Report examines mysterious potato gap
Fresh spud sales decline despite improving attitudes, consumption
By JOHN O'CONNELL
The U.S. Potato Board has authored a report seeking to explain why fresh potato sales in stores appear to be declining, though health perceptions about spuds are improving and consumers report eating them more often.
A study by the food trends tracking firm NPD finds the number of in-home meals per capita with fresh potatoes on the plate each year has increased from 40.3 in 2009 to 44.8 in 2012. In-home meals with frozen potatoes increased during that period from 14.4 to 15.8, and instant spuds in meals increased from 7.8 to 8.3.
Another study, conducted by Sterling Rice Group for USPB, found health attitudes about spuds have also improved. In 2009, a quarter of respondents had negative health perceptions about potatoes, compared with 19 percent in 2012.
Fresh potato sales in supermarkets, however, have gradually declined. Sales, which reached 4.595 million pounds in 2003, slipped to 4.013 million pounds by 2009 and totaled 3.619 million pounds in 2011, according to a report Sterling Rice Group prepared for USPB using Nielsen data.
Based on industry interviews and a review of research, USPB believes consumers may simply be wasting less. Dan Ladhoff, USPB retail marketing consultant, said studies show U.S. pantries are becoming emptier as households buy just what they need in the near future.
Ladhoff said a Sterling Rice Group report supports the theory, showing 8-pound bags sold better than 10-pound bags from 2009 to 2012, and 3-pound bags sold better than 5-pound bags, even though the larger bags aren't priced much higher.
"We feel that people are buying more precisely. You're not just buying a big bunch of bananas and throwing away two or three if you don't use them," Ladhoff said.
Portion sizes may also be declining as consumers place a greater emphasis on healthy eating. Ladhoff said USPB intends to add a new question about portion sizes to its next potato attitudes survey.
USPB also noted there are fewer U.S. households due to the trend of children remaining in their parents' homes rather than going out on their own. Furthermore, Ladhoff said studies may be flawed because sales are shifting away from the traditional shopping outlets that report to Nielsen.
USPB offered recommendations to help the industry remain viable into the future. Ladhoff said the industry must continue to promote the health message about potatoes.
He said a focus on new food innovations will be crucial, especially those aimed at making spuds more convenient to eat.
For example, stores in England sell individual precooked potatoes that need only be reheated, sales of small potatoes are on the rise because they cook quickly, and steamer bags enable consumers to fix fresh potatoes with limited preparation.
Furthermore, Ladhoff said the industry must cater to millennials as they begin to start households. Ladhoff said millennials -- shoppers ages 18-30 -- are accustomed to choices, are looking for new food experiences and probably didn't learn to cook from their mothers.
"The USPB is going to look to do more investigation of these millennials," Ladhoff said.