Retailers can use colors, size, signs and social media to get more spuds in the shopping cart.
Originally printed in the September 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Merchandising potatoes should generate excitement, particularly now that consumers going through the COVID-19 pandemic have reacquainted themselves with the savory spud.
Zake Kreitner believes that. The chief produce officer of Seasons, a six grocery and two convenience store chain in metropolitan New York and manager of the Lawrence, NY location, Kreitner points to a potato and onion display to illustrate his belief.
“Look at the colors on this display,” he says. “You have a tan, you have an orange, yellow, green, purple. Look at the colors. This is a beautiful aisle.”
Potatoes can become an afterthought if they aren’t merchandised to catch the shoppers’ eye and give them a reason to buy, even if they didn’t have potatoes on a shopping list. Kreitner says a bold display that speaks to quality and, ultimately, flavor ensures consumers just don’t drift by the potato presentation.
Produce departments can boost potato sales by drawing attention to the range of products available and, critically, differences in taste, cooking qualities and applications by providing information, both instore and online, as well as identifying their nutritional qualities for consumers.
Danny Kim, produce manager of Pick-Rite Thriftway, Montesano, WA, says emphasizing potato variety and regions, and the qualities associated with them, is one way to educate consumers.
Kim believes in providing information and using signage as a way to drive interest and purchases, so much so that he’s become a two-time winner of the Idaho Potato Commission’s annual Potato Lover’s Month display contest.
Potatoes are universally available, or almost so, wherever produce retailing occurs, but maximizing sales still requires thought.
“In a country of 350 million people with diverse taste preferences, cooking methods and eating styles, potato marketers have limited resources to reach everybody we want to reach, says Tim Huffcutt, vice president of sales and marketing, RPE Inc., Bancroft, WI.
“With constrained resources, potato marketers, with their promotional dollars, cannot afford to make mistakes,” he says, adding the most effective campaigns are coordinated with the retailer and include a mix of traditional, in-store tactics coupled with newer, supplemental digital marketing approaches.
John Pope, vice president of sales and marketing at MountainKing Potato Co., Houston, TX, says the market remains influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, which triggered consumers cooking more at home. As the market has developed, he says several potato varieties are proving popular in his circles.
Shoppers love yellow flesh potatoes, small potatoes and fingerling potatoes, he says.
He adds that the potato market has been evolving over the years and, so, certain distinct opportunities.
“Baby Boomers prefer what they grew up with, traditional 5-pound Reds and Russets, large bakers and larger bags for mashing, baking and boiling,” Pope says. Younger consumers are a bit different, with Gen Xers and millennials “trending more to flavors, yellow flesh, baby potatoes, organic potatoes and smaller bag sizes.”
To encourage more potato purchasing, he recommends promoting flavor, texture and the natural health benefits of potatoes, including vitamin C and beta carotene content. Flavor still is important, no matter what, and getting the word out about the taste and creaminess of yellow skin potatoes is important.
An understanding of demographic preferences is necessary to successful merchandising and marketing.
“I think one of the most important demographic targets is younger millennials,” says Ken Gray, vice president of sales and marketing, Bushwick Potato Co., Farmingdale, NY.
“This consumer has the longest buying power right now, and their buying habits still have some grooming for the future. Boomers and GenXers still have more traditional buying patterns and buy the most potatoes. We need to target and shift millennials into a higher potato consumption category.”
RPE category management leader Rachel Atkinson-Leach says small potatoes, or fingerlings, have especially benefited from the pandemic demand boost, in terms of trial, and have continued to show increased consumer acceptance.
Even if some items got more attention than others, potatoes universally benefited from consumers cooking at home, with all sizes, including bulk, showing double-digit growth versus 2019, she says. Large sizes — at 5 pounds, 8 pounds, 10 pounds and larger — realized higher-than-average increases over the period.
In part, this may have been due to consumers stocking up and spending less time in stores. Consumers may have shifted to packaged items for similar reasons.
Although packaged product has gotten more interest, consumers are still looking for bulk in certain kinds of potatoes, Gray says, although 3- and 5-pound bags continue to sell well. Bushwick saw some increases occurring in 8-pound bag sales in the early pandemic, “but the 3- and 5-pound bags are still performing best. Bakers do best in bulk, when consumers are looking to choose their potatoes.”
“We saw almost every age group putting more potatoes in the cart all year long, not just during holiday months,” he adds. “That’s good for business because getting consumers purchasing potatoes more frequently means potatoes make it into their menu routine for meals. And once consumers start using potatoes more often, they are more likely to continue to do so.”
CATCHING THE EYE
Seasonal retail merchandising remains a critical part of selling potatoes, Huffcutt says.
“Promoting red potatoes ahead of St. Patrick’s Day and russets in advance of Thanksgiving is a sound national marketing strategy because those items generally find their way to plates and tables everywhere during the respective holidays,” he says.
Although national celebrations are prime promotional targets, merchandising that concentrates on regional traditions can push potatoes.
“We try different approaches tailored to the unique traditions of the local population,” Huffcutt says. For example, RPE worked with a retailer located in the Southeast to create Tasteful Selections Seafood Boilers, a boil-in-bag combination of mesh packaging containing red potatoes. The retailer went all-in with prominent merchandising displays of this item during the time of year that Southerners host traditional crawfish boil gatherings.
“While a red potato is still a red potato, designing a unique, customized, seasonal program, supported by in-store merchandising ingenuity, made an already popular item a sales frontrunner for several weeks during springtime.”
Focusing on value and inspiration can unlock big opportunities, Gray says.
“Consumers look at many foods as delivering good value. That doesn’t mean it needs to be cheap, but show how potatoes deliver value for each consumer purchase at retail,” he says. “Also provide inspiration. Consumers may not always have a ton of recipe ideas immediately ready for preparing their own potatoes. But point-of-purchase materials at retail locations can provide unique inspiration to spur sales and get potatoes into the shopping cart.”
In terms of retail sales floors, MountainKing Potato’s Pope says he sees less of a boost from value-added products right now and more from the delivery of recipes, but RPE’s Atkinson-Leach is more bullish on value-added products.
“Although these products only account for approximately 6% of the dollar sales for the latest 52 weeks, they are growing and should receive a larger amount of space,” says Atkinson-Leach.
Whatever draws consumer attention to potatoes furthers the sales cause, and Pope says he favors new display bins, social media campaigns and produce manager starter kits.
RPE has its own perspective on the marketplace, Huffcutt says, being a top marketer of fresh potatoes in the United States, growing 1.2 billion pounds of russets, commodity yellow and red potatoes and specialty baby spuds in and beyond Idaho, and the company sees the market as ready for innovation.
“For us and our retail partners, innovation is everything from packaging and brand development to developing and introducing new items as well as exploring e-commerce solutions to ensure that products perform as well on the digital shelf as on the store shelves, measured by sales,” he says.
RPE is introducing a new Farmer’s Promise brand, a new specialty and commodity potatoes and onions label. In addition, RPE, together with its packaging engineering partners, has developed sustainable packaging solutions under both its Tasteful Selections and Farmer’s Promise brands, something it is launching this year. It is also helping its retail partners reduce food waste by using light blocker technologies that prevent greening of potatoes in retail and storage situations.
The pandemic has given potatoes a leg up in the market and anyone involved in growing, distributing and retailing potatoes shouldn’t let the opportunity slip by, Bushwick Potato’s Gray says. Perspectives and practices have changed, and the old playbook is getting less useful, he adds.
“Consumers are looking for fast and healthier preparations, along with global flavors. Today’s kitchen appliances like the Instapot and air fryer both offer great alternatives for family favorites that can get to the table faster. Instapot baked or mashed potatoes take time off the prep-to-table timeline, and the air fryer can provide crispy potato solutions without the calories or mess of frying,” Gray says.
Displays and signage are central to the annual display contest conducted by the Idaho Potato Commission, Eagle, ID, but Ross Johnson, the organization’s director of category management, says using visual cues is important for more than just a single event. Getting the appropriate signage in place to direct consumers to the potato display is a critical part of building sales for the product and the produce department.
“Many retailers do not realize that potatoes are the most valuable produce item in the department,” he contends. “If you get potatoes into a shopper’s basket, your average rings will increase. IRI did a study that showed a potato shopper’s average basket size is $88 when purchasing fresh potatoes and guess what it was when potatoes were not found? $43.”
The treatment of potatoes at store level is the major building block to promotion, says Brandy Tucker, director of marketing at the Washington State Potato Commission, Moses Lake, WA.
“Merchandising is the key to selling more potatoes in produce departments,” she says. “With the broad range of potatoes available, there are many opportunities for upselling in the produce department.”
Tapping trends is important in merchandising potatoes, Tucker notes.
“Give the consumer more choices,” she says. “Petite potatoes and yellow flesh are the hottest trends right now.”
Given the flexibility and applicability of potatoes, a wide range of promotional initiatives are possible, but for best affect, suggests Dana Rady, director of promotion, communication and consumer education for the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association, Antigo, WI, merchandising and marketing might best be aimed at how potatoes can address particular consumer lifestyle and nutritional issues.
“I think that hitting everything and everyone at once poses a market challenge in and of itself,” Rady says. “But, lucky for us, potatoes are the vegetable that has it all. It’s the vegetable that offers the most nutrients per penny. It’s great as a comfort food and for those who are using it to fuel their activity, especially athletes. It’s versatile, delicious and unique with all the different ways to prepare the many varieties.”
The changing consumer requires a change in mindset in pushing potatoes.
“Years ago, the demographic to aim for was ‘Linda,’ a roughly 35- to 60-year-old mother/wife who was the main decision-maker when it came to food purchases,” Rady says. “That has all changed with shoppers being single moms, dads and younger generations looking for more of ‘everything.’ They want healthy and delicious. They want a quality product at a low cost. And unlike previous generations, the younger group wants to know where their food comes from and how it’s produced.”
Consumers today are incorporating a broader range of food into their diets, which means that potatoes may not get as much consideration as they once might have, says Mark Phillips, marketing specialist at the PEI Potato Board, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Young people, especially, may not feel potato products are convenient or as healthy as alternatives, so offering and promoting quick prep products and emphasizing the nutritional benefits are critical.
“People tend to take potatoes for granted,” Phillips says. “And we have to continue to remind people that they love them. The pandemic helped remind people that they enjoy them, but we need to work to keep that messaging.”
“Our traditional consumer is getting older all the time,” he adds. “We need to keep finding ways to keep potatoes on the plates of the generations to come.” The PEI Board interacts with younger generations through social media and influencer marketing, and uses new technology to keep its messaging: “where people are spending the most time.”
Promoting Potato Virtues
Produce executives have to accentuate the positives, but also eliminate the negative, in their consumer communications, in large measure by simply promoting potato virtues.
For example, says Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, “We are battling the “Bad Carb” stigma in today’s diets. Potatoes are the most nutrient dense vegetable out there and give you more nutrients per penny than any other vegetable. Educating consumers on the good complex carb is an ongoing program for us.”
Retailers should be on the lookout for how evolving promotional channels can help drive potato sales, Phillips says.
“As digital flyers become the norm, there will be more room for retailers to include recipe ideas in their promotional material,” he says. “Emails, loyalty programs and social media are also great avenues to promote preparation ideas.”
New forms of social media are showcasing new potatoes all the time, or at the very least new takes on other ideas. “Just when you think it’s all been done, someone like Kylie Jenner likes a roasted potato video, and then it has 20 million views. The potato has many uses, and we haven’t seen them all yet,” says Phillips.
No one favors keeping all your eggs in one basket, and the same goes for potatoes at retail.
Secondary displays are an opportunity retailers use, but maybe forget during summer, says Idaho Potato Commission’s Johnson. “Getting potatoes back out on display can generate great revenue increases. We did a study with a large retailer on the West Coast that showed stores with [secondary] displays, when compared against like stores without a secondary display, generated an average increase of 22% in dollar sales.”
Retailers need to consider the value of growing regions as a way to establish a degree of differentiation. Products that consumers recognize for their unique merits when it comes to taste and quality create pricing and promotional opportunities, says Phillips. With consumers today more concerned than ever about where their food comes from, turning origin into a merchandising and marketing virtue can make sense, yet retailers aren’t always responsive to the idea that region can be a valuable promotional asset.
“More and more retailers want to promote their own brands in packaging that is the same, or similar for every supplier,” says Phillips. “It makes it difficult to promote your own brand or growing area. We can do great things these days connecting directly with consumers, but it is difficult for them to find our products in store without in-store recognition.”