Pandemic alters some potato, onion marketing tactics

Pandemic alters some potato, onion marketing tactics

Potato and onion marketers say COVID-19 has forced them to alter plans in certain channels, but the pandemic hasn’t stopped them.

Indeed, marketers say they expect to move more product this year than last.

“We are ramping up and preparing to pack holiday potato volume for our customers at 20% and higher levels over last year,” said Christine Lindner, marketing manager with Friesland, Wis.-based grower-shipper Alsum Farms & Produce Inc.

The pandemic has forced some changes, however, she said.

“COVID-19 has shifted buying trends and consumers will continue to cook at home, and demand at retail by consumers seeking nutritional and local foods, like potatoes, will continue to stay well above last year’s levels for the foreseeable future, due to the lingering pandemic.”

Since the outbreak began, most potatoes moving through the retail channel at grocery stores are 5- and 10-pound bags, as most consumers prefer picking up a bag or two, compared to hand-picking bulk potatoes, Lindner said.

“Plus, consumers prefer that others are not touching their food within the produce aisle,” she said. 

The pandemic also has accelerated online grocery shopping, Lindner said.

“According to Kantar Research, 75% of consumers plan to continue using curbside pickup, with a permanent increase, and the use of online grocery shopping is here to stay for the long term,” she said.

That trend certainly will continue through the holiday season, Lindner said.

“The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are typically families getting together in their homes versus going out to eat for these holidays, which also drive potato sales at retail/club stores,” she said.

The pandemic has pushed consumers heavily into retail stores, which plays well with the marketing program at Glennville, Ga.-based Vidalia sweet onion grower-shipper Bland Farms LLC.

Easy does it

“Retailing is easy now; all you have to do is put them out and display them,” said Delbert Bland, president.

From that perspective, COVID-19 has left nary a symptom on Bland’s marketing program, Bland said.

“There’s been none, really,” he said. “We’ve approached it the same way.”

Nor has the pandemic altered the marketing strategy at Yerington, Nev.-based onion grower-shipper Peri & Sons Farms, said Jessica Peri, retail sales manager.

“But we are geared up at the shed to handle the demand,” she said. 

“We also have plenty of packaging, which was a problem at the beginning of COVID. The spike in demand caused the packaging suppliers to be overwhelmed with new orders, pushing out lead times as far as 20 weeks.”

Houston-based potato grower-shipper MountainKing Potato also is pushing ahead with its marketing plans, in spite of the pandemic, said Andreas Trettin, marketing director.

“COVID hasn’t necessarily altered our marketing plans as much as it has helped focus our efforts on varieties that offer convenience, value and flavor — three major factors when it comes to the purchases of fresh potatoes,” he said.

Bancroft, Wis.-based potato and onion grower-shipper RPE Inc. is gearing up for a continuation of the pandemic through the winter, said Rachel Atkinson-Leach, category and brand manager.

“Tailwinds such as a second stimulus check and renewed extra unemployment benefits, the pandemic’s persistence/resurgence and a potential decrease in mobility entering the winter months and the potential for increased health concerns as cold/flu season nears could all result in more in-home consumption,” she said. 

“Therefore, we are preparing for both scenarios, but are definitely expecting a continued bump in consumption for potatoes through the 2020 holiday season.”

Few changes needed

COVID-19 hasn’t affected RPE’s marketing approach “too much,” but it has “made us more hyper-focused on measuring any changing trends within the segments of our categories,” Atkinson-Leach said.

Retail sales have soared during the pandemic, said Jim Ehrlich, executive director of the Monte Vista-based Colorado Potato Administrative Committee.

“Consumer demand for fresh potatoes is up significantly with more families cooking and working from home,” he said. 

“We have been sharing information on new recipes that take advantage of the variety that potatoes bring in types and in method of preparation.”

Ehrlich noted that the dine-at-home trend has boosted interest in new potato-inclusive recipes.

Wisconsin’s industry has noted that trend and included it in marketing plans, said Dan Rady, director of promotions, communication and consumer education with the Antigo-based Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association Inc.

“COVID has pushed the sales of Wisconsin potatoes extremely high,” Rady said. 

“When the pandemic first took off earlier this year, trends shifted from people eating out on a frequent basis to making their meals at home. As a result, WPVGA began sharing more about the different ways of preparing Wisconsin potatoes as well as tips and tricks around storage and cooking shortcuts, especially for the larger-sized spuds. We have continued to promote the versatility, nutrition and delicious flavor of potatoes during this challenging time.”

Onion marketers saw a similar opportunity, said Rene Hardwick, director of public and industry relations with the Eaton, Colo.-based National Onion Association.

“The pandemic is a great opportunity for the NOA and onion farmers/marketers to capitalize on the nutrition value of onions,” she said.