EXPLOSION OF FAST-FIX POTATOES ADDS EXCITEMENT TO CATEGORY

Originally printed in the February 2019 issue of Produce Business.

Knowing what convenience-driven consumers crave can give produce sections a big lift.

Serving fresh-cooked potatoes for dinner meant up to an hour’s prep time as little as a decade ago. No longer. Enter fast-fixing, value-added potatoes.

“Growers are doing a great job with this category, be it with the choice of potato, flavorings or packaging,” says Richard Stiles, recently retired director of produce and floral for Redner’s Markets, a Reading, PA-chain with 44 markets and 13 quick shoppes in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. “These convenience products have really taken off with consumers.”

Value-added potatoes, in its broadest definition, range from shelf-stable to refrigerated to frozen potatoes. Chips (+1 percent), refrigerated (+7 percent) and frozen (+3 percent) increased in dollar sales during the 52 weeks ending December 30, 2018, according to point-of-sale data from Chicago, IL-headquartered market research firm, IRI, as shared by potato grower/marketer RPE, Inc., in Bancroft, WI.

“While value-added potatoes will continue to be a growing segment in the category, most growth in the past year was in the fresh-bagged potato segment,” says Russell Wysocki, president of RPE, makers of Tasteful Selections brand of bite-sized potatoes, some with added flavorings and cook-in-bag packaging. “Our company’s value-added potato products are up 17 percent versus a year ago.”

There are two major challenges for retailers in maximizing sales of fresh value-added potatoes: knowing what constitutes products in this category and finding ways to introduce these newer products to consumers. The opportunities are incremental sales on high-margin items that tick the boxes for today’s consumer’s biggest culinary demand trends.

EVOLVING PRODUCTS DEFINE CATEGORY

Value-added can be as simple as a potato being pre-washed, according to Rachael Lynch, global marketing manager for Denver, CO-headquartered Potatoes USA, the nation’s potato marketing organization.

Potatoes ranked first as respondents’ favorite vegetable in the 2018 Attitudes & Usage Quantative Report by Potatoes USA, and second to pasta as the preferred carbohydrate. As for important food attributes, over half of respondents strongly agreed that flavor and freshness were the top two, with one-third desiring convenience. For a potato dish to be convenient, respondents said key was that it be suitable for all household members and require less time to prepare and cook and with minimal steps.

There’s no official industry definition of a value-added potato product. That said, it can be challenging to get a clear idea of just what makes up this category. Yet a definition, the scope of these products and what they offer to consumers constitutes the basis for effective merchandising.

“At its most broad definition, you could say our creamer potatoes are value-added,” says Richard Vann, vice president of marketing and product innovation for The Little Potato Company, with the U.S. headquarters of this Edmonton, Alberta-founded company in DeForest, WI. “The skins are thin, so no peeling is required. They are triple-washed, and they are all the same size. Our strength is in our sizing. After all, you want all the potatoes in the same bag to cook evenly.”

However, there is usually something a bit more to these products.

“A ‘value-added potato’ product provides some benefit to the consumer that purchasing raw potatoes wouldn’t offer,” explains Natasha Lichty, brand and marketing director for Love Beets USA, LLC, in Bala Cynwyd, PA. “Whether it’s that they’re pre-cooked, come with a flavor packet, are already seasoned, or have a shorter cook time, value-added potato items make consuming potatoes easier and more convenient for consumers.”

The best- and longest-selling type of value-added potato product is a pre-washed, whole, B-sized potato in a 1 to 1.5-pound microwavable bag. An example of this is the Side Delights Steamables, introduced eight years ago by Fresh Solutions Network, a group of family-owned potato growers and shippers with its marketing arm based in San Francisco. The eight-item line includes Russet, red, golden, purple and fingerling potatoes. The appeal is a shortened cooking time to either eat as is, with a dash of salt and pepper, or incorporate into another dish.

Washed, wrapped and ready-to-cook russets are also one of the first value-added potato products, and still a steady seller. However, the focal point of newer products has swung to small-sized potatoes.

“Smaller potatoes have grown more than 30 percent, according to IRI,” says Michael Castagnetto, vice president of sourcing for Robinson Fresh, based in Eden Prairie, MN. “The two big reasons for this growth are better flavor and shorter cook time. Small potatoes are becoming the darling of the category because of the flavor.”

Ditto, smaller-sized packaging is becoming a larger part of the product mix.

“We’ve reformulated our Microwave in Bag product by size to 1.25-pounds or 20-ounces,” says Kevin Stanger, president of the Wada Farms Marketing Group, Inc., in Idaho Falls, ID. “It’s the right size for a family meal, serving up to 4 people, and priced competitively.”

Smaller pack sizes can help reduce shrink volume and dollars, according to RPE’s Wysocki. “Often, value-added potatoes are not fast-turning items like other potatoes. On average, the most successful micro tray product in the market sells six to nine units per week. However, smaller packs can mean more transportation costs so it behooves retailers to identify ways to consolidate supplier orders.”

Flavorings are a big element of some of the newest value-added potato products.

“We carry three flavors, including a Parmesan and Garlic, that do well,” says Terry Esteve, produce director for Robert Fresh Market, a six-store chain headquartered in New Orleans.

There was a large influx of offerings for microwaveable trays in the fourth quarter of 2018, with flavor innovations contributing to a 20-percent dollar growth versus a year ago, according to RPE’s Wysocki. “Sales of our best-selling micro tray, bite-size potato and sweet potato lines more than doubled in the latest 52 weeks. This is because of the extensive innovation we did with matching traditional and trending flavors, such as Loaded Potato and Korean BBQ, to the right potato types and then creating optimal spice blends to create the best consumer sensory experience.”

This theme of world flavors paired with specific types of potatoes is echoed in several new product debuts over the past year. For example, Friesland, WI-based Alsum Farms & Produce’s Fast & Fresh! Microwave-Ready potatoes include red creamers prepackaged in a steam tray paired with Parmesan cheese and garlic seasonings and an olive oil packet.

New flavors in Fresh Solutions Network’s Side Delight Flavorables line of 1-pound, microwavable-packed potatoes include Sea Salt & Pepper with Parsley Seasoning and Smokey BBQ Seasoning. Last fall, Robinson Fresh introduced its new Perfect Potatoes, which include 1-pound micro tray packed potatoes with seasonings. Two of these include red potatoes with a pesto-flavored spice pack and a medley or red, yellow and purple potatoes with a Hawaiian Red Sea Salt packet.

One of the latest value-added products is the line of Seasoned Baby Potatoes under the new Love Fresh brand, by Bala Cynwyd, PA-headquartered Love Beets USA, LLC.

“Produce executives need to remember the importance the category drivers play and that value-added options should be an incremental purchase to help drive greater category growth. Being able to properly merchandise the category to drive sales of both items is a challenge and an opportunity.”

— Ross Johnson, Idaho Potato Commission

“Most value-added potato items still typically require some amount of cooking, but our potatoes are completely cooked, ready-to-eat and come in flavors like Salt + Pepper, Thai Lemongrass and Chimichurri,” says Lichty. “Our packaging is unique because of the transparency of the container and the resealable top film. Consumers have easy visibility of the item, showing them how fresh the potatoes are. The resealable top film also allows them to open and close the package multiple times for easy and convenient fridge storage.”

In the future, “value-added potato packaging will continue to evolve as new technology becomes available and as transparency continues to stay front and center, especially with younger consumers,” says RPE’s Wysocki.

Beyond this, there are several ways the category will continue to develop in the future, according to The Little Potato Company’s Vann. “These include the ability of the product to perform for consumers at home, such as handled packaging for micro bags, size of bags, additional flavors and film seals. In-store, value-added potatoes aren’t on shopper’s lists yet, so attractive packaging can help with visibility.”

RETAILERS AS MATCHMAKERS

The value-added potato shopper is still evolving and may not be aware these new products are available or may not understand how to use the product, according to RPE’s Wysocki. This offers an ideal opportunity for retailers to play match maker, matching how consumers today want to make their meals.

“The biggest challenge facing retailers is not getting too excited about this category,” explains Ross Johnson, marketing director for the Idaho Potato Commission, based in Eagle, ID. “Produce executives need to remember the importance the category drivers play and that value-added options should be an incremental purchase to help drive greater category growth. Being able to properly merchandise the category to drive sales of both items is a challenge and an opportunity.”

Many retailers are still working on finding the ‘sweet’ spot for where and how to merchandise new value-added products. Overall, grocery stores now sell about nine different value-added potato items compared to four items in 2013, according to IRI data as shared by RPE.

Placing new value-added items at the beginning of the potato display can encourage consumers to try new offerings while also strolling down to see old favorites, such as the 5-pound and 10-pound bag of russets, says Christine Lindner, in national sales at Alsum Farms & Produce. “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 at retail.”

Adds Love Beets’ Lichty, “merchandising these products in the value-added vegetable section in produce and next to the raw potatoes would catch the attention of consumers who are already looking for convenience items and those who might not initially be.”

Products such as the 2017-launched Easy Creations — a 28-ounce, upright handle-topped bag of ready-to-cook baby potatoes with a season packet inside — easily can be merchandised with other ingredients to create a meal kit or meal deal, recommends Derek Peterson, vice president of sales and marketing of Wilcox Fresh, in Rexburg, ID. “Our research told us consumers aren’t afraid to cook but that it can be confusing, and they want cooking to be fun and easy. Easy Creations are a jumping-off point, a meal starter. We offer recipes that take 10, 15 or 30 minutes to prepare for each of the three flavor profiles: Garlic Parsley Parm, Lime Thyme and Sriracha. The other benefit is the appealing price point. We can get it below $2, while some value-added potato products are double that.”

Since value-added potatoes are generally higher priced than commodity-style products, the biggest opportunities to sell more are dependent on knowing shopper demographics. That said, promotions are important to get consumer trial and ultimately repeat purchase.

“There are multiple ways to promote: buy one/get one free, ‘two-for’ sales, single-item promos or deep discounts, depending on the goal of the promotion,” says RPE’s. Wysocki. “It may be to drive trial, which might require a deep discount, or it may be to drive margin, thus requiring a smaller discount. The value-added segment of the potato category still is in its infancy and is poised to grow significantly over the next five years.”

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