Potatoes USA reports record retail potato sales

For the Basin Business Journal | September 17, 2020 1:00 AM

While the COVID-19 pandemic depressed sales of potatoes for restaurants, retail sales — potato sales to consumers rather than to restaurants — reached record highs for the year July 2019 through June 2020, according to an industry organization.

According to data provided by Colorado-based Potatoes USA, retail potato sales increased in both dollar value and volume in every quarter of marketing year 2020, with total potato sales increasing 11.2 percent to $13 billion from $11.7 the previous year.

Every retail sales category of potatoes — chips, frozen, dehydrated, refrigerated and even canned — increased in both volume and dollar value in marketing year 2020 except for deli-prepared sides, according to Potatoes USA.

Fresh potato sales rose nearly 15 percent during the same period to $3.3 billion, with volume up 9 percent as well, Potatoes USA said. All classes of fresh potatoes saw increases in volume and value in 2020 except fingerling, which saw total sales decline nearly 4 percent to $15.4 million.

The average price per pound for fresh potatoes in marketing year 2020 was 75 cents, though it varied from 59 cents for russets to $2.45 for purple and blue potatoes.

“Retail sales are at a five-year high,” said Kayla Dome, global marketing manager for Potatoes USA. “People were continuing to buy potatoes throughout the whole pandemic crisis.”

However, even as retail sales are soaring, only 10-15 percent of potatoes grown in Washington are sold directly to the consumer, according to data from the Washington Potato Commission. Nearly all of the rest are sold to restaurants, and the collapse in that demand following the COVID-19-related closure of restaurants in March prompted the potato commission to give away 1 million pounds of surplus potatoes between March and June.

Dome said retail potato sales saw a slight dip right before the nationwide outbreak of COVID-19 in mid-March, but “shot right back up again” as soon as lockdowns were imposed in large portions of the country.

Dome isn’t sure yet why people kept right on buying potatoes after the outbreak began, though she suspects increased potato sales are part of an overall rise in fresh produce sales after the closures were implemented.

“I really wish that I had the answer to that, to what consumers were thinking,” she said. “A lot of the trends are showing consumers are returning to those things that will help people live a healthier lifestyle.”

Dome said Potatoes USA has commissioned a study on why retail potato sales boomed during the pandemic, and hopes to have the answers ready in January or February of 2021.

“We’re doing a study that will hopefully give us some answers as to what consumers saw in potatoes that gave them joy at home,” she said.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.