THE HISTORY OF RETAIL SEAFOOD POINTS TO ITS FUTURE

While looking through old issues of SN for information related to our 50th anniversary, I came across an article from June 1977. The in-depth report was called "Fresh Seafood: Some Hooked, Others Flounder." Photos show advertisements for live Maine lobsters for $2.59 a pound, and salmon at $1.95 a pound; there's another showing a 200-pound octopus on a bed of ice that's part of a promotion, the "Largest

While looking through old issues of SN for information related to our 50th anniversary, I came across an article from June 1977. The in-depth report was called "Fresh Seafood: Some Hooked, Others Flounder." Photos show advertisements for live Maine lobsters for $2.59 a pound, and salmon at $1.95 a pound; there's another showing a 200-pound octopus on a bed of ice that's part of a promotion, the "Largest Octopus Ever on Display in the East!"

Seafood was the latest "hot perishables category" discovered by consumers, though retailers that year were divided as to whether they were equipped, or even wanted, to handle fresh product. Opinions varied, from those (mostly in the Midwest) who didn't like the idea because of challenges related to supply and in-store handling, to those who stocked 12-foot service cases and self-service displays in each store.

One of the big players in 1977 was Hughes Markets in the Los Angeles area, operating "fish markets" at 12 of their 28 stores. Each one was independent of the meat department, with service cases typically in the 20-foot to 24-foot range, though one high-volume site worked a 40-foot case. There were also self-service displays. Officials didn't want to disclose the department's contribution to total-store sales, but they did say the markup was higher than for meat and poultry ("at least 33%"), and that fish accounted for 3.5% of sales at stores that carried it.

"The potential is there for growth," said Frank Morello, Hughes' buyer, accurately adding, "it's getting a lot of publicity from a health and diet standpoint, and the demand just keeps increasing."

Now, 25 years later, the debate over fresh seafood has moved beyond whether to carry the category. Granted, seafood's ante to total-store sales has remained fairly small at 1.1%, though it can pass the 2% mark for those retailers who put some muscle behind their departments. But -- more than ever before -- consumers know it's good for them, and are learning that it can be cooked in their own kitchens without a lot of trouble.

Supermarket retailers can take credit for helping to promote both benefits. The evidence can be found in SN's more recent coverage, where we find annual parking lot sales with ice-filled dory boats, or live radio promotions with funny (but articulate) chefs cooking seafood in a store before an audience of shoppers. In this week's issue on Page 19, you'll find a retailer conducting free health checks in conjunction with a salmon promotion. And, the feature story profiles a retailer's participation in a government-run seafood "boot camp," where participants spend three intense days learning all about the industry.

The dedication and creativity exhibited by those managing the seafood category over the years demonstrate what retailers are capable of if they put their minds to it. The growth of the seafood department was not a passive event; in the 1977 words of Milton Seiger, assistant vice president of seafood buying and merchandising for Pantry Pride, a division of Food Fair, Philadelphia: "A successful fish operation requires [a management commitment] and people working in the section who love fish and have the expertise to make it go over well."

In other words, the product is food, but the secret is people. Octopus is optional.