(Oct. 14) Potatoes may be on the minds of consumers on a regular basis, but as the cool holiday season approaches, a variety of these delightful tubers must be the hub of your produce department. Sweet potatoes also add to the heart of the winter season. Their year-round availability is especially timely in November and December when consumers look to spice up their holiday dishes.

POTATO POSITIONING

If you want to find a prime spot for potatoes, it’s best to capture the consumer early in their shopping trip, says Jack Hansen.

As vice president of retail merchandising for the Idaho Potato Commission, Boise, he knows all too well that the last table in the produce department is not the best location. He says the second or third table is better, or use the first table usually reserved for seasonal items.
“The shopper could decide to purchase multiple produce items on impulse if they start with potatoes, and they usually won’t go back through the department and re-shop other produce items,” he says.

Jerry Larrabee, produce manager for Hy-Vee Food Store, one of 10 stores in Omaha, Neb., division of the Des Moines-based chain, took his potatoes to another level by building a couch potato display in the front of his store. The October display featured a store employee on a couch they received from a local furniture store. Every couple of hours the employee handed out bags of potatoes. There were 12 to 14 pallets of potatoes on sale for $1.99. The store sold 8 to 10 pallets of potatoes for this one-week promotion.

Larrabee provides an assortment of potatoes, including russet, red, yukon gold, white and butter gold. He offers them bulk and bagged, but his top sellers are a 5-pound bag of russet potatoes and bulk russets. He sells bulk for 69 cents and prices 5-pound bags at $2. Ten-pound bags of russets are $3.49. In October 5-pound bags of russets drop to $1.50 and 10-pound bags sell for $2.49.

Keith Fetterholf, produce manager at the single Foodland store in Lebanon, Pa., occasionally runs an Idaho baking potato display in which he uses 200 bags of potatoes. He says the potatoes may be priced at 99 cents for a 5-pound bag, but it depends on the market. He is selling 5-pound bags of white potatoes for $3.

“Right now the prices are high, and they’re not selling like they should be,” he says.

Fetterholf displays potatoes on wheeled racks. There are three to four carts with one cart displaying 5-pound bags of whites on the bottom and reds on top. Another holds 10-pound bagged potatoes on bottom and 5-pound bags on top.

“A hot commodity right now is our microwaveable Idaho potato that is two for $1,” Fetterholf says.

The microwaveable potato is shrink-wrapped with a sticker explaining instructions for preparation. Before use, the consumer must take the sticker off and place the potato in the microwave for seven minutes.

Dennis Baryj, produce merchandiser for Carter’s Food Centers Inc., Charlotte, Mich., one of 23 stores in Michigan, likes to draw attention to his potatoes in February where he promotes his Winter White Potato sale. He features Michigan white potatoes in 10-pound bags for 99 cents.

Baryj carries seven oreight varieties of potatoes. Most potatoes are bagged, but the store also has bulk A- and B-size red potatoes and Idaho baking potatoes. He says the market is high, so his bagged Idaho potatoes are $5.99 and bagged Michigan spuds are $5.49.

Baryj says that sometimes he’ll cross-merchandise potatoes with meat when roast is on sale, and he’ll place them in the meat department.

The U.S. Potato Board, Denver, recently conducted pilot tests in more than 300 supermarkets nationwide involving cross-merchandising potatoes in the meat department. The study found that adding a small cart of bulk potatoes in the meat department increased sales 35 percent, said Tim O’Connor, president and chief executive officer. Adding precooked potato products in the meat case increased sales more than 240 percent when stores called the display a convenient meal section, he says.

Larrabee cross-merchandises potatoes with potato toppers.

“We have them cross-merchandised with spray butter right now and if you buy one butter, you get 50 cents off any produce item,” he says.

The Idaho Potato Commission provides retail and foodservice customers with promotional materials, such as foodservice information kits on fresh and processed potatoes, table tents for restaurants, sizing charts, consumer and foodservice recipes, retail bin wrap and retail nutrition display cards.

Larrabee says his fluorescent yellow and pink signs work well for potato sales. The signs have an arrow character showing a decline in price and also compares Hy-Vee’s prices against its competitors’.
Fetterholf creates signs that give the description, price and weight of the potatoes.

Hansen suggests that retailers set reasonable profit margins for potatoes, but not so high as to discourage sales since potatoes are often used as just one of several produce items in various recipes such as soups, stews and casseroles.

Many consumers are interested in new varieties and sizes of potatoes. Retailers must create a year-round promotional plan that includes more options for consumers. According to the National Potato Promotion Board Web site, quality, size, variety information and usage information will encourage consumers to try new varieties and stimulate purchases to other staple items on their grocery list.

Hansen says the store’s demographics should determine whether produce managers purchase bulk or bagged potatoes. He says lots of families with a moderate to low incomes tend to go for the bags, and singles and couples with no kids and those with higher incomes go for bulk.

SEASONALLY SWEET

Sweet potatoes may be stocked year-round, but there is a tendency for them to increase in popularity during winter holidays.

Larrabee of Hy-Vee Food Stores ties in sweet potatoes with a big display of yams, bagged potatoes and onions around the holidays. He merchandises them next to russet and B-size red potatoes on a 4-foot square European table.
He says sweet potatoes account for less than 1 percent of department sales, but in November and December sales increase to 2 percent.. Sweet potatoes sell for 79 cents a pound, but become cheaper in the fall when Larrabee cross-merchandises them with brown sugar and marshmallows.

Larrabee provides nutrition information on posters with his sweet potatoes.

Baryj of Carter’s Food Centers places his sweet potatoes on a special for 3 pounds for a $1 during Thanksgiving and Christmas. During other times of year, they sell for 99 cents a pound.

Foodland’s Fetterholf says that sweet potatoes regularly sell for 79 cents a pound, but during the holidays they are priced at 19 cents a pound or five pounds for $1. He displays them in a 4-foot square bin.

Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission, Smithfield, says that there has been a slight rise in sweet potato consumption this year but it has basically remained flat for the past 10 years.

“Thanksgiving and Christmas remain the months that more sweet potatoes are consumed,” she says.

Langdon also supports the idea of promoting sweet potatoes during a slower time — late spring or summer.

Bryce Malone, executive director of the Louisiana SweetPotato Commission, Baton Rouge, says retailers can reap profits by cross-merchandising the product with marshmallows, pecans and other items commonly used in sweet potato recipes.

The commission’s mission is to promote the consumption of sweet potatoes, in particular Louisiana sweet potatoes, by educating consumers on the yam’s many nutritional attributes and versatility in popular, delicious recipes.

Langdon says that the high nutritional value of the sweet potato is the commission’s strongest point. She says that in focus groups, consumer and retail produce managers all knew that sweet potatoes were healthful.

“They might not have been clear on the exact nutrients available and their benefits, but they did know they were good for them and they should consume more,” she says.