The season for spuds

Nutritional messaging and Potato Lovers Month are just a couple of merchandising campaigns that retailers should employ to keep potatoes in season.

Mashed. Baked. Roasted. Casserole.

Russian-Banana-FingerlingsFor the past few months, consumers have been overloaded with potato dishes. The last item on shoppers lists now that the holidays are over is the potato. Instead, shoppers are focused on getting back on track and tackling their “healthy eating” New Year resolutions.

That is exactly why potatoes should remain front-and-center in the produce department, long after people put the holiday dishes away.

For years, potatoes have faced a stigma. Certain diet trends labeled potatoes as “unhealthful” and it has been a long road back into consumers’ good graces. Now, with “develop healthy eating habits” at the top of shoppers’ to-do lists, is the perfect time to remind consumers about the nutritional benefits of potatoes, say industry observers.
According to Don Ladhoff, retail consultant for the U.S. Potato Board (USPB), the potato industry is making progress in spreading its nutritional message. He describes it in the context of “prescriptive versus permissible.”

“Some produce, like kale for instance, is so healthy that consumers are told that they ‘should’ eat it. It is prescriptive. But potatoes are still only considered ‘ok for you’ so they are permissible to eat. We would love consumers to view potatoes as something they ‘should’ eat to obtain potassium and other nutrients,” he says.

This is one of the messages the Denver-based USPB is basing many of its promotional efforts on, such as its relationship with Hungry Girl. Lisa Lillien, the founder of the Hungry Girl brand, has been promoting guilt-free eating habits and healthy products for almost 10 years across many media outlets. This is the first time she has done something in the produce space, says Ladhoff. “She has been a terrific supporter of potatoes on her website and is the face of a national potato recipe contest we are running on our Facebook page,” he says.

The contest ties in with the USPB’s seasonal campaign’s January/February theme of “Back on Track.” During this time the USPB emphasizes the nutritional message of potatoes, and encourages retailers to do the same.

Nutrition and health is not the only message targeted during this time of year. Every February brings a little  “fun” to the potato category. February is Idaho Potato Lover’s Month and that means it is time for the Idaho Potato Lover’s Month display contest, put on by the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC).

In its 23rd year, the display contest encourages retailers to create a display in their produce departments that incorporates fresh potatoes, a dehydrated potato product and other partner products—this year the Eagle, Idaho-based IPC is working with Hormel Foods. The more creative the better, say IPC officials—and they have seen some imaginative displays over the years.

Since the Famous Idaho Potato Truck has been the on the road, the IPC team has seen retailers incorporate the truck into their displays. “It is incredible because we didn’t tell them to do this or encourage them in anyway; they came up with it on their own,” says Jamie Bowen, marketing manager. “The truck is really a consumer campaign so it is great to see it connect with retailers, consumers and foodservice.”

Bowen says she expects they will continue to see retailers play up the truck this year, but also expects to see more football-themed displays since the Idaho Potato Bowl is becoming more popular. The IPC is awarding a total of $34,000 in cash prizes. Via the Category Manager Match Program, if the produce manger of a store wins one of the first- through fifth-place prizes the category manager also gets the equivalent cash prize. “It encourages entry at all levels,” she says.

Although the IPC represents all of Idaho’s potato growers, some of them are adding their own elements to the contest. If a winner, for example, was showing a Wada Farms product, the Idaho Falls, Idaho-based grower will match the cash prize from the IPC.
“We have done this for a while; it is an open offer out there for our retail customers to participate in,” says Chris Wada, director of marketing. “We have a number of specialty products in addition to bags of russets. It is an opportunity to leverage the Idaho brand across all products and to promote different varieties, pack styles and labels.”

Add on a similar offer from Potandon Produce’s to match the prize money for any winner who includes Green Giant Fresh, SunFresh or Klondike Brands in their display, and the winning retailer could really roll in the dough. Potandon Produce will supply retailers with point-of-sale materials for the program if requested.

“We have supported the display contest this way for many years,” says Barbara Keckler, marketing manager for Potandon. “Displaying Potandon’s large variety of potato products gives a retailer the ability to offer russets to the traditional potato purchaser and convenience and value-added products to the millennial shoppers.”

Retailer displays reflect this trend towards offering variety, says Bowen, who has seen more and more specialty potatoes included in the displays each year. Idaho may be the russet growing capital of the world, but observers agree that it is no longer just about russets.

Specialty potatoes
The consumer demand for specialty potatoes is not letting up. Therefore, there is no surprise that specialty and small potatoes are making their way into displays. Specialty is one of the segments that weathered the price storm last year; small bags, 1- to 4-pounds, continue to grow in both dollars and volume, says the USPB’s Ladoff. “This is a great trial size for people to experiment with a new variety. They also fit with the trend toward less waste and buying just what you need.”

Many growers are coming up with new ways to market these smaller varieties. This is the focus for Wilcox Fresh Marketing in 2014. The Rexburg, Idaho-based grower is working with The Little Potato Co. to expand on the success of the duo’s Potato Jazz line to offer a 1.5- and 3-pound bag of creamers.

“Small potatoes are the fastest growing segment of the category on a percentage basis so there is a big upside,” says Jim Richter, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Wilcox Fresh. “There are some competitive products like this in the marketplace but in many cases they are not a true creamer. This is a way to get that smaller potato out there to the market and a give consumers a chance to prepare it however they like.” The creamers will be sold without seasoning, unlike their Potato Jazz origins, available in red, yellow and a medley variety.

Reds in particular are getting more cook time than ever before. Ted Kreis, marketing and communications officer for the Red River Valley Potato Growers Association, says the red potato segment gained 2% market share last year. As a result, growers nationwide are dedicating more space to the red-skinned potato.

“The Red River Valley is the largest red growing region in the country, but we are seeing more space dedicated to reds in Texas, Missouri, Idaho, and I think Wisconsin added more this year,” says Kreis, adding that he hopes growers can manage their acreage to prevent a crash in the market and an unprofitable situation. “Retailers like to see prices stay steady and under control from year to year; it is our responsibility to keep them steady.”

Why are these potatoes grabbing consumers’ attention? Observers have many explanations, from size to perceived nutritional benefit to convenience. Fingerlings, for instance, are very easy to prepare, says Rod Lake, co-owner of Southwind Farms, based in Heyburn, Idaho. “You do not have to peel them; you just have to wash them. They microwave in about six to seven minutes and you have a meal on your plate. There is no waste.”

Observers say that just a few years ago it was common to meet people who had never heard of fingerlings, but not so much anymore. “Once people try them, they do not go back,” says Lake. “Chefs are cooking with them and they get airtime on the Food Network shows, which is helping spread the word.” Southwind Farms has responded to this demand by branching out from its foodservice focus and expanding its retail program.
Another segment attracting shoppers’ attention is value-added fresh products. Eagle Eye Produce’s Diced Blends line and MountainKing’s re-branding of fingerlings to create Steakhouse Roasters are a win-win: retailers receive a higher ring at the register and shoppers can smile over the convenience of a fresh meal or side dish, say observers.

“From the market data we are seeing the commodity potato market has for the most part plateaued and the potato market is starting to mirror other product commodity markets in its move towards fresh value-added products,” says Kendrick Hanny, director of business development for Eagle Eye.

Eagle Eye, based in Idaho Falls, Idaho, expanded the Simply Good brand Diced Blends to include Fresh Cut Fries, available this quarter, in addition to the fresh cut potatoes. The entire line is microwaveable and comes with fresh potatoes and vegetables pre-seasoned in a blend of butter and spices, offering a “homestyle flavor,” say company officials.

“We introduced this product to respond to the year over year growth trend of convenience items in the produce department,” says Hanny. “The product moves the consumer out of the frozen potato section and into a fresh and convenient culinary experience in the produce department.

Value means different things to different people. To some it is convenience, but for others it could be the good feeling they get from their purchase. For this reason many shoppers make purchases dependant on the company’s charitable efforts and affiliations.

RPE has received positive feedback for their efforts with Katie’s Krops, say company officials. The Bancroft, Wis.-based grower just wrapped up an on-package promotion with its Tasteful Selections specialty potato line that supported Katie’s Krops, a nonprofit organization that enables children ages nine to 16 to grow vegetable gardens and donate their bounty to feed those in need in their own communities. A portion of the profits of marked bags of Tasteful Selections’ Ruby Sensations and Honey Gold potatoes go to the organization.

“The mission of Katie’s Krops is to start and maintain vegetable gardens of all sizes and donate the harvest, as well as to assist and inspire others to do the same,” says Randy Shell, vice president of marketing and new business development. “RPE and Tasteful Selections are helping Katie’s Krops reach its goal of at least one garden in each of the 50 states by donating proceeds from packages of Tasteful Selections potatoes to help fund Katie’s Krops gardens. The partnership was a very successful venture.” RPE plans to partner with them again in 2014. 

A photo is worth a thousand…sales? 

The U.S. Potato Board (USPB) asked Nielsen Perishables Group to conduct research into the impact of imagery in grocery store circulars. The result? Photos matter!

The Denver-based USPB worked with one retailer to see which circular ads were most successful in producing sales—the winners were the ones that showed a prepared potato dish instead of a raw or bagged product.

The 52-week study completed by Nielsen showed a 23-point difference in the incremental volume lift in the circular ads showing a prepared potato versus a raw photo. “By showing it cooked, it does a better job of attracting shoppers’ attention,” says Don Ladhoff, retail consultant for the USPB. “It shows the end result and that is the reason a shopper is buying potatoes—because they are going to make that au gratin or those baked fries. It also gives people more ideas.”

The idea was born from observing meat department ads. “It is rare to see a pile of raw hamburger meat or uncooked steak. It is always a luscious roast or juicy burger. Consumers don’t eat raw beef, but they also don’t eat potatoes raw. Potatoes need to be treated like beef,” he says.

The USPB is excited about the findings and how retailers can make their potato ads more effective. Officials are trying to spread the word to retailers with what they are calling the “power of delicious.”

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