Convenience is king and ‘value-added is the future for the potato category.’
Originally printed in the February 2023 issue of Produce Business.
There was a time when small potatoes were considered just that — small potatoes. Consumers’ “bigger is better” mentality meant that bite-sized spuds didn’t have a place on the retail shelf and were plowed under at the farm. Times have changed. Small is now a big selling point since they cook faster, meaning they are more convenient to prepare than a fist-sized tater.
Convenience ranked as the No. 1 answer to the question, ’What would encourage consumers to buy more potatoes?’ according to the 2022 Consumer Attitudes & Usage survey, by the Denver, CO-based commodity board, Potatoes USA. ‘Easy to cook’ and ‘Small bags to minimize waste’ were the second and third responses, respectively, by consumers surveyed.
“We still sell our fair share of regular russet potatoes, but there has certainly been an uptick in reds, golds, and all of the specialty potatoes we offer today,” says Mark Hendricks Sr., produce director at Pyramid Foods. The Rogersville, MO-based retailer includes 37 stores under banners such as Price Cutter, Save-A-Lot and Country Mart.
“Pre-seasoned bags or trays of fingerlings or mini potatoes is up 15 to 20% over last year through the holiday season,” he adds. “Convenience seems to be top of mind for our customers these days and breaking out of the same old routine with potato dishes is also helping.”
Here’s the scoop on the value-added potato category and how to sell more:
DEFINED & DATA
There’s no official definition of what constitutes a value-added potato product. Simply, it’s a product that adds value, which usually translates to time savings in quicker cooking and convenient preparation.
“Trying to figure out what is value-added and what is not is actually difficult,” says Tom Barnes, chief executive officer of Idaho Falls, ID-based Category Partners LLC, a marketing and category management company owned in partnership by the Wada Farms Marketing Group and Farm Fresh Direct of America.
“On one hand, syndicated Nielsen puts value-added at less than 1% of potato category sales. That’s because any red-skinned or yellow-fleshed petite potato will fall into reds and yellows. What we do is take that syndicated Nielsen IQ potato data and segment it by gourmet and convenience. Anything that is petite and in a premium package goes into gourmet, and convenience would be anything that is nearly ready to eat. For example, micro bakers, micro bags, and trays.”
With this segmentation, Category Partners figures gourmet represented almost 10% of potato category sales, up 9.6% in dollars in 2022, while convenience calculated in at 2.3% of sales, up 6.5% in dollars.
BEST SELLERS & WHAT’S NEW
Best-selling value-added potato products at Gelson’s Markets are private label Yukon Gold, followed by the Peewee Medley, Peewee Dutch, and packaged fingerlings, all of which are private label, says John Savidan, senior director of produce and floral for the 27-store grocery chain based in Encino, CA.
Switching these to private label has helped stimulate the overall potato category.”
Bagged 1.5-pound specialty red and yellow potatoes are among the best value-added movers for the Wada Farms Marketing Group, says president Kevin Stanger. “The most consistent value-added mover is our Easy Baker.”
The company’s Easy Baker is a foil-wrapped, ready-to-grill russet, sold in an over-wrapped tray pack in 3-count and 4-count.
Similarly, Bushmans’ Inc., in Rosholt, WI, sells its Speedy Spuds, triple-washed, individual microwavable wrapped russets, and Roadhouse Bakers, a 4-count pack of restaurant-sized russets.
From here, value-added potato products offer a continuum of convenience for the customer. For example, Newport Beach, CA-based Fresh Solutions Network’s Side Delights brand steamables offer pre-washed petite potatoes in eight types (reds, goldens, russets, purple, fingerling, a red, yellow, and purple medley, a red and yellow duo and sweet) in a 1.5-pound microwave pouch ready in 8 minutes.
Similarly, Friesland, WI-based Alsum Farms & Produce’s Fast & Fresh brand line features three products: B- and C-size reds, goldens, and russets in 12- and 24-ounce microwavable bags. Each cook in 5 to 7 minutes. Both products require consumers to add their own seasonings.
“All value-added formats have grown substantially over the past three years, but microwavable bags and microwavable trays and potatoes have grown the fastest in the years post-COVID,” says Christine Lindner, Alsum’s marketing manager.
SPICE THINGS UP
The next step in convenience is value-added potato products with flavorings.
Fifty-one percent of consumers say they would eat a wider variety of vegetables if they had more preparation information, according to Rachel Atkinson-Leach, vice president, of brand and category excellence for RPE Inc., which markets its products under the Tasteful Selections brand. “We’ve been doing a lot of in-and-out and seasonal promotions with new and exciting flavor profiles.”
Hendricks at Pyramid Foods says his stores carry a full line of Tasteful Selections-brand offerings, including Loaded Potato and Seasoned Garden Herb, both of which are packaged in a microwavable tray with a seasoning packet to stir in after cooking.
Microwavable trays are Tasteful Selections’ best-selling value-added potato items. These were up 23% in dollar sales as a branded product and 20% as private label as of the end of December, versus the same time a year ago. Both private label and branded trays are seeing growth across channels, according to Atkinson-Leach.
“We are introducing new packaging in Q1 2023 for our micro trays,” she adds. “The fiber tray is made from sustainable plant-based fiber, a plastic alternative, is dual ovenable/microwavable, is biodegradable/compost/recyclable, is freezable, and has a removable liner adding structure and easy clean up.”
On the flavor front, The Little Potato Company, headquartered in Edmonton, AB, introduced two flavor extensions to its popular microwave-ready line in 2021. These are Smoked Salt and Roasted Garlic, Rosemary, and Thyme.
The ultimate step in convenience is flavorings incorporated as the value-added potatoes cook.
“We are testing another offering that includes sauces or butter blends included in a microwave bag that looks really promising also,” says Hendricks.
Last year, Idaho Falls, ID-headquartered Potandon Produce introduced its Minute Mashers under the Green Giant Fresh label. The 1-pound microwavable bag of small yellow and red potatoes comes with a clarified butter disk with seasonings. Consumers cook the bag for 7 minutes, then using oven mitts, knead the bag to smash the potatoes, then pour and serve. Flavors, in order of popularity, are buttery sea salt and pepper, buttery roasted garlic, and buttery chive and dill.
Last fall, Potandon introduced its Minute Mashers with gravy. These are small, yellow potatoes with either brown gravy or chicken gravy. “Just cook, smash the potatoes, cut the corner of the bag, pour the gravy and serve. It takes convenience one step further,” says Dan Fitzgerald, marketing manager.
ADD VALUE TO DISPLAYS
The best way to display value-added potatoes has been in the potato section in the fresh produce section of the store, according to Shelley Henschel, The Little Potato Company’s trade marketing manager. “Both are key decision-making areas for consumers looking for healthy and quick meal inspiration ideas for their families.”
Depending on the size of the store, says Gelson’s Savidan, “we could potentially have two potato sets. In some of our larger locations, we could have traditional bulk items on table runs, and then the packaged value-added merchandised in with our other convenience items. Option number two would be to merchandise all of the potatoes in one large set, combining both bulk and packaged SKUs.”
Pyramid Foods has a dedicated space within the potato category for value-added potatoes on tables or in bins, tells Hendricks. “We are also using buy-ins on shipper displays set next to the bulk and bag russet displays to offer the customer an option.”
Both retailers are following the cardinal rule to sell more. That is, stocking commodity and value-added potato products and making sure they are visible and attractive to shoppers.
“It is important for retailers to carry both the commonly known potatoes such as russet, red, yellow, and white potatoes in conjunction with the more specialty potatoes such as petite, medley, fingerling and purple,” says Kayla Vogel, senior global marketing manager for consumer and retail, at Potatoes USA, quoting the board’s Merchandising Best Practices for Fresh Potatoes, released in April 2022, and conducted with IRI. “Sales for retailers are higher across all potatoes if they carry a good mix of all types. Retailers who carry only the commonly known potatoes see lower potato sales across the board.”
Vogel adds that merchandising best practices also show that retailers who dedicate 15 feet of space, on average, to fresh potatoes, and use diverse fixtures such as tables, vertical shelving, cardboard boxes, and bins all in one display, are seeing the largest growth in sales. This is because consumers can see all offerings in new and interesting ways. She also added that top-performing retailers use an even number of marketing signs and price signs. This means these retailers are telling consumers where potatoes are and how much they are going to pay for them.
RPE’s Atkinson-Leach says they have seen success in stacking boxes next to a refrigerated set and putting wrapped potatoes or micro trays on the top. “Also, display shippers have been a successful tactic for our value-add micro tray line. Several retailers are doing in-and-out shipper promotions outside of their normal potato sets with great success.”
Potandon Produce’s Fitzgerald says they offer small footprint cardboard display shippers with shelves and a header. Each holds three cases or 36 units. “Some retailers put up to five of these around a display table and create a wow factor.”
GET CREATIVE ON PROMOTIONS
Promotions will help drive sales and engage consumers as roughly half of shoppers are avidly looking for deals, says Atkinson-Leach. “Depth of discount at retail is declining, however, promotion frequency remains unchanged. Also, fewer potatoes are being sold via promotion in recent years, a minus 17% share decrease from 2019.”
While sales of value-added potatoes are growing, it’s not at the pace of years ago, adds Wada Farms’ Stanger. “Inflation, and the added price point of value-added, is a factor for consumers in today’s economy.”
That said, non-price promotions can be effective, and can help lessen the risk of trial for higher-priced, value-added potatoes.
“For an introductory launch, conduct a test market trial with retailers in strategic locations and brand ambassadors, or food/lifestyle bloggers that can influence target market to help pull the product through the channel,” says Alsum Farms & Produce’s Lindner.
Retail dietitians also help influence consumers by sampling healthy potato recipes in-store, pending the retailer’s sampling policy due to COVID, and sharing information about the health and nutrition benefits of potatoes, Lindner adds. Additionally, retail dietitians may offer a virtual or in-person cooking class that provides how-to inspiration, and drives repeat purchases.
Looking ahead, value-added is the future for the potato category, forecasts Kathleen Triou, Fresh Solutions Network’s president and chief executive officer. “Fresh-cut potatoes are likely the next convenience frontier, but quick-to-cook convenience will always be attractive to consumers.”
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Value-Added Potatoes: Incremental or Cannibalized Sales?
Do value-added potato products add incrementally or cannibalize sales from other potato category SKUs? The answer is both.
“You’ll always have that customer who is going to buy that 5-pound bag of russets. The opportunity that value-added provides is for that customer to add more potatoes to their family’s meals during the week,” says Dan Fitzgerald, marketing manager for Potandon Produce, in Idaho Falls, ID. “One customer can purchase both products for two or more eating occasions, thus growing category sales incrementally.”
The only cannibalization found in the Merchandising Best Practices for Fresh Potatoes report, released in April 2022 by Denver, CO-headquartered Potatoes USA, and conducted with IRI, is if retailers carry too many pack sizes of large russets, says Kayla Vogel, senior global marketing manager for consumer and retail. “The smaller pack sizes and more value-added varieties are adding incremental growth.”
The top incremental potato SKUs, according to the best practice report, include bagged 1.5-pound petites, 1.5-pound reds, 2.5-pound russets, and 1-pound garlic parsley-flavored reds.
The list above includes value-added potatoes that fall into two classifications, gourmet and convenience. This is how Idaho Falls, ID-based Category Partners, LLC, a marketing and category management company owned in partnership by the Wada Farms Marketing Group and Farm Fresh Direct of America, segments Nielsen IQ syndicated category data. Gourmet is petite potatoes in a premium package, and convenience is potatoes ready or nearly ready to eat.
Before 2020, gourmet and convenience were complements, explains Tom Barnes, chief executive officer. “Consumers would pick up their 5-pound bag and they’d grab something else. Today, it’s a little different with inflation and people watching their grocery budget. I think you’re probably seeing more cannibalization than in the past just because of the higher prices.”
“Still,” he adds, “you have to have both to bring in every customer or you’re going to lose sales.”
Barnes believes gourmet and convenience may fight for space in the same basket. “Lately, gourmet has shown a better value as people start to understand smaller potatoes. How fast they grow all depends on inflation.
“That said, innovative retailers are always looking for new items, new ways to get consumers in the door and bring in more dollars, so I think growers will continue to be creative in the development of value-added potato products.”