Buoyed by a flood of positive press regarding the health benefits of eating more fish, the fresh seafood category has been seeking to grow for quite some time now, but retailers tell SN that supermarkets hoping to increase their sales will need to boost training efforts and hire enthusiastic service counter staff in order to reap the rewards. Appearing on a panel at last week's International Boston

Buoyed by a flood of positive press regarding the health benefits of eating more fish, the fresh seafood category has been seeking to grow for quite some time now, but retailers tell SN that supermarkets hoping to increase their sales will need to boost training efforts and hire enthusiastic service counter staff in order to reap the rewards.

Appearing on a panel at last week's International Boston Seafood Show, retailers including Phil Bravo, director of meat and seafood for Giant Food Stores; Kristen Hanson, vice president of fresh food merchandising for Hannaford Bros.; Doug Owenby, seafood category manager for Winn-Dixie Stores; and Frank Thurlow, director of meat and seafood for Winn-Dixie Stores, agreed that seafood department numbers are good, but could be much better.

Outlining the discussion with proprietary data comparing 2006 to 2005, moderator Steve Lutz, vice president of The Perishables Group, said that baseline supermarket sales of fresh seafood, or sales generated without promotion, were up in 2006, but incremental, promotional sales were down almost 20%, despite the fact that seafood sales spike around almost every major holiday.

“Less fish was sold on promotion,” he noted.

Total fresh fish volume is up 4%, and tilapia and crab had banner years in 2006, with tilapia up 30% in volume and crab up 32.5%. But shrimp sales were flat, prepared seafood declined 6% and salmon volume fell 12%.

Panelists said that there was a simple explanation for many of these shifts in buying habits.

Even though value-added products have become more popular in recent years, “much of what we do is still a commodities business,” noted Thurlow.

“Pond prices on catfish went up [in 2006], and so we promoted tilapia aggressively, and customers responded.”

Similarly, Bravo noted that cost increases were driving the slowdown in salmon sales, causing many shoppers to trade down to less expensive fish. And both Thurlow and Hanson said their stores enjoyed great crab sales last year, partly because there was a great harvest and good pricing that allowed them to promote crab more effectively.

Still, panelists also agreed with Lutz's assessment of the fresh seafood category as one troubled by low household penetration of 43%, and an unusually long shopper purchase cycle of 37 days. The most effective way to increase purchases, they said, is to have a well-trained, outgoing service counter staff.

“Four out of every 100 of our shoppers buy seafood,” noted Thurlow. “If we could increase that to six, our seafood sales would go up 50%. You've got to have someone behind the counter that's able to strike up a conversation with a stranger.”

Owenby agreed, noting that “if you can put someone behind the counter that loves what they're doing, they'll develop a trust with their customers.”

While recipe cards, brochures, electronic kiosks, better merchandising, sustainability certification and other measures have all helped to generate more interest and made shoppers more comfortable with the category, proactive solutions are definitively more effective at retail, noted Hanson. In a call to suppliers looking for better ways to allocate their promotional budgets, she noted that “recipes are great, but dedicating resources toward sampling and demos is even better.”

Proactive communication is equally important when retailers wish to address other seafood issues, such as growing industry concerns about fisheries' sustainability. Despite broad agreement that a U.S. Department of Agriculture organic standard for seafood would likely help boost fresh seafood sales, panelists questioned whether shoppers really understood other types of certification, such as certification offered by the Marine Stewardship Council.

“I don't think the average consumer has any idea what ‘sustainable’ means,” said Thurlow. And, alluding to the many varied standards in the seafood industry, as well as to ongoing disagreements among environmentalists, aquaculture operations and marine sustainability advocates, he added, “depending on who you talk to, I'm not sure I know what it means.”

Here again, the knowledge and training of the counter staff is key, noted Bravo.

Sustainable sourcing “makes you as a retailer feel good about what you're buying,” he said. “If you can pass that along to your [seafood department managers and associates], it makes them feel good, and they can pass that along to your customers.”

With staff turnover and training costs a perennial headache, retailers hoping to address these issues may wish to seek outside help. Contacted separately by SN, seafood industry marketing groups indicated that retail training programs are a growing focus of their promotional efforts.

For example, in addition to nutritional papers, recipes and consumer brochures, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute provides training materials and training sessions for department managers and service counter staff on topics such as sustainability, seafood species characteristics and preparation tips.

The state-funded group has recently hosted extensive training sessions for retailers including Kroger and H. E. Butt Grocery, noted ASMI's retail marketing director, Larry Andrews.

“Kroger brought their seafood captains and staff to college auditoriums in several cities for us to give a two-and-a-half-hour presentation,” Andrews explained. “We went through descriptions of various Alaskan species, fisheries management issues, how those species are harvested and their nutritional benefits.”

The National Fisheries Institute, which is a sponsor of the International Boston Seafood Show, also has retail training initiatives in place, in addition to consumer education efforts, such as its [3] website.

“NFI is working with a number of our members, including retailers, to get information out to the seafood counter staff about different preparation techniques, about the variety of seafood and the different flavors that you can experience when enjoying seafood,” said Stacey Viera, spokesperson for NFI.

“Having someone at the seafood counter that is not educated about seafood really does a disservice to sales in the end,” she said, “because that's where a lot of customers make the decision — do I buy it, or do I pick up something else?

Chefs Pitch New Fish

Concern about sustainable fisheries management, as well as a desire to offer diners new and exciting menu options, is leading many of the nation's top seafood chefs to experiment with underutilized fish, according to panelists at a session on emerging restaurant trends last week at the International Boston Seafood Show.

Moderated by Aaron Noveshen, founder of The Culinary Edge, the panel included Rich Vellante, executive chef and executive vice president of Legal Sea Foods; William King, vice president of culinary development and training, McCormick and Schmick's; Dennis Gavagan, corporate executive chef, Phillips Foods; Andrew Wilkinson, executive chef for Boston-based Skipjacks; and Bruce Sherman, chef and partner at Chicago's North Pond restaurant.

“The elephant in the room is sustainability,” said Sherman, noting that this trend can be reversed through comprehensive industry action. “We need to teach people that they can't always have shrimp, they can't always have swordfish — we can use our menus to introduce them to something new.”

North Pond's menu, which emphasizes locally sourced and in-season foods, currently features grilled wahoo, wine-poached turbot and crispy-skinned Arctic char filets.

“We try to focus on underutilized fish,” said Vellante. “When they're fresh, they're fantastic.”

Pintado and barramundi were among other species mentioned for their flavor profiles and relative abundance compared with other popular fish, and Gavagan noted that other species, such as conch, can be sourced from fisheries where they have traditionally been treated as by-catch.

Farmed fish have long been a sustainable option for sourcing better-known species, such as salmon, although panelists agreed that, in many cases, aquaculture is facing its own set of environmental and contamination concerns.

“Farming has gotten a bad name in the media for the right reasons,” said King. “But there's a need for it in the world, and there are good seafood farmers and bad seafood farmers. We have to find [suppliers] that share a commitment to our standards and business practices.”

Gavagan agreed, arguing that “we have to demand, as an industry, that [aquaculture operations] do it properly and do it ethically and do the right thing.”

Diners, as well as supermarket shoppers, are apt to have their favorites, which can pose a challenge when trying to introduce them to something new.

“Customers often get annoyed when they come to a restaurant and something is gone from the menu due to seasonality,” Wilkinson explained. The solution to this problem, panelists said, is to communicate the story of where an unfamiliar fish comes from, why it's sustainable, and how sourcing fish in-season contributes significantly to quality and freshness.
— M.E.