Retail sales account for about three-fourths of North Carolina sweet potatoes.
Still, there’s room for growth and grower-shippers say they’re working to help their supermarket partners increase their profitability.
Those sales are also occurring at times other than Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, which traditionally see peak demand.
During the 2012-13 season, Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C., helped its retail partners promote and sell the product throughout the year.
“We had many retailers do promotions and they were doing them rather frequently, not just with the holidays,” said George Wooten, president. “We had retailers promoting them all along the way in different months, in January, February and July.”
The promotions follow heightened demand and increased scrutiny of stores, he said.
“Regular people are eating more sweet potatoes,” Wooten said.
“They want to see them more and shoppers are sometimes choosing where they shop because of sweet potatoes. I see this happening in foodservice too. A lot of people are picking restaurants based on having some type of sweet potato program.”
Wayne E. Bailey last year introduced a four-pack overwrapped tray, which helped increase retail demand, Wooten said.
The sweet potato industry is gaining more retail space, said Charlotte Vick, partner in Vick Family Farms, Wilson, N.C.
“They’re doing a great job but retail has probably been a little slower in growth,” she said.
“In the past, they only sold loose. But the fact that they’re offering more lines in the category as far as bags, tray packs as well as fries and frozen, that has helped the sales at retail. The more opportunities you give a consumer in a grocery store to buy a product, the more chance you have at increasing your sales.”
Vick said offerings of microwaveable bags, frozen and mashed — as well as canned product — helps lift the entire category.
Jeff Scramlin, the Raleigh, N.C.-based director of business development for Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC, Idaho Falls, Idaho, agrees retailers should merchandise sweet potatoes throughout the year.
“They tend to push sweet potatoes at the highest periods of consumer demand,” Scramlin said.
“We would like to see more off-holiday promotions. It’s something we’ve been trying to make happen for many years, but it takes time. We have to get consumers to realize sweet potatoes are available as a fresh product on a year-round basis.”
Scramlin said the industry is seeing gains in consumption through the yearlong push.
Retail sales account for about half of Wada’s sweet potato sales, he said.
Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, N.C., frequently visits retail customers and views their displays.
“We think they do a good job displaying and marketing sweet potatoes, especially during the holidays when they run big features on them,” he said.
“We definitely run ads and features during Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.”
Nash Produce Co. works closely with its retail customers to help them expand sales, said Thomas Joyner, general manager.
The Nashville, N.C.-based packer, which markets for 30 growers, promotes some of the local aspects of sweet potatoes on its packaging.
It also helps retailers in packaging and display design and through customized point-of-sale materials, Joyner said.
“We try to anticipate their needs by offering assistance with marketing, which can include banners and displays,” Joyner said.
“Some of the retailers are just beginning to realize this because not so many suppliers are willing to offer them assistance in marketing their product.”
Jimmy Burch, co-owner of Faison-based Burch Farms, characterizes retail as a mature market.
“Consistent demand is how I’d describe it,” he said. “The retailers do very well overall in merchandising them.”