The United States Potato Board (USPB) leadership traveled to the World Potato Congress in Scotland in late May. While we were in the UK, we also visited several of the leading fresh potato growers, packers and retailers to see what new advancements in fresh potato marketing have transpired since our last visit in 2006. What we found was highly informative. Over the course of the next year, I will share our observations and learnings with the entire U.S. industry through articles, presentations and a full report from the trip.
The major topics of interest from the UK for the U.S. potato industry are:
• Unique varieties that are marketed to consumers through exclusive relationships with retailers. We have observed the shift to unique varieties in the UK for some time. Most UK retailers now offer a fresh potato variety that is exclusive to their chain, which requires a dedicated supplier relationship. Some are more successful than others due to the distinctiveness of the particular variety they offer. Even the traditional varieties that do not offer exclusivity and are available at any retailer are clearly marketed by specific variety and best preparation method(s) to assist the consumer in obtaining the meal experience they are seeking.
• Consolidation has advanced in the UK to create a few very large potato packers who have strong relationships with retailers. Fresh potato growers market their crop through one of these large packers.
[Leading European]Growers grow what the packer needs based on demand, not what the grower likes to grow. These large packers have the scale to make investments that most U.S. shippers can’t.
• There is a deeper connection in the UK between the grower and consumer with food. Each package of potatoes identifies the variety, the grower, the packer and the brand, usually a retailer brand, but a limited number of non-retailer brands have been successful. Form-fill packaging is most prevalent, which allows this information to be easily printed on the bag during the packing process.
• Convenient fresh potato offerings, not processed or precooked, that move fresh potatoes into the heat-and-eat category complete with seasonings. The major UK fresh potato packers have recognized they must offer products that fit into convenience meal occasions or they will lose the opportunity to compete for convenience meals, which is a significant percentage of meal occasions.
• Packaging that differentiates quality levels, i.e. upscale packaging for higher value products and packaging that assists in cooking, i.e. microwave steam packs and oven/grill trays. UK potato packaging plays a much more important role in communicating to consumers than U.S. potato packaging does today.
• Retail potato displays are small stacks, six-to-eight packages per offering and restocked continuously to deliver a fresher and better consumer appeal that the U.S. approach of stack them high and hope it lasts all day. This greatly reduces shrink and improves rotation. There are tighter size sorting requirements for retail packs in the UK; packers do not package anything for which there is not strong demand.
• Substantial investments by potato packers in major environmental and sustainable projects that also deliver bottom line returns to the shippers. We saw packers who had installed anaerobic digesters that convert all cull potatoes into electricity, water treatment facilities that clean the wash water back to drinking water standards for reuse—which reduced the need to purchase more water and improves potato quality—and wind turbines to generate electricity to run their plants and sell any surplus energy back to the grid.