DAYTON, Ohio -- Dorothy Lane Markets paved the way by giving customers lots of information and then sent sales of Alaskan red king crab legs soaring this fall.
The upscale, two-unit independent sold 3,000 pounds of the sought-after legs over a two-week period, and two-thirds of the sales were rung up over one weekend, said Jack Gridley, the retailer's meat/seafood director.
While this is the third year Dorothy Lane has brought in the fresh, short-season crab -- considered the best of the best by crab lovers -- it rang up its best sales this time around.
"We sold five times as much as we did the first year. It was the excitement, I think. People already knew about the product and they were anticipating its arrival. They were calling and asking about it ahead of time. Two years of educating the customers makes the difference," Gridley said.
Such sales success with a product that retails for $20 to $25 a pound comes only with a long-term plan that involves giving customers a lot of information that tells them why the product is worth the price.
Dorothy Lane sends out a letter to its top customers that announces the imminent arrival of the fresh product and also describes its attributes. For example, the letter explains why fresh, never-frozen crab legs taste better than frozen crab legs. It also tells why the particular species, the red king crab from Alaska, is so special.
Crab leg connoisseurs revere the Alaskan red king crab because its leg meat is so sweet. The crabs are in relatively short supply, too, because the season is only two weeks long and it's often fraught with danger, brought in during a time of year that can be stormy, Gridley explained.
"Working the deck of a ship in 80-mile-an-hour winds and waves that can be 40 feet high is pretty dangerous. It's like being on a bucking bronco, and then they're dumping the traps, on winches, overboard in all that," Gridley said.
With in-store posters and fliers, Dorothy Lane tells customers the story behind the crab catch -- that the creatures are brought in from the Bering Sea and that the catch is highly regulated by Alaska, and that they taste like no other crab legs. Probably most important for customers to know is that only a designated amount of the product is destined to be sold fresh. Most of the catch is to be cooked and frozen.
The portion of the catch that's to be sold fresh via specialty stores and high-end restaurants is cooked by the processor as soon as the ship unloads the catch. Then the cooked legs are shipped out by air.
"Chances are that you've never eaten a crab leg that hadn't been frozen, but these haven't been. There's all the difference in the world. The texture is firmer or meatier and not salty. The first thing you taste when you bite into crab that's been frozen is salt [because it's soaked in brine before freezing]," Gridley said.
Demos conducted by well-informed associates give the product its send-off in the fall at Dorothy Lane Market's two units. This year, for the first time, an 8- by 4-foot ice table display was brought up to the front of the store and set alongside the demo station.
Clarified butter and white wine were cross merchandised at the display. Also, back in the seafood department, the sprawly, giant legs occupied at least 25% of the seafood case, Gridley said.
The price this year, at $19.99 a pound, was down five dollars from last year's retail.
"We could do that because they cost us less this year," Gridley said.
But the price isn't important in this case. What's important is that the customer knows they're getting something special. And Dorothy Lane communicates that quite clearly, said a local food industry consultant who works with supermarkets.
"Dorothy Lane does a great job of giving specialty products special treatment. Too many retailers put a specialty product on the shelf and just expect it to sell, and it doesn't," said Howard Solganik, president, Solganik & Associates, Dayton, Ohio.