Sales Opportunities for Root Vegetables

Produce Selection

Education, on-target marketing and tapping into trends are key for significant profits.

Consumers need an education when it comes to root vegetables, but what kind of education is important, as the latest food trends are just as significant as the basic facts.

Straight up nutritional facts and recipes remain effective tools. However translating the several trends that are boosting root vegetable sales in the retail environment is a critical addition to the educational process.

Retailers that are aware of what eating trends in the market are peaking consumer interest in roots can refine their merchandising and marketing to maximum effect. Outside influences can have a big effect on root vegetable sales.

“Get Dr. Oz to mention something on TV and we can clean out our entire inventory,” says Michael Schutt, produce buyer at Raley’s, only half kidding. Beyond the influence of TV, Schutt says his California clientele is looking for organic and local products when they are shopping for root vegetables. Its diverse and relatively affluent shoppers want roots available according to their particular preferences, so Raley’s will offer products such as beets and carrots with their tops, for consumers who want to use them in their meals as well as the roots, and without.

Schutt says merchandising must consider the deliberate consumer, whether informed by diligent research or inspired by Dr. Oz.  Many consumers want root vegetables that conform to how they want to prepare them, which can range from roasting to juicing.

Publix is conscious that a large proportion of its customers purchase primarily from among their traditional root product favorites, but the company also is aware that gustatory adventurous customers are looking for new alternatives.

Publix spokesperson Maria Brous says core root products remain strong but market trends affecting the category are having an impact. “Our best-selling potatoes remain the baking variety. However, we have seen significant increases in the past two years in the smaller variety of potatoes such as the Purple, Mixed Gold, Red, Purple, Gold, Honey Golds and Reds: Enchanted Rose.”

Although many roots sold at Publix remain niche products, Brous notes that an understanding of the customer base can provide promotional opportunity. “Roots such as horseradish, celery root, black radish and parsley root are promoted during the Jewish holidays,” she points out.

Scott Neal, senior vice president of meat, produce and seafood at Walmart, says when it comes to a root vegetable such as jicama, which has emerged from the Hispanic community and expanded into more main street cooking, it can help drive sales. He notes Walmart, with its vast territorial coverage and Store of the Community merchandising system, which adapts stores to local preference, can take a root such as jicama, learn about the product where it already is popular and begin the process of translating it to the other markets where the company does business.

“The fact we’ve got 4,500 stores across the entire country lets us key in on some trends early on especially with the ethnic customer, pick up those items and start experimenting with those in markets where you might think they may not work. And what we have seen is, the customer is responding.”

Beyond that, he notes Walmart recognizes consumers are actively looking for new food experiences and acting to satisfy them. “Customers are looking for different flavors, ” says Neal. “They’re looking for a bigger variety. Our buyers spend a tremendous amount of time shopping around the world and around the U.S., going to restaurants, going to food shows, trying to understand, and our customers tell us they like what we’re doing.”

Translation is an important approach to roots marketing and merchandising because consumers are subject to such a wide range of influences, consequently the retailer has to look closely at customer purchasing to determine how to address their latest interests, says a produce executive working at a regional supermarket chain, who asked not to be identified.

He adds his company does month-long promotion of various fruits and vegetables during the course of the year. One is dedicated to root vegetables. He also asserts that a variety of sources create developments in the market whether “they come from trendy restaurants, foodies, the Food Network,” but, whatever the source, retailers have to tailor their presentation and educational efforts to emerging considerations. In his case, that includes taking the promotion of the month as executed in the produce department and extending it into what space he can get in the service deli case. By doing so, he provides shoppers with an idea of what they can ultimately prepare, and enjoy, at home.

Although a greater interest in cuisine is a critical catalyst driving interest in root vegetables, specific trends in the food world have particular effects. For example, as people become more familiar with ethnic cuisines, they are introduced to new root vegetables.

Roots are very popular right now, and we’re looking a lot at Hispanic roots, which are popular. You’ve got a huge Hispanic population that’s looking for traditional food like malanga,” says Mike Maxwell, president of Procacci Brothers, Philadelphia, PA.

“Years ago, restaurants went back to traditional cooking, but now a lot of those restaurants are getting into Hispanic influences including roots. You’ve got a lot of these going into chips. You have slaws made of jicama.” As time goes buy, the dynamics of the root vegetable business change, he notes, “so those who sell the products need to roll with the punches.”

“The Atkins diet killed the potato business, but it’s done huge things for sweet potatoes,” he asserts. Not that potatoes are actually dead. In fact, as they have become more food sophisticated, consumers have developed a regard for presentation, which is helping colored and fingerling potatoes win purchases.

“The consumer is smarter than ever, and the retailers know this and are looking to satisfy their appetites. The retailers have gotten in tune with these trends in food,” says Maxwell. “The big retailers have chefs on staff, and seminars at the store level. They’re reaching out to show how to prepare roots. The Food Network has been huge for business.”

Brian Dey, a produce merchandiser at Four Seasons Produce, Ephrata, PA, says, foodservice influences consumer consideration of root vegetables, but he also emphasizes that the growth of the segment depends on multiple factors. Sweet potato fries and mashed parsnips may turn up on restaurant menus, but Dey points out that the juicing enthusiasts, whether they take out or prepare their concoctions at home, have been boosting interest in a range of root vegetables from beets to turmeric as they seek out new flavors to enhance the experience.

Even looking behind the juicing trend, he notes that health-conscious consumers, whether drinking their roots or eating them, can help advertise the benefits of the product segment to the broader public. Retailers can do so as well, especially if they also promote both the health and flavor advantages root vegetables can provide.

“As people learn more about the health benefits and flavor of root vegetables, we’re seeing an increase in consumer consumption and that translates into retail sales. How many people know that parsnips can be mashed? Point of sales information highlighting that kind of information can help boost sales. Recipes can communicate this. It boils down to consumer education. And eating healthier. People are developing a taste for new flavors and an attitude toward root vegetables. I hated beets growing up. Now. I make beat chips at home. Root vegetables are so versatile.”

Food-conscious consumers have a growing appreciation of root vegetables, whether they are eating for health or pleasure, Dey says, and retailers who keep their eyes on consumption trends are reacting.

“The foodie movement has an impact, and I see this personally in my own territory in a lot in natural and organic stores. But it happens in conventional supermarkets as well, based on the size of display and variety,” he says.

Signage can help boost the impact of an attractive display. “Education is important and there are differing ways of driving the message home,” says Dey. “Simple recipes placed by a particular food or with any type of vegetable may spur and entice a customer.”

Recipes can include alternatives that take a new flavor spin on a favorite food or provide a healthier substitute, including using roots other than potatoes, or other than the most common potato varieties, for fries. An emphasis on the flavors and textures of various root vegetables can attract sales across more meal occasions. The same can be said of preparation methods from roasting to mashing.

“Just little POS signage, like Great for Mashing or Great for Roasting, can get consumers to try something different. And stores can try something like signage that says, Great for Kids. Root vegetables can do so much. Pureed carrots. Customers can create completely different meal presentations, then it’s just a matter of word of mouth. The best way to engage customers is active education.”

Flavor and application may be important, but Day emphasizs retailers should incorporate specific nutritional information in their displays that underline the low-calorie, high-nutritional character of root vegetables. Even potatoes, when not swimming in fatty additions, are relatively low calorie. A medium Yukon gold, according to the Produce for Better Health Foundation website, weighs in at 120 calories, something retailers might want to remind consumers.

The health benefits are central to drawing consumers to roots, Dey points out. “The health benefits attract consumers. Once consumers eat a particular root, the flavor is what is going to hold them and entice them back.” Retailers, of course, need to balance their presentation to satisfy traditional shoppers while catering to the new breed of nutritionally conscious consumer. Of course, that means maintaining a substantial presentation of potatoes. Here, the glamour of the more colorful varieties has enticed consumers.

John Roins, salesman of Anthony Marano Co., Chicago, asserts that, while Russets still are doing well, advances have been made by “your colored potatoes, by which I mean your Reds, your Golds and your Fingerlings.”

Schutt says, that, at Raley’s his Russet business is essentially flat but his potato business is growing on color and novel form, which provides presentation options. However, he adds that convenience is an important factor behind sales of smaller potato varieties, and it makes sense to remind shoppers that compact spuds can cook up in six minutes or so.

Dey also says merchandising roots effectively requires flexibility. Cross promoting well and lesser known items together is a way to catch consumer attention and suggest, with educational material, ways that root vegetables can be used in tandem in roasting, salads, juicing or whatever might be jointly prepared.

“You can cross what’s familiar to the customer but, also, why not think about how to cross carrots with rutabagas, burdock or jicama?” he suggests. Even the less familiar root vegetables have their place in a flexible merchandising scheme, concurs Dey. Root vegetables can be merchandised near those that are part of floor displays, but they can be incorporated in several ways. Many root vegetables have to be merchandised in the cool case, and creative merchandising can have a number of effects as color breaks.

Beyond that, he says, “sweet potatoes can be merchandised with maple syrup. Beets for use as chips you can tie in with olive oil, rosemary, and garlic.”

Roots Merchandising

Although not precisely seasonal products, roots do have those occasions when consumers traditionally turn their attention to them. Winter in general and the holidays in particular hold opportunities. Brian Dey, a produce merchandiser at Four Seasons Produce, says traditional promotion of stewing kits remain relevant and may be more so today for consumers who want nutritionally dense, low calorie meals, particularly in the winter months. Many consumers may flow from juice to soup as the air chills. Today, after all, many appliance producers make the point that their juicers can produce soup.

“I know from the personal standpoint that soups and stews are ways to comfort consumers, and retailers can make stew packs out of a couple or more roots, combining them with other items from across the produce department, including leaks and parsley,” he says.

Walmart’s efforts to merchandise roots during the holidays include developing satellite displays that put key items, including sweet potatoes, potatoes and carrots, in front of consumers in different parts of the store. Scott Neal, senior vice president of meat, produce and seafood, says Walmart would use such displays in both the perishables and general merchandise sections. In doing so, it provides customers easy access, and a little encouragement, whether they come into the store to do grocery shopping or to track down toys and other goodies for others or themselves.

Ralph Schwartz of Potandon Produce, Idaho Falls, ID, says retailers could back up their root product merchandising efforts with holiday advertising.

“I think that enough of them could be advertised together with a recipe-based approach such as a stew or crock pot meal where a consumer can utilize many of them in one meal — or soups also would work,” he says.

Practical Uses For Consumers

Wegman’s executive chef Russell Ferguson stirs cubed sweet potato into a bowl with chopped Brussels sprouts, adds salt, pepper and oil and spreads it all on a cookie sheet for the video camera, then displays a finished dish. “The yams are nicely caramelized,” the Brussels sprouts are tender and the educational process that is helping boost root vegetables continues to gain steam.

Retailers are taking various approaches, including online video and recipes, to help consumers prepare both more and less familiar root vegetables, or to prepare the better known ones in new ways, as in the Wegman’s case.

Wegman’s is pointing out the range and unique character of root vegetable varieties in ways other than on video. It makes a particular point of featuring Yukon Gold potatoes on the updated menus of the pub restaurants it operates in the Malverne, Collegeville,  Allentown, King of Prussia and Montgomeryville, PA stores.

As part of  promotion earlier this year, the company trumpeted “No Veggie Left Behind Soup” in its magazine and in stores, with a recipe concept that could accommodate a lot of vegetables but that made the point of turnip and parsnip suitability. Tons of sources should be studied before the process of writing a research paper.

Mary Ellen Burris, Wegman’s senior vice president of consumer affairs, describes the No Veggie Left Behind concept as “a four-step technique” rather than a recipe. The concept and provides consumers with a method of introducing root vegetables they’ve encountered, but aren’t familiar with.

Still, at a time when many consumers weren’t necessarily taught to cook as kids, some supermarket operators are covering the basics. At Schnucks Markets for instance,  a line up of cooking videos includes one on preparing mashed potatoes. The narration recommends using Russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, “for a pleasingly smooth texture,” giving viewers a sense of the variety of potatoes and how they might have different applications.

Retailers are linking preparation information with reminders of the nutritional advantages of root vegetables, another factor driving sales. At Schnucks, for example, a recipe on the company website is entitled: Low-Fat Cream of Carrot Soup.

At Publix, the unique flavor profiles of root vegetables get some emphasis in dishes such as Beef and Plantain Casserole with Cantaloupe Jicama Salad and Herb-Crusted Shrimp and Yucca Fries with Crazy Corn, as they can provide a flavorful mealtime change of pace.