BREAKING THE ICE

Fresh still wins the popularity contest among typical seafood purveyors. However, more quality-conscious retailers around the country are accepting, even promoting, frozen seafood as the number of high-quality products increases and consumers become better-informed about them, SN has learned."Customers like fresh seafood better when they can get it," said Tom Nacrone, manager for meat and seafood

Fresh still wins the popularity contest among typical seafood purveyors. However, more quality-conscious retailers around the country are accepting, even promoting, frozen seafood as the number of high-quality products increases and consumers become better-informed about them, SN has learned.

"Customers like fresh seafood better when they can get it," said Tom Nacrone, manager for meat and seafood at Tidyman's in Spokane, Wash. "But we can't always get it fresh and we get very good frozen product."

Everything in Tidyman's 8-foot, full-service seafood case is fresh, but the 16-foot self-service case is filled with frozen products.

"Our suppliers are doing a better job on packaging, and it has more eye appeal," said Nacrone. "Customers are buying frozen."

Indeed, eye appeal is one of the features retailers need to maximize in order to overcome resistance to frozen seafood. But more important, say the experts, consumers must have a good experience with the frozen product when they finally do try it.

"I have a strong sense that the supply side of seafood will force more people into frozen product," said industry consultant Howard M. Johnson of H.M. Johnson & Associates, Jacksonville, Ore. "Look at Trader Joe's. They sell only frozen seafood and it's darn good. I'm much more willing to buy good frozen product than questionable fish that has never been frozen."

In the firm's annual review of supermarket trends, there are strong indications that sweeping, full-service, high-maintenance, European-style open ice cases -- filled with dozens of varieties of fresh seafood -- has peaked.

Now, the trend is focusing on self-service with a mix of fresh, previously frozen and frozen products.

In most retail stores, seafood accounts for only 1% to 2% of store sales, although many seafood specialists quibble over those numbers, arguing sales often are rung up under meat or deli. Stores that pay a lot of attention to seafood do better: often 5% or even as high as 10%.

"The new retail seafood paradigm is a self-service seafood department that merchandises fresh, thawed and frozen products in one area," said Johnson. "This department has a manager and is tended during high traffic hours to make sure certain displays are full."

In this concept, case-ready, tray-packed, fresh seafoods are displayed near frozen cases with a variety of branded, value-added, specialty seafoods. Consumers are offered product and preparation information on packages and in displays, he noted.

Rick Cavanaugh is pretty close to Johnson's new paradigm at the Queen Anne Thriftway in Seattle. He puts all his energy into information, rather than decoration, at his 16-foot, self-serve case. Many of the items in the no-frills, no-ice case are fresh, while others are previously frozen and sold thawed.

"It's truly unique," Cavanaugh said, noting a small frozen case nearby offers packaged value-added items and lobster tails.

"My biggest job is procurement, finding good products, then telling people about them," Cavanaugh said. Every thawed item in the case is identified as previously frozen, usually with an explanation of the source, such as "formerly frozen farmed bay scallops from China, never dipped in preservatives."

"Sometimes we do taste tests -- fresh vs. frozen -- if we're introducing a new product. We keep track of the information we get from these vertical taste tests. If customers prefer the frozen product, we keep it and promote it using the statistics, such as 'eight out of 10 customers preferred this,"' said Cavanaugh. "If the frozen product loses -- it's too dry or something -- we don't carry it. We could skew the process by offering low-quality fresh fish in the test, but we really want the information to be valid."

Four of the top 10-selling seafood products in his department are formerly frozen, said Cavanaugh. The other two stores under the banner have two and five frozen products out of their top 10 seafood items, respectively. Seafood sales annually account for 5% of store sales, so Cavanaugh is pretty sure he's doing something right.

One of his top-selling products was inspired by a Trader Joe's store not far from the Queen Anne.

"They were selling cooked prawns at a price much lower than we could sell them," said Cavanaugh. So he stopped buying frozen cooked prawns and bought frozen raw, peeled and deveined prawns. "We started thawing them out and cooking them ourselves. We quadrupled our sales.

"If I can't beat someone on price, then I have to do it better than they do," he said. "It's not about fresh or frozen; it's about quality."

Retailers are learning that consumers accept frozen seafood provided an effort is made to distinguish that category as being frozen at the source, not at the store, according to Mike Bavota, a former supermarket seafood manager, and now a director of Seafood Sales in Tampa, Fla.

"More and more retailers are trying to 'round out' their seafood departments. They are designating a dedicated frozen seafood section, instead of the old 'bait box' looking section that probably would chase away a fisherman, let alone a customer," he said.

The freezers should be part of the seafood department, and not the frozen section, he added.

"I call it fresh-frozen," said Larry Daerr, regional seafood manager for Supervalu's Pittsburgh division. "It's really just about quality."

While Daerr disputes statistics and reports on the frozen trend, he told SN that stores under his management also sell tons of IQF products.

"We in the seafood business looked at service counters as labor-intensive. It's always been hard to find, train and retain good seafood counter help. But, in seven of our corporate stores we changed over to self-serve a few years ago. Now three have gone back to full service," said Daerr, adding that the high turnover rate in departments seems to be slowing down, and people are staying longer in good supermarket jobs.

All the product supplied by Supervalu, headquartered in Minneapolis, is lot-inspected by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the company itself bolsters the process by operating under an HACCP system.

Frozen product is delivered to Supervalu and inspected by Daerr. If it passes inspection, it goes immediately to the Supervalu freezer, "as big as four football fields," where it is maintained at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit until it goes to a store. "It never experiences warm air."

At Harry's Farmers Markets, the high-end, upscale chain based in Atlanta, John Bowlar prefers fresh seafood. The eight stores currently open operate under an in-house HACCP system, buy mostly whole fish and cut it within view of the customers. It's the fullest of full service, bordering on theater, and seafood sales represent around 10% of store sales. However, even Harry's uses frozen products. It's simply unavoidable.

"There's a lot of junk in fresh fish, too," said Bowlar. "We've honed down our vendors so we get only quality. We don't accept anything that's borderline, with only a couple of days left on it."

Experts estimate as much as 90% of shrimp sold in the United States is frozen, since much of the shrimp travels from farms in Asia or South America. Consequently, nearly everyone who sells shrimp, sells frozen shrimp.

"We can only get fresh shrimp from Savannah in the summer and fall, so the rest of the year we carry frozen. Our cocktail shrimp is always frozen. Orange roughy is always frozen," Bowlar said.

"We have had a few bad experiences with frozen sea bass and frozen swordfish, so we went back to buying fresh."

Johnson, the consultant, warned retailers to avoid falling into what he described as the "cult of fresh."

"It's not just seafood. 'Fresh' is a marketing term. It's not the opposite of frozen; it's the opposite of rotten. The public is so bombarded with the term 'fresh' in marketing they're automatically predisposed to think fresh is better," said Johnson. "We've done it to ourselves in the food industry."

Johnson will get no argument from Mark Jones, a marketing rep for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute who works out of West Palm Beach, Fla.

"We cut our own throats 25 years ago as an industry when stores started freezing product that was starting to turn bad," said Jones. "When the customer took the frozen product home and thawed it out, they had bad product. Now we have to undo the damage. Once quality goes, you can't put it back in."

"Only seafood puts down frozen product -- frozen vegetables are OK with the public," Jones added. He represents Alaskan seafood products such as wild salmon and halibut, which because of their short seasons and long distances from most markets, can be available year-round only if they are frozen, usually at sea.

Randy Rice, seafood technical program director for ASMI in Juneau, says, "Fresh doesn't mean freshness. We try to work the quality angle and emphasize freshness. We ask people not to reduce the issue to fresh vs. frozen. It's not that simple."

Rice believes retailers will soon routinely use time-temperature indicators for seafood in transit so they can see at a glance if frozen or fresh product has suffered temperature abuse on the trip.

One seafood specialist with a large Southwestern chain believes there are as many sides to the fresh vs. frozen debate as there are retailers available to express their opinions. "Fresh means nothing to me except never frozen. It's not a guarantee of quality. 'Fresh' mahi-mahi eight days old won't be better than properly frozen-at-sea mahi-mahi. Fresh salmon? It's better when it's available. When it's not, frozen's fine. Shrimp? Is fresh better than frozen? Probably not in most cases," he said.

"If everything is equal -- if the fish is fresh out of the water that day -- it's far better. But if a fresh product faces any time/temperature challenges, there are frozen products out there that will stand the test of any palate."