CATCHING ON

First it was red meat, then bacon and poultry. Now seafood is on the center of the plate for a growing number of consumers watching their waistlines.To capitalize on the trend, many supermarkets are taking extra steps to promote fish and seafood as healthy, diet-friendly food. At the same time, more needs to be done, so seafood marketers are supplying retailers with a fresh arsenal of promotional

First it was red meat, then bacon and poultry. Now seafood is on the center of the plate for a growing number of consumers watching their waistlines.

To capitalize on the trend, many supermarkets are taking extra steps to promote fish and seafood as healthy, diet-friendly food. At the same time, more needs to be done, so seafood marketers are supplying retailers with a fresh arsenal of promotional tools.

Fresh Encounter, the 30-store chain based in Findlay, Ohio, has experienced an increase in seafood sales, particularly the varieties of fish that are less "fishy" than most ocean-born items.

"We've seen an increase in seafood sales, but not at the same pace as many of the more popular proteins like beef and poultry," said Eric Anderson, vice president of marketing, Fresh Encounter. "Tilapia is growing in popularity -- not only in our markets, but in just about every market from my understanding."

Because tilapia is mild-flavored, reasonably priced, readily available, and can be prepared in different fashions -- including being used in ethnic recipes -- the species is a popular choice with Fresh Encounter's shoppers, Anderson said.

"Seafood is sold on freshness and consumer trust. Price is secondary in my opinion, with shrimp being an exception," he said. "So having the reputation of quality and carrying quality product is critical to overall department sales."

While seafood is almost always featured in Fresh Encounter's weekly FSIs and the chain's stores have conducted special sales events during the holidays and summer months, there is little emphasis on promoting seafood in conjunction with high-protein diets, said Anderson. Though seafood sales have been somewhat flat, associates at Chandler, Ariz.-based Bashas' Markets have experimented with some cross merchandising, highlighting various low- or no-carb products like seafood and other Atkins- and South Beach-approved items throughout its stores and in circulars, a Bashas' spokeswoman told SN.

"Seafood sales have been fairly flat, but this is mostly due to the negative publicity seafood has received over the last year-and-a-half because of mercury warnings and color-added information," Alison Bendler, spokeswoman for the 78-store chain, said. "We really haven't seen a large sales increase from the low-carb craze."

Some supermarket chains are approaching the seafood category one store at a time, looking at individual markets for signs of change.

Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion reported a rise in seafood sales, but the increase has been most evident in markets where customers are more likely to consume seafood anyway, said Jeff Lowrance, spokesman for the 1,215-store chain.

"We do think the growing awareness of the need for healthy diets and lifestyles is having a positive impact on seafood consumption," said Lowrance. "The popularity of items has been dependent on the particular store and its location. Our coastal stores often meet different customer preferences for seafood compared to our metro-area and suburban stores."

Food Lion's coastal stores regularly exceed the chain's other locations in seafood sales, prompting the supermarket to introduce an exclusive line of fresh seafood products called Deep Blue in its Charlotte-area stores. According to Lowrance, some of those stores have carried the Deep Blue items for around one month, with sales meeting expectations.

"It's too early to tell how this new brand will do in the future," said Lowrance.

Food Lion routinely promotes its seafood products in weekly circulars, usually highlighting several varieties at a time. One of the chain's October ads featured special price reductions on ocean perch and Atlantic salmon, said Lowrance.

While some chains have experienced an increase in seafood sales, others reported a slight decline. Yet the drop isn't attributed to the high-protein diet trend, but to consumer demand for natural foods and leeriness toward farm-raised product.

"We've noticed a greater impact from all the talk about farm-raised fish that's been taking place over the past six months, which was a negative impact. But now that we're buying more of the all-natural seafoods, things have leveled off again," said Chuck Keegan, seafood and meat department manager for Highland Park Markets, Glastonbury, Conn. "We do have a few people here in our store that are on high-protein diets, and they're more into the red meat, which seems to be the most popular meat selection amongst Atkins and South Beach dieters."

Consumption of seafood is indeed on the rise, according to recent research conducted by Mintel, a Chicago-based global market research firm. According to Mintel, nearly 20% of Americans admitted increasing their consumption of meat and fish because of high-protein/low-carb diets. In 2002, the seafood market in the United States was relatively stagnant. However, the segment experienced a boost in 2003 when the prices of red meat and poultry skyrocketed due to increased demand brought on in part by the surging popularity of low-carb diets. The price hikes brought traditionally high-priced seafood items more in line with price points of selections in the meat departments, according to Mintel's research.

Furthermore, the annual "Fisheries of the United States" report by NOAA, the National Marine Fisheries division of the U.S. Commerce Department, also showed U.S. consumption of fish and shellfish rose in recent years, rising from 15.6 pounds per person in 2002 to 16.3 pounds per person in 2003.

Of the 4.7 billion pounds of seafood consumed in the United States in 2003, 4.6 pounds were canned fish, which was up 0.3 pounds from 2002. U.S. consumers set a record, eating 4 pounds of shrimp per person in 2003, also up 0.3 pounds from 2002, according to NOAA's annual report.

With such a significant increase, supermarkets should jump on this unique opportunity to sell more fish and shellfish, said Laura Fleming, spokeswoman for Alaska Seafood Institute , Juneau.

"The current fascination in the United States for seafood creates opportunities for the category as a whole. People who used to only eat seafood once every couple of weeks have increased their consumption. They're going to want variety," said Fleming. "We've developed seafood recipes for use by our retail partners that fit well into a low-carbohydrate diet. Retailers should take advantage of the opportunity to show consumers different ways to eat seafood."

Instead of always serving an Alaskan salmon fillet as a center plate offering with a side of rice or potato, ASI is promoting recipes for Thai Salmon Cakes, Alaska Salmon Salad Monterrey, and Mexican-flavored seafood dishes that are naturally low in carbs, said Fleming.

Supermarkets can also offer meal solutions that include low-carb sides like broccoli, spinach and cauliflower, which would complement just about any type of fish, she said.

National Seafood Educators in Seattle also encouraged supermarkets to aggressively hand out recipe cards, but more importantly, to promote the inherent nutritional values of various seafood products, including the fact that many varieties are naturally low in carbs.

"Even though there hasn't been a ruling from the [Food and Drug Administration] on what is and what isn't low carb yet, supermarkets can go through the nutrition fact charts and point out that most fish doesn't contain any carbohydrates," said Evie Hansen, spokeswoman for National Seafood Educators. "You have to be careful to only report the facts though and not make general claims about all seafood being low carb or no carb. "Salmon doesn't contain carbohydrates, which is a nutritional fact, but imitation crab meat has nine grams of carbs."