Salmon sales are jumping and retailers are catching hold of the fish's popularity to increase their top and bottom lines.Supermarkets across the country are hooking into fresh salmon in a number of ways. They're spiffing up case merchandising, conducting in-store demos, and posting point-of-sale materials that tout the health benefits of eating salmon. They're also advertising it more and implementing

Salmon sales are jumping and retailers are catching hold of the fish's popularity to increase their top and bottom lines.

Supermarkets across the country are hooking into fresh salmon in a number of ways. They're spiffing up case merchandising, conducting in-store demos, and posting point-of-sale materials that tout the health benefits of eating salmon. They're also advertising it more and implementing consumer-education programs.

Those things alone could send sales up but there are external factors, too, like the recently revised American Heart Association guidelines [see "Heart Study Tips Scales (and Sales) in Favor of Fish," SN, Nov. 13, 2000]. The year-round availability of farm-raised salmon also has helped put salmon on the menu at virtually every type of restaurant -- where consumers have honed their taste for it.

Whatever the circumstance, most retailers told SN fresh salmon has climbed, or is climbing, to the top of their best-seller list, knocking shrimp, the perennial best seller, aside.

"We couldn't be happier with sales. Shrimp was always No. 1 here, but salmon has become our best-selling seafood item," said Jon Wissmann, director of meat, seafood and poultry operations for 29-unit Ball's Food Stores, Kansas City, Kan.

"We still sell a lot of shrimp, but we sell more salmon. We've doubled sales [in the category] in the last two to three years, and we've actually tripled sales of wild salmon," he added.

Others who report similar sales feats, or see big potential ahead for salmon, include Victory Supermarkets, Leominster, Mass.; V. Richard's, Brookfield, Wis.; D&W Food Centers, Grand Rapids, Mich.; Queen Anne Thriftway, Seattle; Tidyman's, Greenacres, Wash.; Rudy's Markets, Bend, Ore.; and Lunds/Byerly's, Minneapolis.

"I never have a problem moving salmon. I've been here three years and I'm ordering at least double what I was that first year. Our total seafood sales have grown steadily, but salmon has topped the list," said Sharon Lord, seafood manager for the upscale, single-unit independent V. Richard's.

Much the same sentiment was expressed by Rick Cavanaugh, seafood manager for Queen Anne Thriftway's three units in the Seattle area.

"Salmon is easily No. 1. It's certainly the centerpiece in our seafood case. [Sales have] increased steadily and then when Copper River [Alaska, wild salmon] season opens, we sell thousands and thousands of pounds of it," he said.

The hoopla that surrounds the first Copper River catch in the spring has brought attention to the whole salmon category, retailers said.

"Since we've been bringing in Copper River salmon for years, we've become the salmon gurus in our area," said Larry Long, director of meat and seafood operations at Lund Food Holdings, which operates 19 stores under the Lunds/Byerly's banner in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Lunds/Byerly's, after watching salmon sales grow strongly in the last four years, has increased the varieties of farm-raised salmon it carries year-round. That's to give customers more choices, Long said. Four years ago, the company carried only one farm-raised variety. Now it has three: Atlantic, Norwegian and Tasmanian. Their price points range from $5.99 to $9.99 a pound.

Back on the West Coast, Tidyman's recently pushed salmon to center stage in a new seafood merchandising effort.

"We'll devote more space proportionately to salmon since it's our No. 1 seller. We're also getting into further-processed salmon. In the past, we've had too much whole-bodied displayed in the case and not enough fillets and steaks," said Glenn Hedlund, director of perishables for the independent, which operates 12 stores under the Tidyman's banner and nine others.

"In most stores, we've devoted a third of the case to salmon products," said Bob Simon, sales manager for Seattle-based Pacific Seafood, Tidyman's supplier.

Simon designed Tidyman's new case schematics and is helping the retailer roll out its new merchandising strategy. He's currently scheduling seminars, too, to get the retailer's seafood managers focused on educating customers about seafood.

Customer education is a major key to maximizing sales, he said. Long at Lund Food Holding's readily agreed.

"Particularly with seafood, the associate absolutely has to be knowledgeable. When a customer asks about Tasmanian salmon, we want our people to be able to intelligently answer the question and to offer more information about the product. Demos are important, too. Our chef demos salmon Florentine and other salmon entrees, and I know that helps our fresh salmon sales," Long said.

Demoing and offering recipes, cooking tips and nutrition information are all part of it, said Wissmann at Ball's.

"We try to get across to our team [of front-line managers and associates] that there should never be a lull in their conversation with a customer. We want them to talk to customers about the Omegas in salmon and to tell them how easy it is to prepare at home, and to just keep adding more information."

Arthur DeChellis, seafood buyer for Victory Supermarket's 20 stores, and Bill Bonzheim, seafood director at 26-unit D&W Food Centers, are both big believers in point-of-sale materials to supplement the information their associates offer customers.

"Our supplier gives us handout materials that tell about the health benefits of Omega-3s in salmon. We always have those at the counter," said DeChellis.

D&W also makes such materials available to customers. In addition, D&W -- as does Ball's Food Stores -- usually includes a blurb in their ads that tells about salmon's Omega-3 content.

"We're featuring salmon once a week in our ads now. We want to be known as 'the salmon store' because our customers love it, it's an easy sell, and it's profitable," Bonzheim said.

In D&W's circular for the first week in February, this message is included in a full-color, front-page ad for fresh Atlantic salmon fillets: "The American Heart Association is recommending two servings per week of fish high in Omega-3 fatty acids, and these Atlantic salmon are known for their high Omega-3 fat content."

The dissemination of such AHA recommendations is expected to propel salmon sales further. The Dallas-based American Heart Association published revised health guidelines last fall that specifically recommend eating fish that is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, "such as salmon and tuna," twice a week.

Those guidelines, which were given big attention in the consumer media, plus subsequent studies that stress the health benefits of Omega-3s, have fueled consumer and retailer interest in salmon. And the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Juneau, Alaska, and National Seafood Educators, Richmond Beach, Wash., are ready with informational materials that retailers can put to use.

Indeed, after an Associated Press story came out last month about a study that showed women who ate fish two to four times weekly reduced their risk of clot-related stroke by 48%, the National Seafood Educators office was inundated by phone calls from retailers and processors.

"The phone was ringing off the hook on Monday morning and it kept up all week. We had more calls from [supermarket] retailers in that one week than we normally get in a year. They wanted materials that they could use to tell their customers about the health benefits of fish and particularly of Omega-3s," said Evie Hansen, NSE's marketing director.

In that blitz of calls after the AP story appeared in newspapers across the country, some of the largest supermarket chains were represented, Hansen said. Safeway was one of them; a distributor for Kroger Co. was another. And Harris Teeter, Matthews, N.C., was one of the first to call, Hansen said.

As Alaska wild salmon season approaches, retailers expect that this year might be the best yet for sales because the fresh salmon category itself is doing so well.

"We really hang our hats on fresh, wild salmon. We do carry a farm-raised variety from the Pacific Northwest, but we make a big thing of Copper River salmon. I'd estimate we've tripled sales of it in three years," said Randy Yochum, meat and seafood merchandiser, for two-unit independent, Rudy's Markets, Bend, Ore.

While they give much credit to Copper River salmon's marketers for putting salmon in the public eye, other retailers like Victory's DeChellis said it's the availability of consistent, top quality, farm-raised salmon that's a major factor in sending sales upward. In fact, it has helped triple Victory's salmon sales in the last five years, he said.

"[Farm-raised salmon] is easy to procure and there aren't big fluctuations in price. With others, cod, for example, it's a gamble to put it on special three weeks out. If the weather turns bad in the meantime and the fishermen can't get out, that affects the price we have to pay for it."