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Karen Caplan Talks About Potatoes

The National Potato Council deserves a hand as every year it holds a meeting at which it invites speakers from outside the potato industry to provide a fresh perspective. The Pundit had a turn a couple of years ago and this year, showing they have obviously improved the caliber of their speakers, the NPC had Karen Caplan of Frieda’s make a presentation.

Karen has a unique perspective. Her firm deals with unique items. She is one of very few people to have served on the main boards of both PMA and United and she was the first woman to serve as chairman of United Fresh.

She gave a presentation entitled What Women Want. Although she confined her remarks mostly to fresh produce, the thesis went like this:

“…I do want to make an observation about our industry. And, frankly, other industries face the same challenge. And that is this:

Women make more than 80% of all purchase decisions for produce in retail supermarkets.

Yet, more than 80% of all buying decisions for supermarkets are not made by women… they are made by men. We all know that men and women think differently, so it is no surprise to me that the potato industry is still facing huge challenges in increasing real sales growth and margin growth.”

It is a useful rhetorical device. Karen and her mother have always known how to take what is different about their company, such as their items, and use that difference wisely. As was explained in an interview with Karen’s mother, Frieda, almost 17 years ago, published in Inc. magazine:

By courting and coddling the press, Frieda turned herself into a celebrity, the Kiwi Queen. She may be the only produce executive who’s been photographed by both People magazine and National Geographic. She was television’s original Green Grocer until a legal squabble forced her to pick a new name. Although Frieda’s Finest expects revenues this year of only $20 million, the company gets mentioned in the same breath with industry giants.

“She understands publicity completely,” says Ralph M. Pinkerton, a marketing consultant in Newport Beach, Calif. Says James Prevor, publisher of Produce Business magazine, “She recognized early on that as a small company she could not compete with the media budgets of the Dole’s and Chiquita’s, but that because of the nature of the items she had, she did have the potential to generate excitement and news coverage.’

Of course, unique products weren’t all that differentiated Frieda’s. There was also the fact that Frieda is a woman, and when she got her start in the produce industry, the trade was almost exclusively male. The Inc. magazine article continued:

Frieda herself, now 66, has always been an exotic. She founded Frieda’s back in 1962, pre-Lib America. Then as now, produce was essentially an all-male industry. Her daughters, Karen Caplan, 34, president since 1986, and Jackie Caplan Wiggins, 31, vice-president for national accounts, say Frieda’s being a woman and therefore an outsider may help explain why she hit on so innovative an approach to produce marketing. Produce Business’ James Prevor says her gender had a certain PR value as well. “Just the fact that she’s a woman in a man’s business made her different,” he says. “It made her stand out from the beginning.”

Yet when we really look at the substantive issues Karen says women care about:

In reviewing a lot of the research funded by the National Potato Promotion Board (which, by the way was incredibly informative and right-on!), I could see that you are aware of what is the #1 attribute (in selecting fresh produce) in the eyes of consumers….and that is TASTE.

If any of you have heard me, or my mother Frieda, speak during the last 20 years, you will know that we have been saying this for a very long time. Consumers want food that tastes good. They want to be “wowed” by the experience (even if it’s just potatoes). And they will vote with their dollars.

Second attribute — for mothers’ and anyone over 40 — we want to know about nutritional and health benefits. Who would ever have predicted that acclaimed retailer, Trader Joe’s, would label their tomatoes as “HIGH-LYCOPENE TOMATOES”? (Did I mention that the head of produce is a woman?) But, how do they and all other retailers label their potatoes?

Are you ready? “Red Potatoes”. “White Potatoes”. “Russet Potatoes”.

It strikes this Pundit that concerns over taste and health transcend sex roles. In fact, one suspects that the research on this matter would show a stronger deviation in attitudes based on economic class than based on gender.

The presentation gives useful advice on sales and marketing, but its most salient point is that the old world of moving a commodity based on pricecuts is a loser:

“…what is the #1 way potatoes are still promoted?

Based on price. …

…based on my travels to supermarkets across the United States, there are only three things buyers keep in mind when they are promoting potatoes.

These are in order:

  1. Price
  2. Price
  3. Price

You need to educate buyers to make these their priority:

  1. Consumer needs (taste, convenience, nutrition)
  2. Consumer desire (to look smart and be healthy)
  3. How Potato Marketing not based on price can improve their bottom line.

Karen is right on target. The industry practice of using price as the lever to increase sales is not sustainable long-term. Not with potatoes or any other produce item. In fact, not with any item.

This is, in a capsule, why the domestic auto makers are in such trouble. They keep developing cars that can’t be sold without offering consumers rebates and discounts.

The potato industry has done some terrific consumer research and a few vendors have been acting on it. Hopefully Karen’s presentation, at once demanding and reassuring, will lead to more attention to changing the way much of the produce industry does business.

You can read Karen’s presentation here.

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