Potatoes and Onions: Partners Through Time

Effective Merchandising

While merchandising may vary by retailer, potatoes and onions are usually displayed together. In most retail operations, the potato and onion category manager is usually the same person, says Dave Rhodes, retail sales director for the Northeast for the Eagle, ID-based Idaho Potato Commission (IPC).

Most retailers actively market the two categories on a regular basis, says Tim Huffcutt, marketing director of RPE Inc., headquartered in Bancroft, WI. “Nearly all of our major customers have potato category managers,” he says. “Often, the category manager is responsible for onions and may oversee one to two additional categories when resources are tight and as consolidation in the industry continues.”

There’s variation in where potatoes and onions are located within the produce department. In the past, particularly during the fall and winter, potatoes and onions were displayed closer to the front. However, as the two commodities have become staples, retailers may promote them weekly on ad and erect displays closer to the opening of the produce aisle, says Rhodes.

Merchandising depends on the retailers’ philosophy. Some may show bulk potatoes up front with bagged potatoes in the rear side of the display. Others may prefer the opposite, says Ross Johnson, Potatoes USA’s global marketing manager.

“As our retail partners know, displays drive sales, which is why we provide bags, boxes and bins that complement each other and feature the product with bright and colorful imagery to draw consumers’ eyes and attention,” says John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce Inc., which grows and ships sweet onions from Reidsville, GA.

“We suggest placing RealSweet sweet onions in the center of the produce department for maximum effect and using secondary displays, especially during peak seasons and as holiday promotions.”

Strong Retail Investment

At Schnuck Markets in St. Louis, the category is not taken for granted. The chain relies on potatoes and onions to help drive profits, says Mike Tipton, vice president of produce. For many customers potatoes and onions are staples, but if they are merchandised properly in the flow of traffic, retailers can drive impulse sales. Buy-one-get-one ads and mix or match offerings do well to encourage bag sales, says Tifton.

Schnuck’s likes to merchandise potatoes and onions via slant rack merchandising vehicles as well as in bin displays for bulk items. During the fall and winter months, Schnuck’s sees a lot of both items in shoppers’ baskets. They are frequently purchased together due to cooking habits, says Tipton. In the summer months, shoppers use more baking potatoes for grilling and large sweet onions for hamburgers. Winter lends itself to soups and stews. “We have found it’s important to promote the right varieties that are appealing to customers during the right season of the year,” says Tipton. “We are also aggressive merchandising ‘first-of-the-season’ opportunities. You have to remember to ‘market what you merchandise.’” For example, retailers can go big on promoting first of the season Vidalia sweet onions and new crop potatoes.

Display care is critical for consistent sales. Rhodes says retailers can experience long shelf life from potatoes if they’re properly handled, which includes storing in cool places in the backroom and keeping the displays away from strong light. When it’s nice and fresh, an attractive display with neatly stacked potatoes will sell more than a display full of green potatoes and onion shucks, he says.

Don’t Ignore Displays

Oftentimes, the category can get overlooked. “Because potatoes and onions are such high-volume items — and often referred to as commodities — at some point, they can be placed on autopilot and, consequently, may not receive the signage and advertising space they deserve during non-traditional periods,” says Angie Hanson, director of category development at Idaho Falls, ID-based Category Partners, which is an analytical firm.

Because they’re staples and the quality tends to last longer than other produce, produce executives can take the category for granted and not always check the displays as much as they should with regular visits to ensure freshness, says Rhodes. “Sometimes, we often overlook controlling that area on a consistent basis, when it should be culled as much as any other display on a daily basis,” he says.

Proper handling is essential, observes Teri Gibson, director of marketing and customer relations for Peri & Sons Farms, which grows and ships onions from Yerington, NV.  Onions’ two distinct seasons — spring/summer and fall/winter ­— yield onions with differing tastes, textures and shelf life characteristics. Spring onions possess thinner outer skins and must move to tables within a few weeks while the denser and thicker outer-skinned fall onions, the storage onions, last longer — possibly months — when stored in proper conditions, she says.

“Yellow is still the king of onions, but the belle-of-the-ball is the sweet onion,” says Gibson. “A recent report shows sweet onions account for the second-largest share of total onion sales behind yellow onions. No longer contained to a few seasonal growing regions, the sweet onion market is sure to grow.”

For the upcoming season, the Vidalia Onion Committee, based in Vidalia, GA, plans to spend more time encouraging retailers to erect better onion displays, says Bob Stafford, manager. The organization wants to work with supermarkets to improve displays, he says. “We are seeing more sweet onions in displays with potatoes,” says Stafford. “The categories work well together. More people are honing-in on the sweet onion category. I think it’s a must to keep a good supply of onions.”