Supporting the spud

With consumers’ New Year’s resolutions in place, retailers are focusing on the health benefits of potatoes to encourage usage.

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed limiting the amount of potatoes that could be served in federally financed school lunches this past fall, potato growers prepared for battle.

The changes were designed to reduce the rising rate of childhood obesity and open children’s eyes to new vegetables. The dispute that potato growers put forth was not fueled by the hit they would take in sales; it was about the misconception that potatoes are a major contributor to weight gain.

“Potatoes are loaded with vitamins and potassium, are low in calories and contain no fat or no cholesterol,” says Ted Kreis, marketing and communications director for the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association (NPPGA). “There is a lot of science that supports the healthy attributes of potatoes.”

While the USDA has been instructed to start over in its plans to recreate the school lunch program, the spud is still fighting the stigma. Eating healthy is not about avoiding potatoes, say industry observers; it is about how potatoes are prepared. “We are working to differentiate the fresh industry from chips, which often get a bad name,” says Ralph Schwartz, director of category management and value-added marketing for Potandon Produce, based in Idaho Falls, Idaho. “What we want people to understand is that potatoes are preparation dependent, in order to maximize the health benefits.”

Seth Pemsler, vice president of retail and international for the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC), agrees. “Because of the anti-carb movement, we have to remind people that potatoes aren’t bad for you—if you don’t put bad things on them. French fries aren’t as good as a fresh potato but you can very easily slice a potato and bake it to make homemade fries.”

The challenge becomes getting nutritional information and healthy potato recipes into consumers’ hands. The U.S. Potato Board (USPB) has been focused on the issue for quite some time and the Denver-based organization recently conducted a study of the potato shopper on how to do so. When participants were asked to grade retailers’ potato table compared to the remainder of the produce section, “they said the potato area is easy to shop, has good quality and availability but found it lacking information on potato types and how to use them,” says Don Ladhoff, USPB retail program consultant. “There was nothing really inspiring at the potato table.”

Getting the positive potato information into consumers’ hands depends on a smooth collaboration between growers/packers and retailers. The USPB’s research looked at the number of people who made an unplanned purchase of potatoes. Nearly one quarter of them attributed their purchase to a food seen elsewhere in the store, while 16% related it to the product packaging and 13% cited a recipe seen in the store.

On the retail side, signage is the simplest way to conquer this dilemma. Ladhoff suggests looking at the cheese section for inspiration. “In one store I visited, 10 feet from the potato table there is a cheese counter with information about each type of cheese, where it comes from, how its best served and what food and wine it pairs with. Why can’t we bring that mentality over to potatoes?

“This is something we are talking about with retailers—how to move from organization to inspiration so we can take advantage of potato shoppers who are open to buying different kinds and using them. Currently it is not paying off at the moment of truth,” Ladhoff adds.

Organizations like the USPB and IPC offer a wealth of information for retailers to put to use. Observers say these resources have helped, along with new products and packaging, to redefine the potato industry. “It is matter of getting everyone on board,” says Kevin Stanger, senior vice president of sales at Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Wada Farms. “There are some retailers that have taken hold of the information that is available and really boosted their potato sales, while others are still in the ‘commodity’ mode and sales remain stagnant.”

Growers and packers are doing their part to share information through packaging. This year Idaho potato growers have received the go ahead to include the American Heart Association (AHA) logo on their packaging. The Eagle, Idaho-based IPC is encouraging Idaho shippers to incorporate it into their package design. It will also be seen in the IPC’s advertisements and throughout its 75th anniversary celebration.

“The AHA checkmark is prevalent in the grocery department for customers watching their fat and sodium intake. It helps consumers in their shopping decisions; the fact that its becoming more prevalent in produce reinforces the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, particularly potatoes,” says Jim Richter, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Wilcox Fresh, based in Rexburg, Idaho. “Wilcox was the first grower/shipper to implement the logo on our bags over three years ago. The feedback we got from our customers is that it has a positive halo effect on the entire category.”

The NPPGA, based in East Grand Forks, Minn., is also focusing on packaging in the coming year. The organization would like to establish a stronger brand identity for the growing region, which is, Kreis says, the largest red growing region in the country, shipping from October to June.

Specialty varieties, such as reds, purples and fingerlings, as well as value-added products, are receiving increasingly more attention. Observers attribute much of the potato category’s growth to consumers adding specialty varieties to their shopping carts, and they do not see it slowing down any time soon.

“I don’t think we have even scratched the surface of that market,” says Potandon’s Schwartz. “As long as the shipping community continues to bring new and interesting packs to retailers, there is potential for growth.”

The growth of specialty types has not replaced russet purchases, say growers, but are adding to the whole of the category’s sales. Retailers can help continue the strong growth by featuring specialty varieties, such as fingerlings. “Its important to not treat fingerlings like a regular commodity, such as a russet, but display them in their own section,” says Jerry Tominaga, vice president of Heyburn, Idaho-based Southwind Farms, grower of fingerling potatoes. “They are a bit more expensive and usually sold in smaller packages—1.5- to 2-lb. bags so they already differ.”

Fingerling sales, according to Tominaga, were up during Thanksgiving compared to last year. “A lot of the colored varieties, like purples and reds, have a higher antioxidant count. The health benefits are being pushed quite a bit, especially now that Idaho is using the AHA logo,” he adds.

Randy Shell, vice president of marketing for Bancroft, Wis.-based RPE suggests promoting a potato item three out of four weeks of every month touching on every item in the assortment at least two times a year. “About 20% of the volume should be sold on promotion and focus on deep discounts during a few key weeks. Many times potatoes are impulse purchases so display location and signage is just as important as the sale price,” he says.

The IPC’s Potato Lover’s Month (PLM) was designed to capitalize on just this, by enticing impulse potato purchases during a typically slow time of year. Pemsler says the result is actually a growth in sales across the department. “It’s not just about potatoes,” he says.  “It is a relatively slow time of year in the produce department since you don’t have summer produce available anymore and the holidays have passed. When consumers stop to look at a display their peripheral sees everything around them. The feedback we receive is that it increases potato sales dramatically—and overall produce sales.”

The PLM Retail Display Contest is entering its 21st year and officials for the IPC believe it will be a strong year for potato sales. “There is still a recession; consumers are still price-oriented but potatoes are the best value in the produce section,” says Pemsler. “They are about 40 cents a pound. What else can you get for 40 cents a pound?”

Many growers in the Northern Plains region keep potatoes front and center well into March with St. Patty’s Day promotions. “Red potatoes are associated with the Irish and are included in a number of Irish recipes,” says the NPPGA’s Kreis. “The promotions help extend the sales boost from February’s Potato Lover’s Month.”

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