Celebrating the Spud

With strong potato sales and abundant supply in the ground, growers are celebrating the category—and they want retailers to join the party.

What is 72-feet long, traveled more than 15,000 miles across the country, raised more than $100,000 for charity and inspires shoppers to flock to the produce department?
Here is a hint: It carries a 28-foot long, 12-foot wide and 11½-foot tall potato and is manned by a team of singing and dancing potato-lovers.

The correct answer is the Idaho Potato Commission’s (IPC) Famous Idaho Potato Truck.
For the past seven months the bright red truck traveled from city to city, parking in supermarket parking lots and hanging out with shoppers to celebrate the IPC’s 75th anniversary, raise money for the Meals on Wheels Association of America and boost excitement for the potato category. Excitement was not the only thing it boosted, according to Seth Pemsler, vice president of retail/international for the Eagle, Idaho-based organization. He says many of the grocers that featured Idaho potato promotions during the truck’s store visit sold out of potatoes.

“It was a success,” says Pemsler. “So successful that it will reappear next spring for a second tour.” While the IPC truck may be leading the way down a new road of consumer marketing, retailers should not expect a line of 44,000-pound trucks parked outside their entrance anytime soon. The truck did prove that celebrating the potato segment and its achievements works.

After all, everyone loves a party, and with the industry predicting an oversupply this season, industry observers’ advice is to focus efforts on promotional opportunities that go beyond discounting and generate excitement.

“Our biggest challenge currently is helping our customers understand that unlike past years, there is, and will be, an abundant supply of Idaho potatoes throughout this season,” says Lance Poole, vice president of sales for Eagle Eye Produce, based in Idaho Falls, Idaho. “As a result, we are able to coordinate special deals that our customers can then pass onto their clientele, which has been unseen in the past few years.”

The U.S. Potato Board (USPB) also tries to reinforce the power of potatoes. According to research from the Denver, Colo.-based organization, when potatoes are in consumers’ carts the average shopping trip is 10 minutes longer. Studies further show that 91% of potato purchases are planned. Robert Tominaga, president of Southwind Farms, a Heyburn, Idaho-based fingerling and specialty potato grower, attributes this to the education consumers receive from watching the Cooking Channel and the Food Network. “Potatoes are a very hot item on the cooking TV shows right now,” he says.

However, some consumers admit to being in a potato rut, says Don Ladhoff, USPB retail programs consultant.  “They serve potatoes three or four ways over and over again. They tell us, ‘If you give me a new idea, I will serve them more often.’” So that is what the USPB does with its Potato Recipe of the Week e-newsletter. “We find that suggesting something new may not mean somebody grabs the recipe, goes home and prepares it; but it puts potatoes back at the top of the list. That’s the way to increase potato sales and encourage consumers to eat them more often at home so they make the list.”

Potato growers are not taking any chances though. What happens if potatoes do not make the list? Information at the store level and on packaging helps catch the remaining 9% of unplanned purchases. “Effective signage and consumer education at store level are key to helping consumers understand the taste and preparation profiles of newer potato types,” says Ralph Schwartz, director of category management for Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Potandon Produce.

The grower is enticing consumers a bit further by adding Box Tops to all-size packages of Green Giant Fresh Klondike Rose Potatoes, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The Box Tops for Education program is a priority for many moms, say company officials, by turning everyday activities, like cooking potato dishes, into cash for America’s schools.

Celebrating is also front-of-mind for Wada Farms. In honor of its 70th anniversary upcoming in 2013, the Idaho Falls, Idaho-based grower is introducing a number of store-level elements to assist retailers in promoting its potato products, all with a farm fresh design and its 70-year anniversary messaging.

There are even new products in the mix, such as a line of bite-size mini potatoes that aim to be easy and fun to eat. “They are enjoyable for kids because they are just the right size for them, and adults because they are easy to prepare in a myriad of delicious ways,” says Chris Wada, marketing director. “The package features a new recipe focus on smashed potatoes; we have developed an entire series of recipes based around this new and fun way to eat smaller-sized round colored potatoes.”

A touch of color
Colored potatoes, and other specialties, continue to be the key to boosting category sales, say many observers. Reds, yellows, purples and fingerlings, among others, are frequenting the shopping list as often, if not more often, than russets.

It is similar to any other category, says Southwind Farms’ Tominaga. “The more you have to offer, the more the consumer has a reason to come shop in your store. If you only have russets you are going to eliminate 20% of your customers, those looking for specialty potatoes, and those customers are also getting a better piece of meat or a nicer vegetable or even a bottle of wine,” he adds.

While almost all varieties saw growth in dollar sales, purple and blue potatoes are currently winning the popularity contest with a 16% and 33% increase in volume and dollars, respectively, for the 52 weeks ended July, 28, according to The Nielsen Co., based in New York. Observers predict this growth to continue, especially with an abundant supply on the horizon.

Consumers are also looking for a unique eating experience and specialty potatoes can fit that bill. “They want quick cook times and tender skins, such as our Tasteful Selections line of baby potatoes,” says Randy Shell, vice president of marketing and new business development for RPE, based in Bancroft, Wis. “We expect to continue to see strong growth in small round and fingerling potatoes for years to come.”

Part of the obstacle with selling specialty varieties is that consumers do not know how to use them. For example, red potatoes are good for everything except frying, says Ted Kreis, marketing and communications director for the Red River Valley Potato Growers, based in East Grand Forks, Minn. “There are definitely a lot of misconceptions. A lot of people don’t realize that you can bake a red potato; they are the first choice for potato salad, soups and roasting; and they mash up pretty nicely.”

Observers point out that russet purchases are generally driven by versatility and low price. With expectations of low prices across the board, it is a great time to push a variety of offerings.

“There is a need to diversify the category, bring some excitement in a soft economy,” says Jim Richter, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Wilcox Fresh, which is introducing a line of specialty bag potatoes in partnership with the Little Potato Co. The 1.5-pound bags will come in four SKUs—red, yellow, Blushing Belle or Piccolo. “More customers are cooking and entertaining at home so it is a chance to offer new varieties, new flavors and new sizes that are going to be popular.”

The Rexburg, Idaho-based company is also spicing up its Potato Jazz item. The microwaveable potatoes will now come with C-size potatoes with Chipotle, Garlic Parsley, Zesty Italian or Savory Herb spices. “We tested the spices profiles; its going to be very successful,” adds Richter.

The convenience factor of steamables remains appealing to time-strapped shoppers, say observers, and consumers expect the same variety as when shopping the fresh section. Steamable sweet potatoes, for example, are growing in popularity among the mainstream market. Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., based in Chadbourn, N.C., has been producing steamer bags of sweet potatoes for two and half years under its George Food brand and the Green Giant brand. “Two of the top ten reasons people buy produce are nutrition and convenience,” says George Wooten, president. “The convenience is the main driver for our steamables. Many people don’t want to cook potatoes in the summer because they don’t want to heat up the oven; this eliminates that problem.”

Additionally, the grower is seeing an uptick in sales of its 3- and 5-pound consumer bags. “Talk show hosts, the food networks and restaurants are all beginning to use them more so people are picking them up and going home to cook with them. You can bake them, microwave them, mash them, caramelize them… they are very versatile.” 

Potato parties

Potandon Produce
Potandon Produce’s Klondike Rose Potato turns 10 this year. The Idaho Falls, Idaho-based company is celebrating with retail promotions and capturing consumers attention through its social media sites. “The Klondike Rose was a catalyst for Potandon’s variety program as it exists today,” says Ralph Schwartz, director for category management. “It was quickly adopted by several key customers who had the foresight to see it for what it was—a game changer for the category. Potandon has built the brand in a smooth upward trend that insured the quality was consistent.”

Wada Farms
Although its 70th anniversary is technically in 2013, Wada Farms’ officials are kicking off the celebration early with a new messaging campaign that will carry through in its ads, new products, trade show booth and other elements, as well as multiple in-store solutions for retailers. “We are grateful for the support we have had over the years and are excited to celebrate that now and into the future,” says Chris Wada, marketing director for the Idaho Falls, Idaho-based grower.

Idaho Potato Commission (IPC)
The IPC celebrated its 75th anniversary by bringing the party to the stores across the country with its seven-month Famous Idaho Potato Truck Tour. The tour was such a success that it will be hitting the road again next year, says Seth Pemsler, vice president of retail/international for the Eagle, Idaho organization. In the meantime, the IPC is thrilled to team up with retailers to continue the party in-store and is working on developing a model truck that could be incorporated into promotions. “We would be thrilled to work with any retailer who would like to continue working with the truck—we just can’t deliver the truck right now,” says Pemsler. “But it has created all sorts of excitement, and in today’s world excitement can play itself out in people visiting stores, activities and events and even online.”

A potato for every season

No season is the same; and neither is a potato sale. If retailers want to prevent potatoes from taking root on their shelves during slower periods, they need to vary their approach, say industry observers.

The U.S. Potato Board (USPB), based in Denver, Colo., has made it easy with its latest campaign, Linda’s Potato Seasons. Linda, the descriptive used to represent the USPB’s target consumer, has changing needs and priorities throughout the year. By indexing 2011 sales week by week, the USPB came up with five distinct periods that retailers should shift their promotional focus to redefine the potato’s role in order to appeal to Linda.
“Potatoes are something shoppers will buy if you remind them; when retailers take their foot off the gas, the category slows down,” says Don Ladhoff, USPB retail programs consultant. Here is what the USPB has to say about Linda’s Potato Seasons and how retailers can keep sales up:

Nurture Me (January/February)
Linda is focused on herself and her family; it is time to play up the health benefits of potatoes.

Spring Ahead (March/April/May)
Spring is all about color and so should be potato displays; think reds, purples and yellows.

Lighten Up (May/June/July/August)
Routine tends to go out the window in the summer; focus on grilling and team up with other fresh produce items.

Back on Track (September/October)
Back-to-school means back to a schedule and less time in the kitchen; offer some healthy recipes for potatoes that can be prepared simply, quickly and creatively.

Plus Up Potatoes (November/December)
Holiday recipes are here to stay; but other entertaining occasions offer Linda a chance to impress her guests with new recipes.

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