Every year, Don Ladhoff meets with many of the nation’s largest retailers to talk about potatoes. The message he’s hearing from some of those big chains is that they’re ready — eager, even — to try something new.
Ladhoff, retail program consultant for the Denver-based U.S. Potato Board, recently had one such meeting with representatives from Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club.
“They pleaded with me to take a message back to the industry that they’re very interested in new varieties,” he said.
“They said, ‘Don’t be intimidated by Sam’s Club’s volume.’ Even if it’s only bringing one pallet to one store, they want to bring this to their members and let the members decide.”
The retail giants from Arkansas have thousands of locations nationwide, and satisfying volume needs with a new variety typically takes time.
“No one has that kind of volume sitting in their shed,” Ladhoff said.
“It will take years to ramp up, but they’re open to regional opportunities.”
Jim Richter, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Rexburg, Idaho-based Wilcox Fresh, said it was encouraging to hear that retailers are looking for new items — even in light volumes. Wilcox Fresh plans to introduce a new variety later this year, he said.
“That’s good news,” Richter said of Wal-Mart’s request.
“As product moves from being an idea, to test marketing, to introduction to the mainstream market, we can get things out where people can try the product. The more we move from being commodity-driven to market-driven, the better off we will be.”
Ladhoff said though there may not be a potato that can do for spuds what the Honeycrisp did for apples, something less dramatic could still drive sales.
For example, he said that though bicolor sweet corn tastes similar to regular yellow sweet corn, the two-tone corn has boosted retail sales based on appearance.
“It looks different,” he said. “That approach could work for potatoes.”
Data prepared for the U.S. Potato Board by the Nielsen Perishables Group indicates that retailers aren’t the only ones looking for something new.
More demand for specialties
Specialty potatoes — such as fingerlings, purples and gemstones — increased their share of category dollars 40.8% in 2011 while their share of category volume increased 52.3%.
“That segment of the potato category is growing dramatically,” said Ladhoff, who said six of the 10 fastest growing potato items — by volume and dollar sales — are specialty products.
Specialties still represent just 1% of the potato category’s overall volume.
“Consumers are becoming more aware of newer varieties,” said Kathleen Triou, the potato board’s vice president of domestic marketing.
“They’re getting bolder. They’re looking for inspiration, and they’re finding it in those newer varieties. That’s good news. It keeps the category new and fresh.”
Shannon Patten, media and community relations manager for Publix Super Markets Inc., Lakeland, Fla., said sales of small premium potatoes in 12- to 28-ounce packages are increasing at a rapid rate.
“These potatoes are not usually on our customers’ shopping lists,” Patten said, “but when they’re advertised it gives them the opportunity to try something new, and the results have been positive. Our customers enjoy the variety, and we are seeing a strong interest in these niche items.”
Patten said individually wrapped, microwaveable potatoes also continue to grow in popularity.
Senior buyer Joe Santoro said sales of fingerlings are up at least 10% compared to a year ago at Nino Salvaggio International Markets, St. Clair Shores, Mich. He said the retailer’s chefs also have created popular fingerling recipes in the prepared foods department.
“I have also noticed many more customers are asking about, or for, purple potatoes,” he said.
“This seems to be the next big potato that our customers are willing to try.”
The U.S. Potato Board launched a “Seven Days, Seven Ways” promotion in the fall to educate shoppers about the different types of potatoes — russets, yellows, purples, reds, whites, fingerlings and petites — and encouraged them to try something different every day of the week.
The campaign included point-of-sale materials, recipes, videos and media outreach.
Ladhoff said consumers who use more types of potatoes buy and consume more potatoes.
According to the potato board, when potatoes are purchased shopping trips average 10 minutes longer, result in twice as many items being purchased on average and 129% higher dollar rings.