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Getting More from the Core

Updated on September 12, 2014
RJ Schwartz profile image

Ralph Schwartz is the Vice President of Sales & Marketing at a nationally distributed fresh produce company.

The fresh potato category at your local store seems to separate itself into two distinct parts. Potatoes that have been around for a long time and are commonly known by most retailers; Russets, reds, whites, and to some extent Yukon Gold’s, are the core products. Alongside those anchor items are the flashy new microwaveable bags, the unique specialty items, and the wonderfully colored medley bags, basically items which have emerged in the past decade. There is a lot of focus on newer part of the category as changing consumer tastes identify it to be more relevant in the future. Plus most new items being introduced almost always falls into the newer part. Companies are using these new items to differentiate themselves and are giving proprietary varieties trendy brand names to create an air of exclusivity around them such as Klondike Goldust, Baby Dutch Yellow Potatoes, Purple Majesty, and Crimson Sunset to name a few. It’s this newness in part and the fact that its being called out as something special that gives these potatoes immediate market acceptance by retailers as they see it as a way to strengthen category sales and consumers who are looking for something new.

This new approach to marketing potatoes is quite different from methods of the past when packaging was designed with basic names that alleviated the need for changes throughout the selling year, for example most white potatoes were packed similarly and the only real differences were paper vent view bags or poly, no specific call outs to much else. The entire industry packed and marketed under those basic names as it was easy for the consumer to identify what they were buying. There was harmony as it worked for all growers and shippers – basically a russet was a russet, regardless of what seed variety was used in the bags. One exception came from Idaho, where the Idaho Burbank would be called out on packaging as it created an extra advantage at the shelf edge based on its cooking characteristics. Despite all of the sameness on the surface, these core items have been continuously and quietly improved with better growing techniques and improved seed strains, leading to healthier and stronger potatoes across the spectrum

Russet potatoes, the backbone of the potato category and sales leader for as long as anyone can remember, the workhorse that required no fanfare, has been through amazing improvements. New varieties such as Gold Rush, Teton Russet, Umatilla, and Dione were quietly added to the marketing mix with no press release or announcement. Yet, these new spuds are more disease resistant, have higher yields, and taste great. The umbrella name Red Potatoes has also seen changes take place behind the scenes with some of the solid older seed varieties such as Red Norland and LaSoda being grown alongside newer seeds such as Sangre, Dakota Ruby, and Red Chieftain. These newer red potatoes hold their color longer, are brighter, and have high shelf appeal, but as with russets are not being identified to shoppers by their specific variety and the associated benefits they bring to consumers. Yukon Gold potatoes first made their way into the US market in the 1980’s and had such an impact that it became the de-facto term for all yellow potatoes. Although still grown in Colorado and the upper Midwest, Yukon Gold’s have given way to newer yellow varieties that store longer, are less susceptible to pressure bruising, and have a smoother skin and eye appeal. Changes aplenty are taking place but they aren’t being identified and capitalized upon.

Today’s consumers are more informed than ever and not only very receptive to change but actually crave it. The time seems right for retailers to collaborate with potato producers to leverage the strengths of each of these specific varieties, with strategically placed point of sale materials that calls out the seed type, health benefits, cooking characteristics, and history of their potatoes. This type of retail marketing is successful and has created a huge market in just a decade for variety potatoes and it appears to have no ceiling on potential growth. Applying some of those techniques to the rest of the category can redefine the entire look and feel of the fresh potato set at retail, driving higher sales and customer satisfaction.


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