FISHING FOR ANSWERS

Seafood sales often depend on smart associates who can help educate shoppers with cooking advice and their knowledge of the latest category news

While many enjoy eating seafood, the creatures of the underwater kingdom leave some shoppers with questions that can make them hesitate and decide not to make a purchase. For seafood departments, anticipating these questions, and providing information through store signage and staff education can encourage sales of the pricy protein.

And, while issues like sustainability and seafood nutrition tend to grab the most headlines, retailers report that the majority of the questions most customers ask at the seafood counter relate to cooking and safely storing seafood.

“That's the No. 1 thing you still get asked in seafood departments is: ‘Can I hold it for two days? Can I put it in the fridge? Is it better baked? What do I do with the skin?’ Just all about preparation and handling, that's absolutely the No. 1 question we get,” said Chuck Anderson, director of retail and new business at Sousa Seafood, who also worked in seafood retail for over 20 years at Ahold USA [4] and H.E. Butt Grocery [5].

Anderson said customers will eat seafood in a restaurant, but are often afraid to prepare it at home. Since seafood can be expensive compared with other proteins, customers can be wary of spending money only to improperly prepare the meal. Anderson compared the investment of a $5 chicken to a $25 Chilean sea bass.

“There's also the fear factor when you spend that much money, of screwing something up,” said Anderson.

To encourage customers to take a risk on the more expensive protein, some seafood departments eliminate the fear of failure through specialty services that simplify preparation and handling.

“Anything you can do to make them feel more comfortable that, ‘No, you aren't going to ruin that $25, here's why, here's the tips, here's recipe cards, we'll steam it for you. We'll put the sauce on it, so you know there's no mistake,’” said Anderson.

Schnuck Markets [6], based in St. Louis, takes the mystery out of seafood preparation by marinating, seasoning or breading their products for customers. Some stores are even able to fry or bake fish on site.

For the Midwestern retailer, catfish is one of the most popular items.

“We sell a lot of fresh, farm-raised catfish as well as a lot of other things, but we offer to bread the product in either plain or spicy breading and then we'll deep-fry it for the customers,” said Steve Disko, seafood category manager at Schnucks. “There's also kind of a tradition of fish fries around here around Lent. We have a heavy Catholic population, and so whiting is a big item as well. We do a lot of that.”

Disko said that on Fridays it's easy for customers to come in for dinner without “smelling up the house and using a whole bunch of oil at home.”

For recipe ideas, Schnucks leads in-store demonstrations with ingredients and recipe cards available together. Schnucks also gives its staff recipes on promotional items, and offers customers tested recipes in Schnucks Cooks Magazine (available at www.schnuckscooks.com [7]) and via in-store kiosks that have approximately 500 seafood recipes.

Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle [8] eases customer preparation concerns by offering to steam fish for free, taking custom orders, packing fish in ice for the summer months, and filleting fish. Giant Eagle makes recipes readily available through promotional activity, seasonal brochures and booklets with recipes, said Seafood Director Rich Castle.

Both Giant Eagle and Schnucks give its staff seafood training with product experts. This training is helpful, because in addition to preparation ideas, customers want to know how the finished product will taste.

Disko said customers at Schnucks also ask “about the flavor profiles of the different species. If people aren't familiar with haddock as opposed to cod or flounder … they ask what it's like. Or, different varieties of salmon. So they ask for substitutions, or, ‘Will this go good in fish tacos?’”

SUSTAINABLE QUERIES

With more and more retailers announcing seafood sustainability commitments and partnerships, there's growing public awareness and media coverage of sustainability issues. But, both Castle and Disko said their seafood departments don't receive many questions related to sustainability.

“We try to make responsible choices on our offerings, but we don't get too many questions,” said Disko.

It's unclear how much sustainability actually impacts customer seafood purchases or if consumers are keeping mum on their sustainability concerns, but in a Mintel seafood report published last December, 79% of respondents noted sustainability as “very important” or “somewhat important” when choosing fish to eat at home. The report also concluded that women take sustainability into consideration more than men.

Giant Eagle customers do ask about farm-raised and wild products, which can sometimes stem from sustainability concerns.

If asked which type of sourcing is better, Giant Eagle sticks to the facts. “We try to arm our folks with the information and the facts. And we're not going to tell a customer that wild is better than farm-raised or farm-raised is better than wild,” said Castle. Instead, Giant Eagle explains the difference between the two methods to let customers make their own choices.

Castle said Giant Eagle seeks out suppliers who use fishing methods that are the most sustainable for wild-caught fish, and sources from farms that use the best aquaculture practices for feeding as to not impact the ocean floor. For instance, Giant Eagle offers a certified sustainable, farm-raised salmon. “Our salmon are being raised in the Bay of Fundy, which has the largest tidal swings which helps move the water in and out,” said Castle.

Anderson, who works behind seafood counters at least once a month, said, “We try to calm their fears that farm-raised is not bad. It's just we're learning how to do farm-raised. It's still a young industry. We haven't been doing it for hundreds of years like the produce folks have.”

So for customers, there aren't easy answers to customer questions of whether wild or farmed is better, even from environmental organizations.

“I think there's some kind of desire to create really strict rules that make it easy, and of course, what we have found is the reality doesn't reflect that at all. There's some great farm products, there's some wild stuff to stay away from,” said Sheila Bowman, senior outreach manager at Seafood Watch, a nonprofit group at the Monterey Bay Aquarium which puts out red, yellow and green lists of fish species with recommendations for consumption based on environmental concerns. Seafood Watch provides pocket-sized lists and a phone app.

Point-of-sale information on sustainability can reach out to customers who want to shop sustainably, but might not ask questions at the seafood counter.

“One of the things that we hear all the time from consumers is they really actually wish that they didn't have to carry around little pocket guides, that they do wish that the point-of-sale had information about these interesting areas of concern,” said Bowman. She added that many customers want more information on seafood — what are the environmental implications, where and how was it sourced — so they can make their own decisions. She noted restaurants and retailers are starting to provide this information.

Bowman suggests retailers make suggestions to customers on sustainable fish they might enjoy in place of non-sustainable varieties, “Consumers do need that expertise of retailers to say, ‘This fish is going to make you happy the same way that fish did.’”

CLEARING UP LABELS

Labels on seafood products can sometimes lead to more questions for customers. Whether it be questions on why the retailer is sourcing a product from another country, or why a product is frozen, in the end customers are looking to understand the implication of label information and get common sense answers.

In response to questions of why a product is fresh or frozen, Disko said Schnuck Markets tries to use its employees to educate shoppers that sometimes it's better for fish to be frozen soon after it comes out of the water or at sea, and there's not necessarily a negative connotation to frozen fish as opposed to fresh.

Other customer questions dealt with industry acronym information on labels. “Other than how to cook product, a lot of times it's questions raised because we take industry terminology for granted, and we might label something as P&D and they don't know that means peeled and deveined shrimp, or something like that. Or IQF is individually quick frozen catfish nuggets,” said Disko.

Anderson's approach to customers' questions about the federally mandated color-added salmon tags, is to explain the color is in the feed in the chemical astaxanthin, which is also present in wild food and fed to chickens.