NETTING PROFITS

A growing number of retailers are taking a fresh look at their seafood departments, following a boost in consumer interest and a flurry of federally approved health claims promoting the category.Tidyman's, of Greenacres, Wash., is among those progressive operators that are determined to use seafood to drive up sales and sharpen its image in the marketplace with a new merchandising plan -- and it's

A growing number of retailers are taking a fresh look at their seafood departments, following a boost in consumer interest and a flurry of federally approved health claims promoting the category.

Tidyman's, of Greenacres, Wash., is among those progressive operators that are determined to use seafood to drive up sales and sharpen its image in the marketplace with a new merchandising plan -- and it's working, officials said.

Already, the program has been rolled out to five stores, where it gets credit for pushing sales up 23% since its December launch. A sixth store's seafood re-do got under way late last month.

"We're very happy with the way it's going, and we're doing other things, too -- like running a full-page ad in our circular to kick off Lent -- to keep seafood sales increasing," said Glenn Hedlund, director of perishables for the independent, which operates 12 stores under the Tidyman's banner and nine others.

The new merchandising thrust, which includes more variety, new case sets, heavy sampling and tuned-up training, will be rolled out to all stores operating under the Tidyman's banner. It was spurred by a market research study that showed there was no real standout seafood retailer in the Spokane market. That looked like a void that Tidyman's could fill, Hedlund said.

"We called our supplier immediately to tell him we thought this was a golden opportunity for us to become the No. 1 seafood retailer in the area."

The supplier, Seattle-based Pacific Seafood, responded with a plan that it says will double Tidyman's seafood sales in short order.

Results of the regional market research, commissioned by Tidyman's and conducted by a Spokane firm, came in just as the retailer was gearing up for the Christmas holiday season.

"[The study] gave us good marks for weekly pricing and for seasonal items like Dungeness crab and Copper River salmon. We're the first in the marketplace to offer Copper River salmon when the season begins," Hedlund said.

But the company hadn't made a concerted effort on a consistent basis to make the most of seafood, he added.

"We probably didn't have the variety or selection we should have had. Now we're going to stick our neck out and bring in more product -- varieties that our supplier has found are the most popular in our area."

The top three sellers, in order, are salmon, halibut and cooked shrimp. So in its new effort, Tidyman's will devote more space proportionately to those items and will make sure it's offering both steaks and fillets of salmon and halibut, and additional cuts as well. In fact, a new restaurant-style, portion-controlled boneless salmon steak has quickly risen to the top of the best-seller list.

A wider selection of cuts is a major change, Hedlund said.

"We're getting more into further-processed salmon. We'd probably been doing too much whole-body. In the past, if you came into the store at seven in the evening, you'd find maybe three whole bodies, three fillets and half a dozen steaks."

The decision to display more cuts and less whole-body fish is designed to promote the perception of customer convenience, even though customers could have the whole-body fish cut to order, Hedlund said. The difference is, customers wouldn't necessarily know that, seeing the whole fish. They might think they had to buy the entire item -- and even if they didn't think that, they might not want to wait to have it cut, he added.

"I think the restaurant-style portions are so popular because it's easy for the customer to see how much she'll need. Besides that, they're guaranteed to be boneless and skinless. And they look like what you'd be served in a restaurant," he added.

Tidyman's has been retailing the portions for $3.49 each, but they were offered at a special price the first week in Lent, when they also got a top spot in the department's full-page ad.

Not only are individual portions, steaks and fillets getting more space in the seafood case, they're all being shown off to better advantage -- in black trays and bowls set on white flaked ice, said Bob Simon, Pacific Seafood's sales manager. He has Pacific Seafood merchandisers working closely with Tidyman's associates at each store as the new schematics are put into place.

In the past, in many of its stores Tidyman's had displayed seafood European-style, laid out on a bed of ice, but often the variety was small. The new system employs the same amount of space -- 12-foot cases in some Tidyman's units and 8-foot cases in others -- but displays are more compact.

"Actually, in the past we had three variations of display, but we'll get to one consistent plan with the black, 8-inch-wide trays and some small bowls. We'll have two facings of fillets, then portions, then steaks, and maybe one whole-body," Hedlund said.

A new product, Dungeness crab cakes, has been added. So has surimi salad, made fresh in the department each day. That product had been offered in the deli, but now it will be in the seafood case as well. All in all, product variety has been boosted by about 20%, said Simon at Pacific Seafood.

The revamped system, which got its debut in a 72,000-square-foot, recently remodeled Spokane unit, is right on schedule for its rollout to all Tidyman's units.

Banners, balloons and flashing lights alert customers that something different is happening in the seafood department, Hedlund said. Frequent product demonstrations are part of the equation, too. Indeed, a different variety of fish is being featured each weekend in the early weeks of the demo program.

"We'll definitely need to get more seafood into our regular [store-wide] demo plan. There's been nothing structured [to include seafood regularly in weekly demos] up to this point," Hedlund said.

Pacific Seafood is currently helping out with demos and has deployed a crew to get Tidyman's store-level team up to speed in educating customers.

"Our goal is to make the Tidyman's seafood manager the expert in the eyes of the consumer. He or she will be able to take away any uncertainty a customer might have about preparing seafood," said Simon.

Hedlund began, before the new program's debut, to update each seafood manager and to set up training sessions. He's currently finishing up an on-line training manual.

"As soon as our intranet system is up, our people will have the freshest information possible. All our policy and procedures manuals will be on-line," Hedlund said.

In a marketing area that includes such formidable competition as Albertson's, Safeway, Fred Meyer and a myriad of independents, Hedlund fully expects the new seafood plan to give Tidyman's a clear edge.

"It will certainly separate us in the market," he said.