce manager at Martin’s Country Market in Ephrata, PA, won first place in the under 10 stores category for his 2022 potato display contest. His entry featured a red Kubota tractor surrounded by boxed russet potatoes, corn on the cob and a basket of onions. Balloons and banners floated above a wagon piled high with bagged potatoes.
“Creativity always helps. Originality too. You definitely want to stand out, and do something different,” says Murdoff.
Secondary displays in a retail store can help any time of year — not just during IPC’s February contest.
“We merchandise around the holidays,” says Raphael Echevarria, manager of produce for Lucky’s Market in Boulder, CO. “We make big displays, containing everything from organic local purple potatoes, which do really well, to our fingerlings to our 5-pound russets.” They cross-merchandise, too, such as a mashed potato seasoning.
IPC says vertical blocking helps promote potatoes at retail. Alsum Farms recommends raised bins, end caps, and potato signage visible from the store entrance.
“Having a fresh, well-uniformed and merchandised potato category with point-of-sale recipe ideas, educational signage on storage and preparation of fresh potatoes is key to increasing sales of potatoes,” says Lindner of Alsum Farms.
“A nice sizable display will help attract the customer. Even if there is not a lot of product, you want to make it look like there is, so they will gravitate toward it,” says Murdoff. “You also want to make sure it is a shoppable display. And a good price helps.”
2. EMPHASIZE THE VALUE
When it comes to economics, potatoes are a wise choice for consumers.
“People are trying to stretch food dollars, and cooking more at home. This helps with potato sales on the retail side,” says Les Alderete, general manager of Skyline Potato Company in Center, CO.
“Consumers have found a lot of ways to cook potatoes,” says Ken Gray, vice president of sales and marketing at Bushwick Potato Commission in Farmingdale, NY. “During inflationary times and tough times, it is a staple item, like apples and bananas. It is a fan favorite.”
Like many products, potatoes have risen in price in the past two years, due to increases in the cost of fuel, fertilizer and labor. Weather affects potato crop prices, too.
”Right now, they are very expensive,” says Echevarria of Lucky’s in Boulder, CO. “Idaho had a short season, so Colorado had to subsidize, and that caused the price to go up. Then, this year Colorado dried up, and we had to get potatoes from California. You pay 20% more for California versus Colorado potatoes. But when they are in season, the value is probably the best when it comes to local foods.”
Potatoes have a long shelf life, are versatile for cooking and grilling, and can be a delicious, nutritious main dish or side dish.
“Potatoes are still a great value for the price,” says Kimberlee Breshears, chief marketing officer for Potatoes USA in Denver, CO. “The average price is $2, which is relatively affordable for produce, especially compared to meat and seafood.”
“All things considered, even though we have experienced price increases over the last few years, 80% of consumers are still eating potatoes every week,” says Tom Wopperer, senior category intelligence manager at RPE Inc. in Bancroft, WI.
3. THINK HEALTHY
Potatoes taste good, and are good for you. “Potatoes have more vitamin C than orange juice, and more potassium than a banana,” says Kevin Stanger, president of Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC in Idaho Falls, ID.
“Potatoes have always been held up as a bad carb, but they really are not. The average size potato has 110 calories, zero fat, 7% fiber, 13% calcium, 30% vitamin C and 12% vitamin B,” says Alderete of Skyline Potato Company.
Free from fat, cholesterol and sodium, the product is a healthy choice. “Idaho potatoes are the only potatoes certified by the American Heart Association and, new this year, the American Diabetes Association — and we tell this to retailers,” says Johnson of IPC.
Promoting the health benefits of potatoes can increase consumer awareness and boost retail category sales. “This plant-based powerhouse is packed full of nutrition and can be prepared in healthy ways, such as baked, roasted, grilled, microwaved or boiled to provide a delicious and nutritious side dish or meal for families,” says Lindner of Alsum Farms.
And they help your body. “Potatoes have complex carbohydrates that help give you the energy you need to get through a physical activity/exercise and are the perfect food to eat after the activity, as they help your body recover,” says Dana Rady, director of promotion, communication and consumer education at Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) in Antigo, WI.
4. PROVIDE A WIDE VARIETY
Displaying new, and many, varieties of potatoes leads to excitement among retailers and consumers.
“The more diversity — layers of baby potatoes, assorted potato types — the more chances retailers will have to convert to more sales,” says Wopperer of RPE Inc.
“If you can merchandise some of the up-and-coming varieties, such as microwavable, around the russets, you can drive sales in the whole category,” says Johnson of IPC.
Bushwick Potato Commission has worked with Cornell University to find new varieties of potatoes with good yields, excellent color and appearance. Bushwick’s current favorites include Yukon Gold and Caribou russet.
Potatoes USA recommends a diverse selection of potatoes on different types of fixtures. “Flat tables, slanted shelving, specialized boxes, and bins. The retailers selling the most had all four types of fixtures,” says Breshears of Potatoes USA.
Retailers should carry a variety of potato types because of the consumer trend of cooking at home and experimenting. “There are so many varieties to choose from and ways to prepare the vegetable for main meals, side dishes, appetizers, snacks and desserts,” says Rady of WPVGA.
“Our organic fingerling potatoes offer consumers vibrant color, sweet flavor, and a delightful snap when roasted in the oven or air fryer,” says David Bright, vice president of marketing for Grimmway/Cal-Organic in Bakersfield, CA.
Rod Gumz, owner of Gumz Muck Farms in Endeavor, WI, says potatoes are a staple product in the retail market, and reds and yellows are popular items, and Gumz sees continued demand for those products as well as 3- and 5-pound bags of potatoes, versus 10- or 20-pound bags.
“We grow, pack and ship reds and yellows. We are seeing an increase in demand in yellows, and a consistent demand in reds. We see growth in our shipping of potatoes throughout the Midwest and to the South,” says Gumz.
5. REMEMBER VALUE-ADDED OPTIONS
Consumers continue to look for healthy meals and convenience, and value-added potatoes offer both.
“Many grower/shippers offer a value-added potato line to enhance retail potato category offerings to customers and, in turn, provide consumers choices for a fresh, innovative, healthy, quick and convenient potato product,” says Lindner of Alsum Farms.
“The value-added is a trend — the microwavable, or the packages with smaller number. A griller, a baker with a four-pack. They come triple-washed, wrapped in foil and then on a tray. The micro-based speedy spud,” says Mike Carter, chief executive officer of Bushman’s Inc. in Rosholt, WI.
“Retailers who dedicate the shelf space to trial value-added potato products, create in-store awareness and promotion, and will find this is one of the best ways to measure performance of value-added potato products to the overall potato category,” says Lindner.
Value-added offerings from Wada Farms include microwave-in-bag packs, and foil-wrapped potatoes for foodservice. Stanger of Wada Farms says that after two years of high growth in the value-added segment, it continues to grow, but not at such a high rate.
6. MERCHANDISE, MERCHANDISE
Growers, shippers and retailers have several techniques that increase potato sales. One is to promote locally grown.
“The potatoes that are grown here in Lancaster County, PA, are shipped to the East Coast, so they are pretty local,” says Mundroff of Martin’s Country Market in Ephrata, PA.
“We offer retailers POS, bins, banners — whatever we can do to shout out local. For Virginia, we will put a Virginia Grown quick lock and a logo on the bag. Whether Maine, New Jersey or Virginia, our consumers really do want to know where product is coming from, and I think that does help retailers increase sales,” says Gray of Bushwick Potato Commission.
“Colorado potatoes are sourced locally, so they don’t have to change hands multiple times before arriving at our warehouse. Part of our business is moving local business, so we go out of our way to carry local product, even if it costs more,” says Lucky’s Market’s Echevarria.
Attract consumers looking for something different by offering specialty items. “Retailers have stepped up their game by offering smaller package sizes, organics, 8-pound jumbos,” says Gray.
To sell more potatoes around the popular Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, Skyline Potato Company does tie-ins with instant gravy and butter substitute companies. It also pushes potatoes for steak fries for the summer grill.
“You make about six cuts lengthwise in a russet potato, drizzle oil and put some seasoning on there, like lemon pepper or Italian. Or put it in a zip-close bag, like Shake ’N Bake,” says Alderete of Skyline Potato Company.
7. USE PROPER HANDLING
Growers, packers and shippers should follow guidelines to properly care for potatoes.
“Most growers will dig early in the morning so the crop doesn’t have any issues dealing with heat,” says Gray. “Everybody will cure their potatoes for a certain period of time. Each variety can be done differently. “
When shipping and sizing, they should be handled gently to prevent bruising. “We want to make sure it is the same temperature in the truck and in the warehouse, so the customer has highest quality potato,” adds Gray.
Retailers have a role to play, too: rotate the potatoes, and sell the old ones first.
“You want to make sure you are displaying them correctly, so on one side you can see the potatoes really well, and on the other side it prevents the light from penetrating,” says James Ehrlich of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee (CPAC) in Monte Vista, CO.
If too much light penetrates the potatoes, they can turn green. This means they contain solanine, which can be toxic in large amounts.
8. USE TREND DATA, SOCIAL MEDIA
Modern potato promotion includes the use of market data and social media.
Idaho Potato Commission has boots on the ground, via its Retail Promotion Directors (RPD) who develop market strategies with retail partners.
“A lot of the time, category managers are stuck in stores, and don’t get the execution they want. We take data from Nielsen and develop an entire presentation based on the market trends,” says Johnson at IPC. He says this opens retailers’ eyes — such as that yellow that could be a top seller.
Data can offer insight for the merchandising of potatoes. With the help of trends data from analytics company Category Partners, Wada Farms also helps retailers find opportunities (i.e., reds and yellows are growing for their region and demographic, so add them).
RPE Inc. recommends meeting the consumer where they are. “Instacart, online recipes, secondary displays, tertiary displays, having potatoes in more than one store location for recipe solutions. Inside one of the kits, like HomeChef, Hello Fresh and other delivery services,” says Wopperer of RPE Inc.