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Potato Lovers Month display contest gets new partner, more chances to win

The Idaho Potato Lovers Month display contest, which the Idaho Potato Commission has been running annually for more than a quarter of a century, is a major component of the organization’s retail promotion programs, and it has been successful beyond initial expectations.

During the early years, “we were lucky if we hit 1,000” entries in the competition, said Seth Pemsler, vice president of retail for the commission. Last year, “we hit 5,000” for the third consecutive year.IPC-Retail-3-Raleys-Reno-StevenParkerMore popular than ever, Potato Lovers Month continues to attract strong participation from retail produce managers thanks to innovative programs and partnerships developed by the Idaho Potato Commission.

February is Potato Lover’s Month, as nearly everyone in the retail trade now knows, and for 2018 there are some key changes that the commission expects will help the contest maintain the number of entries at 5,000 even in the face of many retailers cutting back on staff, which makes it “harder and harder … getting people to participate,” Pemsler said.

One new component of the program is the addition of Hormel Chili as a partner, joining Hormel Bacon Bits. That “provides a lot of upsides for everybody,” Pemsler said. “Hormel Chili is huge.” He is hopeful the addition will “create opportunities for us to get new retailers involved in the program.”

The commission has had two partners before for Potato Lover’s Month, and that can present some challenges, but this time it should be easier because both partner products are from the same company, he said.

But “the big change” in the program is “a new incentive to hopefully enhance the desire to enter,” Pemsler said. In a sense, the program has be come “too successful” because with 5,000 entries, many produce managers are less than enthusiastic, as they think they have no chance to be one of the 115 top prize winners who get a share of the $150,000 in cash and prizes. They’re not sure it’s worth the effort.

So to boost the motivation to enter, this year every entrant will get not only “a cool premium,” as in the past, but also a chance to win a trip to Sun Valley, ID, along with their category manager.

The huge success of PLM also caused some push-back from shippers, Pemsler said — not because they didn’t appreciate the additional business but because sometimes they found it difficult to handle such a large volume of business in such a short period of time.

To resolve that issue, the commission modified the contest rules a while back, extending the qualifying dates for display beyond the confines of the shortest month on the calendar. “February is still Potato Lover’s Month,” Pemsler said. But the contest now runs from Jan. 15 to March 15.

For military commissaries, because of special restrains, there are special accommodations in the rules, Pemsler explained. “We have been working with the military for over a decade and have always had a customized program,” including different timing for the contest. But this year, “we actually did customized point-of-sale materials.” As a result of the tweaks in the program, 95 percent of all commissaries are now participating in Potato Lover’s Month.

In some years, when the size profile of the crop has leaned toward larger sizes and the volume of bags sold during PLM left shippers overstocked in the larger carton sizes, the commission supported and helped stabilize the carton market by running jumbo bin promotions. That has enabled shippers to move volumes of larger potatoes in bags at retail.

There are currently no plans to run bin promotions in 2018, Pemsler said, but it is an option that will always be considered if recommended by the IPC’s marketing committee.

Trade shows continue to be a big part of the commission’s retail outreach. “We believe that there is an opportunity to be visible and get your message forward” as well as to see customers, Pemsler said. “We do PMA [Fresh Summit] and every single regional trade show out there,” with the commission’s retail and foodservice field representatives participating.

There will be a change in the retail field staff for 2017-18, as Ken Tubman is retiring after 15 years of service. He will be replaced by produce industry veteran Dave Rhodes, who is now the retail promotion director for the Northeast, based in Indianapolis. 

Rhodes will work with retail produce managers in the northeastern United States and Canada to help drive sales of Idaho potatoes through marketing and promotions, competitive research and point-of-sale materials, in addition to representing the Idaho potato brand at retail industry trade shows.

Rhodes has spent more than 40 years in the produce industry and was most recently vice president of produce and floral for Indianapolis-based Marsh Supermarkets.

According to Pemsler, a big change in the approach used by the field representatives as they visit retailers is that “we are becoming far more data oriented, data driven, data capable.” The field reps no longer just talk about the crop and offer retailers the benefit of their experience. Now “they go in with a lot of data,” including ad data and IRI analysis.

It is basically category management, said Pemsler, but that kind of data crunching is “not something that is typically prevalent in an association, and certainly not in the potato industry. We have always done it with our expertise; now we are doing it with our data as well, which makes it a little more effective and, candidly, a lot more believable.”