A SWIMMING TIME FOR SHRIMP

While other segments of the frozen seafood category are drowning all around it, the frozen shrimp segment is managing to swim along at a nice pace.The most recent scanning sales records available show increased sales of frozen breaded shrimp at supermarkets.According to Nielsen North America, Northbrook, Ill., unit sales of frozen breaded shrimp were up 12.2% and dollar volume up 15.5% for the 52

While other segments of the frozen seafood category are drowning all around it, the frozen shrimp segment is managing to swim along at a nice pace.

The most recent scanning sales records available show increased sales of frozen breaded shrimp at supermarkets.

According to Nielsen North America, Northbrook, Ill., unit sales of frozen breaded shrimp were up 12.2% and dollar volume up 15.5% for the 52 weeks ended June 11, the latest period analyzed. Unbreaded shrimp, while suffering an 8.4% decline in unit sales, managed a 5% jump in dollar volume.

These gains in dollar volume come in spite of fierce competition from fresh food departments and minimal advertising on the part of the category's manufacturers.

With the holiday season in full swing, retailers may expect more of the same. They told SN, however, that suppliers must increase their promotional activity to keep the shrimp segment afloat.

Major chunks of the frozen seafood business overall are suffering. The breaded fish segment, for example, was down 8.5% in unit volume and 8.6% in dollar volume during the same span in which breaded shrimp was posting its double-digit gains. The breaded fish segment accounts for more than $400 million in dollar volume -- more than half of the entire seafood category.

Louis Scaduto Jr., frozen food buyer for Food Circus Supermarkets, Middletown, N.J., summed up retailers' views of the frozen seafood category.

"Shrimp doesn't seem to be a problem. Other than that, the whole frozen seafood category is really dead," he said.

"Our breaded shrimp is doing okay," said a buyer with a North Carolina chain. "The cheaper lines are the ones that are doing better for us. We sort of use Fisher Boy as our private label. That's doing a lot more volume than the Gorton's, Mrs. Paul's or Van de Kamp's are doing." He said the lack of fresh fish departments in his stores has helped frozen seafood sales.

A buyer from a Mid-Atlantic retailer is thankful the same scenario exists in her stores.

"We don't have fresh fish departments in our stores, so the competition within the store isn't there. That's probably helped us somewhat," she said. In spite of that, seafood sales are flat in her stores, with the exception of shrimp.

"Our shrimp sales are up just about 10%. It's really helping to keep the category alive. Shrimp is the only area that's doing anything today, although we have some breaded crab that's doing pretty good lately," she said.

Things are the same in the Midwest, where a frozen food buyer wondered where the seafood category would be without shrimp.

"Seafood is down overall and would be down a great deal if it wasn't for shrimp," he said. "We're down about 5% overall in fish. Without shrimp, which is up by over 10%, we'd easily be down almost 10%.

"I think shrimp is one of the leading gainers on the fresh side, too," he added. "I don't know if it's a fad or what, but shrimp just seems to be one of the 'in' things today," he said when asked about category's popularity.

All the retailers interviewed cited fresh fish departments as a thorn in the side of the frozen fish category.

"[Frozen] fish has really been declining for us," said Marlin Larson, manager of grocery, dairy and frozen for the northern California division of Albertson's, Boise, Idaho. "What's happened is that many supermarkets today have put in fresh fish sections. It's over-the-counter service. It's all on ice and it looks nice. It gives a different presentation."

He said Albertson's is cutting back the size of its frozen fish sections, something other grocers said they were doing as well. "Fish does real well in what we call the 'butcher blocks' in our company; where they're on ice and there's service. But when you get to just the traditional boxed frozen, there's not much activity because they're all going over to the fresh fish counter," Larson said.

New product activity might help spur sales of frozen product; however, there's not been much done on that front lately, merchandisers said.

"There have been some entries, but nothing really outstanding; nothing we're redoing our sections for," said Pat Redmond, frozen food buyer for Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash. Sales of frozen seafood overall have declined in his stores, but not enough to result in a reduction of the space devoted to the category, Redmond said.

Fred Krahl, a buyer with Fred W. Albrecht Grocery Co., Akron, Ohio, said seafood is not an important part of frozen departments in his chain.

"It's absolutely croaking," he said of the category. "Our seafood departments are taking that business. We just handle a few items for the convenience of the customer who wants to use it some other time."

"The whole frozen fish category as a whole is just a dead issue," said Scaduto of Food Circus. "It's just been losing steam. It will pick up a little bit when we swing into Lent, but that's about it.

"Our supplier, Twin County [Grocers, Edison, N.J.], has just cut out 11 or 12 items that were only showing about 20 cases a week moving out of the warehouse," he added. "That's pretty poor."

More advertising could go a long way toward keeping shoppers in frozen seafood departments and away from fresh fish counters, retailers told SN.

"We need some help from the manufacturers to help us get some people into our fish departments," said the Mid-Atlantic buyer. "Even in stores like ours, without fresh fish departments, shoppers have to be reminded about the availability of frozen fish."

"There's some, but not a whole lot," said the North Carolina buyer when asked about manufacturer support. "Most of the volume through Fisher Boy is done through aggressive pricing, and not necessarily ads."

The Midwest buyer was optimistic on the category's growth potential, but said promotional efforts must grow as well.

"Maybe things will improve as people continue to eat more fish," he said. "With today's emphasis on health, more and more people are turning to fish. We have to make sure some of that growth comes our way."

Jack Kilgore, senior vice president of corporate sales and marketing for Rich-Seapak, St. Simons Island, Ga., the leading manufacturer for breaded shrimp in the category, based on agreed.

"Nobody's doing anything to any great degree to bring the consumer into the category and demonstrate there's real value in the products, as compared to other center-of-the-plate items or other protein sources," he said.

"Brands have to take the initiative to inform the consumer. That's not being done in the category. There's a little bit of consumer marketing from Gorton's, Van de Kamp and ourselves, and that's about it. It's common knowledge that Mrs. Paul's is for sale. So they're not doing anything to invest in the brand there."

The category's makeup leads to such a problem, Kilgore added. "We're a fairly fragmented category, unlike some of the other categories where you've got a half-dozen players."