Don Ladhoff (left), retail marketing consultant for the U.S. Potato Board, talks to Mike Carter, chief executive officer of Bushman’s Inc., Rosholt, Wis.
Don Ladhoff (left), retail marketing consultant for the U.S. Potato Board, talks to Mike Carter, chief executive officer of Bushman’s Inc., Rosholt, Wis.

LAS VEGAS — For the past several years, the U.S. Potato Board has focused much of its consumer marketing programs on Linda, an imaginary consumer who represents a moderate potato user.

But continuing retail sales declines coupled with changes in consumer shopping patterns and demographics have prompted the Denver-based board to revisit its consumer programs.

On Jan. 11, the board’s domestic marketing committee is expected to consider whether to approve research into potato-related demographics of millennials — 18-31 year-olds, said Don Ladhoff, board retail marketing consultant.

The potato board wouldn’t abandon Linda, but would possibly broaden its efforts, he said.

The Lindas, who use potatoes one to three times a week, comprise about 40% of all fresh potato consumers, Ladhoff said.

The need for a new look into the consumer psyche became apparent as positive perceptions of potatoes increased while sales continued to decrease, Kate Thomson, research manager at Sterling-Rice Group, Boulder, Colo., told attendees of a potato board update session, Jan. 9. The session is in connection with Potato Expo 2013, Jan. 8-11.

Calling it the “new normal,” Thomson outlined several theories that could be contributing to the continued decline in potato consumption.

Among those are changing household sizes, greater emphasis on health, changing shopping patterns and venues, and just-in-time consumers.

When the recession struck about four years ago, consumers started shopping more frequently but buying smaller quantities. The potato industry has seen sales of 10- and 5-pound bags drop, but an increase of 8-pound and 1-3 pound bags, Thomson said.

The smaller bags also play into the goal of reducing waste, she said.

In addition, more women are working outside the household, meaning they have less time to cook and are seeking more convenience foods. When they do cook, they’re making more one-pot meals and reducing side dishes, which include potatoes.

Millennials, which as a group have as many members as the baby boomers, approach food differently, Thomson said. They place emphasis on fresh and natural, seek more diverse products, are willing to try new items, and view cooking as an experience, not a responsibility.

Even as the economy improves, this “new normal” won’t disappear, said Kathleen Triou, board vice president of domestic marketing.

Chris Wada, himself a millennial, said the data reinforces part of Wada Farm Marketing Group LLC’s programs.

“A lot of the things they see are very true,” said Wada, marketing director for the Pingree, Idaho-based grower-shipper. “A lot of this stuff are things we already knew, but it’s getting a different perspective on and deep thoughts and factual data.”

Larry Alsum, owner of Alsum Farms & Produce, Friesland, Wis., said the data reinfornces that his operation is on the right track with its convenience product line.

The grower-packer introduced microwavable steamer pouches more than a year ago and individually foil-wrapped russets about six months ago.

But he admitted his firm isn’t paying as much attention to millennials as they perhaps should.