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The root to better potato sales: a rise in specialty varieties and convenience-based packaging has led to a resurfaced interest in potatoes.

BAKED, BOILED, FRIED, ROASTED, MASHED, chips, salads, soups ... there is definitely more than one way to peel a potato.

Shoppers would be hard pressed to find an item in the produce section quite as versatile--or as universally adored--as potatoes.

For many, potatoes are a comfort food, one that even the healthiest Zeitgeist cannot shake from the consumer conscious. "People enjoy eating potatoes," says Sarah Reece, global retail marketing manager for the US Potato Board (USPB), based in Denver. "In a recent consumer segmentation study, 87 percent of consumers rated potatoes as good or excellent for being a food that everyone would enjoy. One in five dinners at home include potatoes, and potatoes are tied with poultry as having the highest share of at-home dinner occasions."

The potato has been a mealtime staple among many cultures for thousands of years, but more recent emphasis on innovative varieties is the root of current demand for the vegetable.

Mini potatoes are among the types that consumers are most interested in. Ralph Schwartz, vice president of sales, marketing and innovation for Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Potandon Produce, notes that mini potato sales are on a steady incline. "We see additional growth in upcoming years as the category has not fully penetrated the entire U.S. market," he adds. In the last year, according to the USPB, the petite potato category experienced a 13 percent growth in dollars and a 10 percent growth in volume.

Fingerlings are another smaller potato that consumers are gravitating toward, and they are also seen as a unique variety. Robert Tominaga, partner at Southwind Farms, based in Heyburn, Idaho, credits the Millennial with driving this demand. "Younger consumers are interested in all things new and unique, but they also have very discriminating palettes, so their food needs to taste great, too. Fingerlings fit that bill."

In addition to small sizes like minis and fingerlings, the presence of different colored potatoes is driving demand. Observers say that red and yellow varieties are becoming more popular, as are even more obscure spuds like Potandon's Klondike Royale, a light skinned potato accented with purple kiss-shaped marks. This is the first year that the Royale is available for national distribution.

"People don't want the same old," says Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the Antigo, Wis.-based Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association. "They want to try something that might have a new flavor, that might lend itself to a new way of preparation."

Many attribute this shift to the adventurous Millennial as well. "I think the move to colors has a lot to do with young consumers and foodies looking to try new things," says Ted Kreis, marketing and communications director for the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, based in East Grand Forks, Minn.

Though growers and retailers love to promote these new varieties of potatoes, at first, they are often unfamiliar to consumers. Industry observers note that retailers will benefit from educating their customer base on what these new types of potatoes are supposed to look like, and even potential uses.

"Retailers can have POS information there, that tells the consumer what variety it is, explains it, says what color it is supposed to be," says Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Monte Vista, Colo.-based Colorado Potato Administrative Committee. "A lot of that can be done online, too."

Some suppliers include everything the consumer needs to know right on the product's package. Convenience-based packaging is another attribute--throughout the grocery store as a whole--that potato buyers are seeking. "Some have seasoning, some are just the potatoes themselves and you just microwave them for a minute. It is really becoming a part of the trend," says Seth Pemsler, vice president retail/ international for the Eagle, Idaho-based Idaho Potato Commission.

More than 10 years ago, Bushman's introduced Speedy Spuds, a triple-washed, microwaveable, individually wrapped potato product. Recently, the company has noticed a definite increase in demand for the item. "In the past couple of years, there is no question that the consumers are demanding smaller pack size and convenience," says Michael Carter, CEO of Rosholt, Wis.-based Bushman's.


Many growers even go so far as to take their product on the road. The famous Big Idaho Potato Truck completed a packed 2015 tour, and will be back at it again by the spring. The truck visits both retail stores and company headquarters, and is extremely successful, Pemsler adds.

The Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association utilizes its Wisconsin Spudmobile to educate consumers on Wisconsin grown potatoes. The Spudmobile is a "traveling billboard," says Dana Rady, director of promotion, communications and consumer education for the organization. It has been in operation for two years so far, and visits community events, fairs, industry events, schools and retail stores. The truck's interior features eight exhibits on the Wisconsin potato industry, regarding its farmers, nutritional information, the history of the industry and more.

While forging a relationship with consumers on the go often provides extra value to suppliers and retailers, there are plenty of ways to keep the connection in-store. Potatoes are uniquely positioned as the perfect item for cross merchandising, note observers, as they are generally not a standalone item. "Obviously if a shopper buys potatoes, they are going to buy things to go with it. That gives them an opportunity to do more cross merchandising," says Pemsler.

Keith Graven, fresh sales manager for Black Gold Farms, based in Grand Forks, N.D., recommends cross merchandising its red potatoes with items from the meat case, so shoppers can easily visualize a complete meal.

In February, Black Gold Farms will run its "Spice Up Your Spud Life" promotion. "Being the month of love and American Heart Month, there are some great opportunities to tie in red potatoes in retail promotions all month long," says Graven.

At PMA Fresh Summit, Potandon launched its "Sales for All Seasons" promotion, designed to show retailers which potatoes and onions are best to promote at different times of year, going beyond the holiday-only mindset. The program highlights various national days of significance, religious days, sporting events, culturally significant days, as well as potato/onion sourcing and availability throughout the year, to help retailers target promotions accordingly.


SOCIAL MEDIA AND POS SIGNS are not the only effective ways to educate consumers on the value of potatoes. Many growers take opportunities whenever they can to meet and connect with both end users and others in the industry face to face.


To promote its product, Bushman's gives retail customers the opportunity to participate in Potato Palooza events. They happen right at the front entrance of a retail store, where Bushman's calls attention to potatoes through games for kids and activities like potato peeling contests. "It gives us as a grower an opportunity to actually interact with the consumers and allow them to ask questions," says Michael Carter, CEO of the Rosholt, Wis.-based company. The events are done during or directly after potato harvest season. Carter says that the timing is ideal as people are starting to get back into the habit of eating meals that contain potatoes in the fall.


February is Potato Lover's Month, and for the past 25 years, the Eagle, Idaho-based Idaho Potato Commission (IPC) has run the Potato Lover's Month Display Contest to commemorate the event. As the contest has grown--Seth Pemsler, the IPC's vice president retail/international says that in the past decade it has evolved from 600 to 5,000 participating stores-so has the opportunity to win. This year, the number of winners was doubled to 10 in each of three categories, and the prize money was increased as well.

To draw more attention to the contest, this year, it is in partnership with Hormel Real Bacon Bits and Country Crock Spreads. Due to the high level of demand, the contest has also been expanded, as of last year, from a four- to an eight-week timeframe. "The reason people do the display is because it is kind of a slow period, which is why Potato " Lover's Month works so well in the middle of winter, because there is not a lot going in produce," says Pemsler. "In February it's kind of dead. When you build one of these --really cool displays, consumers don't walk right by, they go look. So they are drawn to the produce section."


Coming up this month is the Potato Expo, an opportunity for anyone involved in the industry to network, learn and even do business. This year's event will take place from Jan. 12-14 in Las Vegas. "No matter what segment of the industry you are in--seed potato, growing for chips, fries or fresh--there will be something for you to learn at Potato Expo," says Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association, based in Antigo, Wis. "It is a great way to network and share thoughts and ideas with people involved in the industry, whether it is another grower or equipment supplier."
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Title Annotation:GHQ: FOCUS ON FRESH
Comment:The root to better potato sales: a rise in specialty varieties and convenience-based packaging has led to a resurfaced interest in potatoes.(GHQ: FOCUS ON FRESH)
Author:Sidrane, Arielle
Publication:Grocery Headquarters
Geographic Code:1U3WI
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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