It’s been a good-news, bad-news situation for potato suppliers recently as they analyze their year-end sales numbers.
On the plus side, overall dollar sales have been rising. They experienced a 2.2% increase in 2018, according to Nielsen data cited in the United Fresh Produce Association’s FreshFacts on Retail reports.
However, volume sales have been dropping for at least three years. In 2018, movement was down 3.1% compared to 2017, and the downward trend continued for the first three quarters of the 2019 fiscal year. There’s a tinge of good news, though.
Denver-based Potatoes USA says, for fiscal year 2019, fourth-quarter volume sales actually increased in all IRI regions except California. IRI is a data and research firm.
“The increase led to a 2.4% volume increase, showing positive growth for the potato industry at the end of fiscal year 2019,” said Kayla Dome, global marketing manager for retail with Potatoes USA. The potato board – and potato growers – would like to see that upward trend continue.
“It is great that potato dollar sales were up,” Dome said, “but as an industry, we are focused on volume.”
It’s the goal of Potatoes USA to increase the number of potatoes sold at retail, and Dome sees the recent drop in movement as a chance to do just that.
“We look at the negative fiscal year numbers as an opportunity to work more closely with retailers to create long-term growth solutions for volume sales,” she said.
Experts suggest three key steps that might keep potato volume trending upward:
- Market smaller-sized potatoes.
- Educate consumers about the nutrition value of potatoes.
- Tweak store-level merchandising and promotion programs.
Dome shared IRI numbers indicating that sales of petite-size potatoes seem to be doing quite well.
Volume was up every quarter except one in fiscal year 2019, by as much as 26.4%.
At the end of the year, petite volume sales were up an impressive 14.2%.
“The smaller packs are definitely the ones that are increasing in sales,” said Andreas Trettin, marketing director for Mountain King Potato of Monte Vista, Colo.
He noted that little potatoes offer convenience. “They are fast-cooking, they are mostly roasted, they are easy to prepare,” Trettin said.
Mountain King carries a full line of small potatoes, including 1-pound microwaveable bags that are ready to eat in eight minutes.
To make preparation even easier, the company introduced its Tuscan Potatoes Roasting Kit, which comes with an oil and spice packet and is ready to eat in 20 minutes.
Another reason consumers buy smaller packs is they’re more conscious of food waste, said Eric Beck, marketing director for Wada Farms Marketing Group, Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Shoppers used to buy a 10-pound bag and throw away much of the contents, he said.
“Today, people are being a little more conscious of what they throw away and more inclined to buy what they are going to cook and use for that week’s menu,” he said.
Ralph Schwartz, vice president of sales for Idaho Falls-based Potandon Produce, described the same trend.
“Consumers are switching from bigger bags of russets to smaller potatoes,” Schwartz said.
Potandon has been selling small-sized potatoes for at least 10 years.
“That’s a way to open doors,” Schwartz said.
The company’s product line includes a 16-ounce microwaveable bag of small potatoes, a 24-ounce loose pack and a 2-pound mesh package.
Another way to prop up potato sales is to counter the bad rap spuds have received from proponents of a plethora of low-carb diets.
“Low carb diets in general have been unfortunate for carbohydrate-rich foods like potatoes,” said Katherine Beals, associate professor in the department of nutrition and integrative physiology at the University of Utah.
Beals said there’s really no such thing as good carbs and bad carbs. What matters is how the carbs are packaged.
“If you eat carbs that are encased in a food that has no vitamins or minerals or fiber, that’s not particularly healthy,” she said.
Potatoes, on the other hand, are rich in carbohydrates, but they also provide fiber, vitamin C, vitamin B6 and lots of potassium.
“They are a nutrient-dense vegetable,” said Chelsea Elkin, a registered dietitian representing the Chicago-based Alliance for Potato Research and Education.
The potassium content and no-sodium aspect in particular are important attributes for consumers looking for ways to improve their overall cardiometabolic health, she said.
She doesn’t recommend one kind of potato over another.
“Every variety has its own, unique benefits,” she said.
She noted that people often judge potatoes by the company they keep – but they can fit just as well with healthier fare than they can with more indulgent dishes.
For example, consumers can enjoy potatoes alongside colorful veggies or roast and season them with herbs and spices in place of fat-laden and caloric toppings.
“There are so many ways to enjoy them,” Elkin said. “People just need to get creative.”
Potandon Produce is going all out to promote potatoes as a good-for-you food.
“We rebranded our company The Healthy Potato Company last year,” Schwartz said, referring to the new tagline for Potandon.
The company is working on several new potato varieties that will show above-average nutritional qualities, he said.
Last year, Potandon launched a low-carb yellow potato called CarbSmart.
“It’s really made some inroads for people who are not able to consume potatoes due to their dietary restrictions in the past,” Schwartz said.
Front and center
Innovative displays and merchandising techniques are other ways to boost potato sales.
“Potatoes are a preplanned purchase for the most part,” Schwartz said, so don’t hide them in the back of the department … Get them on one of your front tables.”
Beck recommended displaying them in a high-traffic area and not limiting them to one department.
Mountain King offers easy-to-set-up shippers for smaller pack sizes that can be displayed in the meat or seafood department.
The company also includes recipes on packaging and supports retailers with recipe cards and point-of-sale materials, some of which have QR codes that link to videos or recipes.
The firm also ties in with supermarket loyalty cards and advertises on targeted Facebook pages near stores where its products are sold.
Potatoes USA offers a plethora of recipes showing consumers a variety of ways to cook potatoes, Dome said.
The potato board also developed merchandising best practices over the past year.
Finally, educating shoppers is a must.
“We’re an information-hungry society,” Beck said.
He asserted that the more nutrition information a retailer provides that shoppers can absorb in a short time, the more potatoes they’ll sell.
“Potatoes still remain one of the more healthy vegetables you can have,” Beck said.