The COVID Factor
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers couldn’t purchase potatoes fast enough, says Dana Rady, of Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association, Antigo, WI.
“More and more people, especially millennials who had spent most of their time eating out, were forced to learn how to prepare meals at home,” she says.
The pandemic drove retail potato sales in almost every form, agrees Chris Voight of the Washington State Potato Commission.
“With more people cooking at home, we have seen potato sales in stores increase across the board in all products, from fresh, frozen and canned,” he says. “The only decrease we saw was in deli items because of the salad bars and delis being closed or at lower capacity because of COVID.”
Mark Phillips of the PEI Potato Board, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada, warns changes in consumer purchasing habits that have occurred over the past year and a half “need to be taken with a grain of salt.”
The Covid-19 pandemic encouraged consumers to cook at home more often and prompted them to buy in larger quantities to minimize the number of shopping trips. However, the degree to which consumers stick to newly adopted shopping habits is difficult to ascertain.
“Will people stick to their newfound patterns of cooking and preparing meals at home, or are people desperate to eat out again?” Phillips asks. “There are conflicting ideas about what will go down, and I think it will be difficult to predict, especially with the effects of the Delta variant unknown at this point. I think these years will be outliers in our data. It’s important to learn from it, but not lean too heavily into anything learned during COVID. The most important takeaway is that it’s clear people still enjoy cooking and eating potatoes, sometimes they just need an incentive.”
For his part, Bushwick Potato Co.’s Ken Gray says even if the pandemic was a blip in consumption in the long term, potatoes gained some advantage.
“Pre-pandemic, today’s consumer was cooking less traditional homestyle meals, not purchasing large volumes. Time will tell how long the pandemic-related cooking and stock-up behaviors persist, but the opportunity exists to help consumers find interesting and unique ways to use potatoes in exciting ways for a variety of meals.
“For the first time in many years, consumers are putting more potatoes in the cart, and we want to take advantage of that,” he says.
Keep Cooking in Mind
“Retailers can have an impact on potato sales simply by reminding busy customers about all the ways they can prepare potatoes as they shop and think about meals they might like to serve during the week,” Mark Phillips of the PEI Potato Board says. Then, it can’t hurt to encourage them to think about potatoes a bit creatively.
“Scalloped, mashed, roasted, mini’s, baked, hasselback, and on and on,” he says. “They can be a unique part of items like pizza, pancakes, chocolate cake, soups and chowders. How many vegetables are that diverse? I heard it mentioned before that if potatoes were discovered today, they would be making a buzz as the newest superfood. We’ve got to remind people of all the options they provide in the kitchen.”
Critical to success in driving potato sales is getting consumers to think of not one but multiple items. That requires promoting varieties but also promoting value-added items.
“When many people think of potatoes, they think of one variety, one dish option and the need for time to prepare that dish, like a baked potato using a russet, for example,” Dana Rady of Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association, says. “What they may not realize is that by cutting the russet into wedges, like fries, baking them and topping them with their favorite toppings like taco ingredients, meat and broccoli, etc., they can create a healthy meal in less time. Or, perhaps it’s a matter of picking a different potato variety that takes less time to prepare such as petites and specialty varieties. We want consumers to know about all the different varieties of potatoes that exist along with unique, quick and healthy ways they can prepare them to incorporate them into their daily meals and snacks. There’s so much more to potatoes than many people realize.”