Marketing and merchandising microwaveable and specialty potatoes has meant a huge learning curve for growers and retailers.

“Potatoes have been thought of as a commodity for so long, getting people to think of it as a value-added proposition takes some creativity,” said Kevin Stanger, senior vice president of sales at Wada Farms Marketing Group, Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Wada recently set up a retail promotion offering roasted chicken, a bag of potatoes and a tossed salad to feed a family of four for less than $10.

The company also has downsized its bag of small red or yellow potatoes, in a microwave-ready perforated bag, so it can retail for $1.99 and still have some great margin built in, Stanger said.

“We’ve learned that it works well if it’s merchandised and displayed correctly,” he said. “If they’re stacked on a shelf in a corner, people think they’re a small bag of potatoes — they don’t even know they’re a microwave product.”

To ensure the consumer sees and understands the product, the company has done demos and set up pod displays as well as offered point-of-purchase material.

“If they buy, the independent tests we’ve done show acceptance of the product is really high,” he said. “But that’s the key — they have to understand what it is and make that first purchase.

Rick Kantner, director of sales and marketing for Friesland, Wis.-based Alsum Farms & Produce Inc., agrees consumers need more education on value-added potatoes.

While customer feedback has been positive and sales are increasing on Alsum’s new 12-ounce Fast & Fresh bag of red or gold potatoes in Wisconsin supermarkets, Kantner said the concept is still new to many.

“The product is easy to prepare and meets the needs of consumers with a busy schedule,” Kantner said, “but we need to provide more consumer education as the concept is unfamiliar to many customers. We are currently developing a consumer shelf talker and a consumer microwave meal solution using Fast & Fresh.”

To get retailers to rethink their “stack-‘em-deep-and-steep” strategy, Wada partners with a category management company to offer suggestions that will improve profitability.

The result, Stanger said, is a more colorful and appealing display.

“Instead of throwing them in the back you’re seeing value-added items at high margins, microwaveable products, fingerlings, petites, reds, yellows and purples, then you get into your regular reds and yellows,” he said. “Here’s a premium russet and, at the end, here’s your value russet.

“Ultimately, if someone comes in for a bag of potatoes they may look and say, ‘Hey, I’ve had these fingerlings in a restaurant,’ and take a small bag home and try.

“That’s where the margins are, and that’s where retailers seem to have success.”