CASE-READY ENTREES ON MENU AT SEAFOOD SHOW

BOSTON -- Case-ready products and eco-labeling are among the hot topics experts predict will be the talk of the aisles at this week's International Boston Seafood Show at the Hynes Convention Center.While both topics stand to open up fresh marketing opportunities for retailers, they also present marketing challenges for supermarkets and their suppliers, some industry experts said."The speculation

BOSTON -- Case-ready products and eco-labeling are among the hot topics experts predict will be the talk of the aisles at this week's International Boston Seafood Show at the Hynes Convention Center.

While both topics stand to open up fresh marketing opportunities for retailers, they also present marketing challenges for supermarkets and their suppliers, some industry experts said.

"The speculation is that all the activity in the meat business -- the mergers and all -- will eliminate the neighborhood butcher and the guy who cuts meat in the supermarket," said retail consultant Howard M. Johnson, president of H.M. Johnson & Associates, Jacksonville, Ore.

"In some retail stores, the two departments are often managed together. Albertson's, for instance, has its 'Butcher Block' that combines meat and seafood," said Johnson. He sees the case-ready trend in meat as an opportunity for retailers and seafood suppliers to follow a parallel track and add branded, case-ready products in seafood.

"If we can get retailers to put a frozen case near the fresh seafood case, that would really help" as the counters become increasingly self-service, he said.

Eco-labeling is another trend retailers can't ignore, Johnson told SN. The London-based International Marine Stewardship Council has certified three fisheries worldwide as sustainable-harvest habitats: Alaskan wild salmon, New Zealand hoki and Australian rock lobster.

"How will this message get communicated to consumers at the retail level?" Johnson asked.

Johnson hopes to help answer these questions for retailers when he moderates a conference session, slated for the first morning of the annual seafood show, titled "Effective Retail Display of Seafood." It will be held Tuesday, March 27, from 9 to 10:30 a.m.

"The panelists will talk about these and other subjects," said Johnson. "But I hope to get a good dialogue going with the retailers at the conference."

Another IBSS conference session offering information useful to seafood retailers is "Buyer Savvy: The Consumer Attitudes That Drive Buyer Decisions." This workshop, which will explore some of the factors that prompt consumers to buy fish at the counter, is based on studies conducted by academics and government experts.

Mike Jahncke, director of the Virginia Tech Seafood, Agricultural, Research and Extension Center, was involved in a recent study that used nine focus groups in three states to evaluate consumer perceptions of foreign and domestic crabmeat, both fresh and frozen.

"We asked for their opinions on everything, including the containers," said Jahncke. "A lot of the imported crabmeat comes in cans. Consumers don't like them, because they can't see the meat, and the labels don't usually give enough information, such as where the crab comes from."

These studies were originally undertaken to help the crab industry in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina when an increase in the volume of imports began cutting into domestic sales. In 1998, U.S. fishermen landed 217.9 million pounds of hardshell blue crab, valued dockside at $149.1 million, and during the same year more than 26 million pounds of crab were imported, with a value of $16 million.

According to Jahncke, in 1998 the U.S. industry exported 3.3 million pounds of all species of frozen and fresh crab, with a value of $5.6 million.

"A lot of the imported crab are different species from the domestic crab, but if you put it in a crab cake with spices, even a blue crab connoisseur couldn't tell the difference," said Jahncke. "We will share everything we learned from the focus groups to help people develop retail marketing strategies."

Joining Jahncke on the panel, along with other experts, will be another Virginia Tech scientist, Professor George Flick of the Food Science and Technology Department. He will offer information gleaned over years of working with retailers, primarily Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets, in a multifaceted study of fresh fish handling, from the boat to the store. Flick told SN he will detail the difficulties of trying to guarantee high-quality fish, using techniques such as dockside grading, as well as the added difficulty of linking quality to price.