Variety is the Spice in Greater Potato Sales

Potato VarietiesPhoto Courtesy Of Redner’s Markets

This tasty tuber marks one of its highest benchmarks in household penetration.

Moving the needle on potato purchases in the produce department might require a “slow-and-steady-wins-the-race” methodology, and grower/shippers as well as retailers say the answer is variety.

Grilling With Potatoes Display

Photo Courtesy of Black Gold Farms

“Shoppers today want variety,” says Richard Stiles, director of produce and floral for Redner’s Markets, a Reading, PA-based chain with stores in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. “That means Russets, reds, whites and yellows plus the purples, Fingerlings, Creamers and all the specialties. The more variety, the more usage opportunities, and the more sales.”

Preparation ideas, as well as different types of potatoes are important in variety solutions.

“A very important opportunity is to provide consumers with new and interesting ways to prepare potatoes,” says Ross Johnson, global retail marketing manager for Denver, CO-based Potatoes USA, which is a marketing organization for the 2,500 commercial potato growers operating in the U.S. “Most consumers are in cooking ruts and state that they would prepare potatoes more often if they had new recipes.”

The variety angle for merchandising spuds creates challenges — such as shelf space constraints and education without clutter. On the flip side, a number of selling opportunities can be created in these areas as well.

What’s New With SKUS

“Potato category trends are focused on more varieties, a significant increase in organics and the expansion of smaller pack sizes,” says Randy Shell, vice president of marketing and new business development for RPE, Inc., in Bancroft, WI.

Consumers have a clear preference for different varieties, according to John Pope, vice president of sales and marketing for MountainKing Potatoes in Houston, TX. “If retailers would flip the script on variety, not look at varietals as specialties, they’d be blown away by the economics.”

The biggest opportunity in offering more of a selection is that growth in varietals doesn’t necessarily cannibalize traditional Russet sales, says Seth Pemsler, vice president of retail for Eagle, ID-based Idaho Potato Commission (IPC). “Since they often have different usages, you can increase overall potato sales by promoting varieties along with Russets. Additionally, varietals offer increased margin and overall category profits.”

Russets contributed 44.7 percent to total potato sales dollars during the 52-weeks ending July 2, 2016, according to data provided by the Chicago, IL-headquartered Nielsen Perishables Group.

“Today’s consumers’ preferences are changing faster than how displays are changing in stores. … There’s an opportunity to shift more square feet to better tasting higher-value potatoes like our Butter reds and Butter golds.”

— John Pope, MountainKing Potatoes

“Russet potatoes were down 3.5 percent last year compared to a decrease of 1.8 percent in the category overall,” says Don Ladhoff, director of fresh sales and marketing at Black Gold Farms, in Grand Forks, ND, citing Nielsen Perishables Group’s data. “Currently there are more Russets grown than are warranted.”

However, “sales of organic Russets are getting stronger,” says Richard Leibowitz, president of Culinary Specialty Produce, in Watsonville, CA.

Red-skinned potato represented 18.7 percent of potato category dollars, while yellow-flesh came in at 11.0 percent, based on Nielsen Perishables Group statistics. Interestingly, figures provided by Potatoes USA for the 52-weeks ending April 2, 2016, showed red potatoes growing at 2 percent compared to the year prior, with yellow potatoes making double-digit gains at 15.4 percent.

“Year after year, red potatoes are increasing in demand and market share at the expense of round whites here on the East Coast market,” says Marc Turner, general manager of the Bushwick Commission Co., in Farmingdale, NY.

Rain and hail in the Red River Valley led to an estimated 25 percent-plus loss of the red-skinned crop in this prime growing area, according to Ted Kreis, marketing director of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association (NPPGA), headquartered in East Grand Forks, MN. “On the other hand, we’re going to be over 10 percent of the crop as yellow-flesh this year, which is the largest it’s ever been.”

Specialty and purple potatoes collectively contribute 3.1 percent of potato category dollars, according to Nielsen Perishables Group. However, data from Potatoes USA shows Fingerlings grew at 4.1 percent.

“Fingerlings have become a necessity for a retailer who wants to be a one-stop-shop. The main reasons are flavor. That said, the most popular is a 1- to 2.5-pound pack of mixed Fingerings with three or four varieties and colors including a purple for eye appeal,” says Culinary Specialty Produce’s Leibowitz.

Small-sized B- and C-sized potatoes are making bigger gains at retail.

“Customers really look for the little red and yellow Creamer potatoes especially in the fall and winter,” says Redner’s Stiles.

Likewise, “We’re seeing greater traction on sales of baby golds, reds and purples. They are volume items, but strong niche movers,” adds Alfonso Cano, produce director, of Anaheim, CA-based Northgate González Markets.

Small or baby-sized potatoes are extremely trendy, according to Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Los Angeles-based Melissa’s/World Variety Produce. “Consumers are looking for potatoes that are much easier to cook. Baby potatoes have less than a third the amount of cooking time versus a larger regular-sized potato.”

Shippers say organically grown potatoes are on the rise across all varieties. During the 52-weeks ending July 2, Nielsen Perishables Group data shows organic potato sales accounted for 5 percent of total category dollars.

“We started our organics program in 2000. Volume and sales dollars have doubled in the past five years,” says Christine Lindner, in national sales at Alsum Farms & Produce, in Friesland, WI.

There is still a large base of large or lower income families for which a 10-pound bag of potatoes is still appropriate. However, “household sizes are declining and retailers need to ensure they have sufficient package sizes to meet this changing customer,” says Mac Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Category Partners, LLC, in Denver, CO. “In addition, packaging is continuing to evolve. We’re seeing more trays and microwavable bags.”

This fall, Alsum Farms will introduce a new line of 24-ounce gourmet potato pouch packs. “The pouch provides a convenient grab-n-go concept for busy shoppers, it helps extend product shelf life, and it prevents contamination from consumer handling. In addition, the high-graphic pouch enables consumers to spot potatoes from a distance while allowing a viewing window of the product. The pouch offers better merchandising for retailers as it sits upright on the shelf,” explains Lindner.

Display A Buffet

“Having the right variety of potatoes in the produce department will give you the most positive impact to your potato sales,” says Potatoes USA’s

Smokin Red Spuds

Smoking rather than grilling potatoes was a promotion Black Gold Farms offered over Father’s Day. The company purchased grills for participating stores. A poster showed shoppers in a four-step infographic how to turn their grill into a smoker along with a recipe for Smokin’ Red Roasties & Chili Rub Pork.
(Photo Courtesy Of Black Gold Farms)

Johnson. The operative word is “right.”

“Today’s consumers’ preferences are changing faster than how displays are changing in stores. For example, if you look at a typical 18-foot table of potatoes, 70 percent are conventional Russets, and Russets represent less than half of category sales. There’s an opportunity to shift more square feet to better tasting higher-value potatoes like our Butter reds and Butter golds,” says MountainKing’s Pope.

Positioning can be as important as space allocation when it comes to sales. “Placing new value-added items at the beginning of the potato display will encourage consumers to try new offerings while also strolling down to see old favorites, such as the 5-pound bag of Russets,” says Alsum’s Lindner.

A huge buffet of potato offerings can be overwhelming and confusing to consumers. “There’s an opportunity to educate shoppers on the taste profiles and cooking uses for different varieties of potatoes — especially for Fingerlings, which people may not have experience using. Accomplish this with quick bullet points on a chalkboard sign like ‘all-purpose,’ ‘no peeling,’ ‘quick cooking.’ It doesn’t have to be a long explanation or extensive point-of-sale signage,” says Sherise Jones, marketing coordinator for Southwind Farms Inc., in Heyburn, ID.

Beyond these points, the basics of a good display always rule. “Proper rotation and storage of potatoes is important, so their appearance remains good,” says Paul Dolan, general manager of Associated Potato Growers Inc., in Grand Forks, ND.

Thinking Outside The Baked-Mashed Box‭‬

One of the biggest challenges in selling more potatoes, according to Category Partners’ Johnson, is overcoming the idea that potatoes are boring and they take too much time to prepare.

“Potatoes can be prepared so many other ways than just mashed or baked, and consumers, especially Millennials, are looking at new and different tastes. Those same consumers are also looking to get meals on the table faster. As an industry, we have to do a better job of communicating to these consumers that potatoes are much more versatile, and there are prep methods that can match today’s time constraints.”

There are several ways retailers can highlight these potato attributes. One way is secondary displays both in and out of the produce department.

“There’s an opportunity to cross-merchandise potatoes throughout the whole store. We do this regularly, and potato sales continue to increase due to impulse purchases,” says Redner’s Stiles.

In the produce department, there’s a double opportunity to show how potatoes can be healthfully prepared. “Cross-promote potatoes with healthful items to increase shopper’s understanding that potatoes are good for you. This includes salsa, mushrooms, avocados and guacamole as toppers. After all, it’s not the potato, it’s what you add to them,” says the IPC’s Pemsler.

Secondary displays in the meat case can lift sales outside of the produce department. “Consumers look at meat and potatoes as a natural meal solution and are more likely to purchase potatoes if they see ready-to-bake or grill potatoes paired next to steaks, pork chops or chicken in the meat aisle,” suggests Alsum’s Lindner.

The deli is another ideal place for potatoes. “Cross-merchandise small potatoes by rotisserie chicken. The fat from the chicken falls on them, cooks them, and they are delicious,” Culinary Specialty Produce’s Leibowitz. “Or, have the deli make a potato salad with our Harvest Moon (purple-skinned, yellow-flesh) potato. Then, while on display behind the case, put whole potatoes around the bowl so customers can see the potato used to make the salad and can recognize it when they see it in the produce department.”

“Show shoppers how to make homemade kettle chips from Fingerlings. This expands potatoes beyond a meal to a snack or appetizer occasion.”

— Sherise Jones, Southwind Farms

Recipes are another great way to spur customers’ spud creativity in the kitchen. “On-trend potato recipes along with prepared images on packaging help inspire consumers with new ways to prepare potatoes,” says Alsum’s Lindner.

Show prepared images of potato dishes in circular ads, rather than raw potatoes, and accept signage from vendors and associations that offer recipes and/or quick preparation ideas, recommends the IPC’s Pemsler.

Millennial shoppers are especially looking for new and innovative ways to prepare America’s favorite vegetable, says Dana Rady, director of promotion, communication and consumer education at the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association, in Antigo, WI. “For example, use potatoes in place of bread for pizza crust or instead of noodles in lasagna. These two ideas are perfect if you have an allergy to gluten — given that potatoes are naturally gluten free.”

Tap into the kettle chip trend on foodservice bar menus, suggests Southwind Farms’ Jones. “Show shoppers how to make homemade kettle chips from Fingerlings. This expands potatoes beyond a meal to a snack or appetizer occasion.”

Smoking rather than grilling potatoes was a promotion Black Gold Farms offered over Father’s Day. The company purchased grills for a participating 80-store chain that positioned these units in front of the meat case. A poster showed shoppers in a four-step infographic how to turn their grill into a smoker along with a recipe for Smokin’ Red Roasties & Chili Rub Pork that featured red-skinned potatoes.

“The retailer saw an 86 percent increase in volume of red potato sales versus the week prior,” says Ladhoff.

Beyond store level, “we offer mobile-friendly recipes on our website that retailers can direct their customers too,” says Ralph Schwartz, director of category management and value-added marketing for Potandon Produce, LLC, in Idaho Falls, ID.

The Monte Vista, CO-headquartered Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, is working with a television station in Denver to produce and broadcast recipe videos.

“This give shoppers ideas and shows them different ways to prepare potatoes before they arrive at the store,” says Jim Ehrlich, executive director.

Recipes are also a great way to encourage customers to purchase more than one variety of potato during a shopping trip.

“We’ll put baby reds for potato salad and Bakers for a dinner side dish on ad at the same time,” says Jim Weber, produce supervisor for Tadych’s Econofoods, a six-store chain based in Brillion, WI.

Suppliers, such as MountainKing, assist in spurring multi-purchases with its packaging. For example, the company’s Butter Golds show a photo of prepared mashed potatoes, its Seafood Market Reds are contained in boil-in-the-bag pack, and its Steakhouse Bakers suggest serving with beef. “It’s all about suggestive selling,” says Pope of MountainKing.

Lastly, position potatoes as part of meal solutions.

“Consumers appreciate when retailers offer a meal solution by paring items that have a high affinity rate. We know this is an opportunity for the potato category and are researching where these wins exist,” says Potatoes USA’s Johnson.

It’s More Than Just Price

Potato Endcap

Photo Courtesy of Redner’s Markets

Variety in promotions — price and non-price — is key.

“Price is always an important ingredient in potato promotions,” says Potandon’s Schwartz.

Potatoes on ad sell more rapidly than when not on promotion, agrees Alsum’s Lindner. “Ideally, promoting different varieties several times a quarter lifts volume and profits.”

As for the price itself, “We need to get retailers to price potatoes according to the changing market and pass price decreases along to the consumer rather than keep the pricing the same no matter what the market,” says Associated Potato Grower’s Dolan.

Ryan Bybee, sales manager at GPOD of Idaho, in Shelley, ID, agrees. “The fact is potatoes have been so cheap this year, and we have not seen the retail price drop accordingly. With a large supply, the retailer could lower his price and move more volume which in turn would help bring the price back up for everyone including the farmer.”

There are always times where price is important, says RPE’s Shell, “but not every promotion should be strictly focused on price.”

One idea is to include potatoes in seasonal and holiday-themed promotions.

“For example, potato nachos for Super Bowl or potato kebabs during summer barbecue season lift the category,” recommends Alsum’s Lindner.

St. Patrick’s Day in March is another ideal potato-selling holiday.

“This year, we saw an increased number of retailers focused on promoting potatoes for St. Patrick’s Day, and as a result, we saw a significant increase in promotional lift,” says Potato USA’s Johnson.

“The greatest lift occurred with red and white potatoes. In fact, the percent subsidized volume, or the percent of volume that would have sold regardless of a promotion, decreased compared to last year. The data suggests the promotions were also more impactful by focusing on red potato promotions; for example, 5-pound bags instead of bulk reds,” adds Johnson.

In addition, retailers can take advantage of promotional activities hosted by associations such as the IPC’s Potato Lover’s Month each February.

“We are partners once again with Hormel diced bacon. However, the big difference is the prize. In 2017, instead of cash, the first place winners in each category will receive a cruise vacation.

Finally, when it comes to promotion, whether it be based on price, different varieties or preparation suggestions, one thing is most important, says Category Partners’ Johnson.

“Keep potatoes up front and on the top of consumer’s mind to get them in the basket more often.”