STEPPIN' OUT

Supermarket seafood is an extremely perishable protein that doesn't adapt well to artificial store environments. Behind the scenes, retailers told SN they feel like they're on an endless fishing expedition, catching and marketing products that are as safe as possible, in order to generate sales volume and turn a profit.To be sure, advances in processing, handling and merchandising vehicles have helped

Supermarket seafood is an extremely perishable protein that doesn't adapt well to artificial store environments. Behind the scenes, retailers told SN they feel like they're on an endless fishing expedition, catching and marketing products that are as safe as possible, in order to generate sales volume and turn a profit.

To be sure, advances in processing, handling and merchandising vehicles have helped to maximize the amount of time in which seafood can be sold. But often that isn't enough. Retailers still must seek out and experiment with new varieties of whole fish and value-added items in an attempt to find the most profitable mix.

"I have a saying: 'People buy meat, but you've got to sell them seafood,"' said Pete Davis, senior director of meat, seafood and sushi for Bristol Farms, an upscale, 11-store chain based in Carson, Calif. "You've got to sell them the stuff. You've got to steer them in the right direction."

In recent years, Bristol Farms successfully rolled out several new species from faraway places. New Zealand grouper made its debut a couple of years ago. Similar to sea bass, grouper has pink flesh and a mild flavor. Bristol Farms sells large fillets, ranging in size from two to three pounds, for $12 to $13 a pound. Stores carry it virtually year-round. "That's turned into a nice product," Davis said.

More recently, the chain introduced Lake Victoria perch. The mild, light, freshwater fish from Africa's Lake Victoria comes to California by way of Florida. Bristol Farms is the only West Coast chain that carries the fish, usually filleted at $10.99 a pound, on a regular basis, Davis said.

While it has generated respectable sales, the new item was not an overnight sensation. After introducing the product in the last year, the retailer promoted it with point-of-sale materials and conducted a sales contest in conjunction with a promotion. The chain sells about 75 items in its seafood departments, with the top 17 items making up 75% of the business, Davis said. The Lake Victoria perch holds the No. 20 spot.

"It's a challenge," Davis said of new product launches. "It was a challenge with the perch in particular. We're quite pleased with it."

To counter the often high retail prices on swordfish, ahi, Chilean sea bass, salmon and halibut -- Bristol Farms' top sellers -- the retailer looks for new products that are high in quality and more reasonably priced, Davis said. New items also must be suitable for broiling and grilling, the cooking techniques preferred by Bristol Farms' shoppers.

"Our customers aren't going to go home and fry fish in a skillet," he said.

Regular customers expect service at Bristol Farms, so the retailer does not carry any prepackaged, prepared entrees. Officials learned not to bother with those products after experimenting with a line of such entrees in the meat departments. Two years of hard work and aggressive merchandising didn't work -- the products sat in the self-serve cases while customers lined up at the service counter.

"The perception there is they'll get a better, fresher product out of the service case," Davis said. "We've created this service culture, and it works for us."

The service seafood department generates 5% to 6% of overall store sales, up from about 4.5% seven years ago. Davis attributed the increase to stepped-up marketing, consumer education and hand-holding. Associates offer consumers serving suggestions and recipes for seafood products, and those efforts encourage shoppers to make what often becomes a costly investment in dinner, Davis said. "Customers are receptive to any new, quality products," he said.

Elsewhere, retailers are having success with products designed for self-serve formats. On the other side of the country, consumers have warmed up to a line of oven-ready seafood entrees at Roche Bros. stores in the Boston area. In its third year, the Seafood Chef line belongs exclusively to the retailer. Officials developed the logo featuring a blue wave graphic, all product labels, signs and ads that tie in with the logo.

The entrees part of the line has grown to include 16 items, with most stores carrying eight to 10 at any given time. On a recent tour of the company's newest store in West Roxbury, Mass., a diverse community seven miles outside of Boston, SN observed signage on the service case promoting the entrees. The retailer recently accelerated marketing of the items, featuring them in store circulars during Lent.

Spinach-stuffed haddock, breaded scallops, breaded scrod and stuffed fillet of sole were among the featured items on the day of SN's visit. The line also includes three versions of salmon -- dijon-encrusted salmon, salmon jardiniere and sesame tamari salmon. Products are displayed in self-serve cases directly in front of the service seafood departments, and are priced at $9.95 for two adult servings.

Signs in the stores describe the products, noting the breaded items are made with homemade breadcrumbs. The breaded items, in fact, are the best sellers, an official with the company told SN.

Most of the dishes are produced daily in the stores, and associates make just one day's worth of products at a time to minimize waste. Controlling shrink is an ongoing challenge for associates who deal with the entrees in particular, and seafood products in general, said Paul McGillivray, vice president of perishables for the 14-store chain. The items have a two-day shelf life.

The line is profitable for Roche Bros., he said. In addition to entrees, the Seafood Chef line includes outsourced products, including appetizers, kabobs for grilling, cocktail sauce and bouillabaisse. The entire portfolio represents 10% of total department sales, and the department contributes 2.5% to overall store sales, McGillivray said.

"You've got to be able to price them to get a return," he told SN. "All the items are in the $10 to $12 range. That's a high ring. You need volume in seafood [to be profitable]. We have steady volume at Roche based on the fact we're in the Northeast and have a loyal seafood customer anyway."

Officials with Boulder, Colo.-based natural foods retailer Wild Oats sense there's profit potential in prepared entrees, an increasingly popular category for the chain. The service seafood departments at Wild Oats historically have offered a selection of mostly fresh, mostly wild items, with some farm-raised products from sustainable species. Under the prepared-foods category, the stores have a limited selection that includes seasonal items like stuffed salmon, popular in the winter months; and salmon burgers and crabcakes, good sellers in the warm-weather months. Wild Oats plans to expand the offering in the near future, an official with the 102-store chain told SN, though he couldn't say when.

Another consideration for the retailer is whether to keep preparing the items in-store as they now are, or contracting with suppliers, said Jonathan Copeland, national seafood buyer for the chain. Both options have merit. In-house preparation lets associates be creative, while outsourcing ensures consistency, Copeland said.

"We're looking at both avenues," he said.

Despite the growing acceptance and consumption of fish, many consumers are still reluctant to shop seafood departments. They are not sure what to do with fish and don't want to take chances with an unfamiliar protein. Wild Oats intends to address those concerns by offering more prepared items that will take the guesswork out of cooking, Copeland said.

"It's a growing category," he said. "It's a focus."

Manufacturers are also busy introducing value-added products that are easy for consumers to prepare. Boston-based Slade Gorton & Co., a leading maker of fresh and frozen seafood products, in February rolled out Asian Citrus Shrimp, a marinaded Argentine shrimp product that cooks in five minutes -- the fastest-cooking item in the company's Gourmet Bay line. The product took top honors in the new products competition at the International Boston Seafood Show in March.

Packaged in one-pound preprinted tubs, the shrimp can be carried in both self-serve and service cases, an official with Slade Gorton told SN. The suggested retail price is $8.99 to $9.99.

About a dozen supermarket chains have introduced the product, and more companies had expressed interest in it, said Jennifer Perham, marketing solutions director for Slade Gorton. "It's appealing because it's the most popular seafood species," she said. "It's quick, easy and healthy."