AN UPSTREAM BATTLE

Consuming IssuesPercentage of respondents who agreed that the following issues affected their consumption of fish:Heavy fish eaters (defined as those who eat fish at least 11 times in a three-month period) and light fish eaters (those who eat fish one to four times in the same period) say many of the same issues affect their fish consumption.ORLANDO, Fla. -- Seafood suppliers and retailers alike must

Consuming Issues

Percentage of respondents who agreed that the following issues affected their consumption of fish:

Heavy fish eaters (defined as those who eat fish at least 11 times in a three-month period) and light fish eaters (those who eat fish one to four times in the same period) say many of the same issues affect their fish consumption.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Seafood suppliers and retailers alike must try harder to make consumers more comfortable about purchasing seafood, according to a retail/food-service panel convened at the National Fisheries Institute Convention held here.

The nine-member panel -- representing some major supermarket and restaurant chains and moderated by Roger Blackwell, professor of marketing at Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio -- was reacting to new research from a survey on consumer attitudes about seafood, which was released at the convention. (See SN's Nov. 10 issue for more details about the consumer study.)

For these seafood sellers, at least, the message was clear: Consumer behavior is what will drive the industry's growth, and consumers need their help.

"We have to got to think like a customer rather than a supplier," said panelist Richard Catanzaro, director of seafood marketing and procurement for H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio. "One size doesn't fit all, and the micromarket is a key component for our future."

In order to capture a greater customer base for seafood, Catanzaro said it is necessary to explore the unfamiliar.

Moderator Blackwell noted that there are dramatic changes afoot in the seafood marketplace. "The 21st century is the century of the consumer and they will determine who will be in the business," he said, emphasizing the importance of being flexible. " 'We never did it that way before' are the last seven words of many organizations."

For panelist Wayne Cobb, a seafood merchandiser at for Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie Stores' operations here, the research pointed to a need for better and clearer information on the market. "People are scared that what they buy is going to be ruined when they get it home -- and seafood is expensive," he said.

"We can see an increase in sales if we continue to educate consumers," said Ronald Pollack, another panelist and a managing partner and executive chef at the Levy Restaurants at Walt Disney World here.

"If you disappoint somebody with seafood, it can last a long time," warned Paul Gingerich, a seafood manager for Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo.

The study, "Summary of Findings on the Relationship Between Attitude and Usage in the Fish Market Category," grouped the respondents into light, medium and heavy fish consumers. The respondents were asked which issues influence their fish consumption and which they issues consider important.

Of a total pool of nearly 6,500 respondents, 1,448 were classified as heavy eaters, with a fish consumption frequency of at least 11 times every three months, and 1,992 as medium eaters, consuming fish five to 10 times in that period. Another 2,201 were identified as light eaters, one to four times every three months, and 848 said they did not eat fish at all.

The top five issues that affect consumption are quality, health, price, safety and concerns about overfished resources, according to Dave Jenkins, vice president at National Eating Trends, a service of the NPD Group, Rosemont, Ill., which conducted the research and prepared the report for NFI.

What Catanzaro called the most disturbing finding in the study was that "one-third of the young generation doesn't consider seafood an important part of their diet." It is an issue that needs to be addressed by the industry, he said, since "they are our future customer."

Tony Drane, a buyer specialist in food-service purchasing at the Walt Disney World Co., Orlando, said the study's contention that young people tended to choose items like hamburgers and chicken, rather than seafood, is something he sees in the market. One-quarter of Disney's theme park visitors are teen-agers or younger, he said, and "they are eating less seafood, partially because of pricing."

Winn-Dixie's Cobb agreed: "Generation X doesn't have a clue."

The industry panelists went on to explore other consumer concerns and what effect they have on the seafood market.

Price is the most significant factor affecting seafood purchases, according to Catanzaro. "When money is available, they will buy [seafood]," he said.

Panelist Haney Long, senior vice president of purchasing and distribution for Shoney's, Nashville, Tenn., said that he believed that the relationship between price and perceived value was more important to consumers than price alone.

Charles Nuara, director of the seafood division at Pathmark Stores, Woodbridge, N.J., said he agreed that seafood price points were important to consumers. "With low prices on shrimp, we have seen increased sales. The survey says this, as do our customers."

Nuara did not, however, support the finding that concerns with environmental issues were affecting fish consumption. "I met with customer relations, to see if consumers were complaining, and they said no. I met with my seafood managers, who said there were no complaints," he said.

Nuara acknowledged that it was possible consumers would simply avoid purchasing seafood instead of expressing concerns about the environment, but he also suggested that "customers may not be conscious [of environmental issues] because it hasn't had media attention."

He did agree, however, that "we should address these issues before seafood sales are adversely affected."

Phil Stefani, the owner of Stefani's restaurant in Chicago, also said that he didn't find consumers' perceived environmental concerns to be a hindrance to seafood consumption.

Stefani added that in his restaurants "we have an age group that is more aware of the benefits of eating seafood."

H-E-B's Catanzaro said that in the South, consumers from medium- and high-income groups were frequent purchasers of seafood, and that "the expansion of seafood is coming from new items."

Cobb said he was always looking for new items he could sell at a profit. "Imagination and knowledge will help us all sell more seafood." The Winn-Dixie executive also stressed the importance of dressing up seafood and making it easier to prepare.

Consumers need to be made aware of seafood's many virtues, however. "Retailers need to get the word out that seafood is nature's fast food. Customers aren't aware that seafood cooks so fast," said Cobb, adding, "We have to spread the word that it helps you live longer."

Training of seafood associates is another key. "If they have confidence and knowledge, they'll be effective and it'll translate into sales.

"Let's adjust our attitude, get it positive and sell seafood," Cobb recommended.

Levy Restaurant's Pollack said one of keys to the increased seafood consumption was better-informed diners.

He also said that, from an operational standpoint, some of the main difficulties involved in serving seafood are in handling, sourcing and preparation -- and that could potentially hurt consumption.

Wild Oats' Gingerich said the issues of health and quality drive seafood consumption. He added that consumers might think that price is more of a factor in their purchasing of seafood than it actually is. "There's always a huge gap between perception and reality," he said, but "quality is absolutely a driving factor."

He went on to detail elements of Wild Oats' strategy: "We begin with an attractive display and the area has to be odor free."

Mark Gonzalez, vice president of strategic research for Darden Restaurants here, said innovation is an effective way to increase seafood consumption.

"Nothing infuses a category like fresh new ideas," he said, and partnering with vendors can be a way to drive that innovation in seafood marketing.

In interviews after the panel discussion, some retailers told SN they would try to apply the lessons from the study to their seafood cases.

"I'm going to review it. It gives me food for thought," said Winn-Dixie's Cobb. He noted, for example, that he was "surprised there was so much emphasis on seafood consumption at home." Cobb said he would ask his suppliers for more information and will "target more information to associates." Consumers and associates, he said, can never hear enough about "how you caught it, where it's from and how it's fixed."

Wild Oats' Gingerich said that the survey reinforced many of his opinions.

Another retailer, who asked not to be identified, said that the seafood study "clarified some points we already knew, and it also brought a couple of things to light.

"We can't continue to market the way we are marketing because seafood consumption is flat. The challenge is we have a lot of people who don't eat fish. I don't need the center of the plate all the time. I'll take a little piece," the retailer said.

He said his company "can't decide what the consumer wants, so we decided to widen our offerings." And as a result, "people who are accustomed to certain products are eating other things."

Now, he said, "We are regionalizing in terms of how we advertise. We are changing ad formats to target customers -- to give the consumer a targeted product -- based on scan data."

He stressed the importance of new items for growth, estimating that 20% to 22% of business expansion in the next two years would come from a combination of new and familiar items presented in a different way -- perhaps as a meal solution, for example, which he said is a growing and complex category in the seafood department.

"We are still learning about home-meal replacement. But does the customer really know what it is? There's frozen, refrigerated and fresh. The fresh side might be marinated, [although] we haven't done a huge job on marinated."