From catch-of-the-day promotions to cooking demos, seafood  managers are full of ideas on how to grow their sales this year. Yet many agree the most important strategy begins with a simple greeting.
“If you greet the customer with a hello and a friendly smile, that can go a long way towards making that sale,” said Tom Demott, EVP with Encore Associates and former VP of meat merchandising at Safeway .
Seafood departments across the country are placing a renewed emphasis on service. It’s part of an effort to woo reluctant shoppers, whose concerns range from food safety to sustainable sourcing to “how do I grill halibut?”
“I think a lot of guests in our stores don’t know what they’re looking for, and they really do want help but are too shy or intimidated to ask for it,” said Scott Nettles, meat and seafood director with United Supermarkets , Lubbock, Texas. “You really have to engage them, and that’s why we expect a high level of customer interaction from our team members.”
Nettles encourages United’s seafood employees to have a conversation with customers who stroll by the counter. This means doing more than just asking, “May I help you?”
“If you ask a customer, ‘May I help you?’ their answer, nine times out of 10, will be no,” Nettles explained. “So you have to ask that follow-up question. ‘Do you know what you’re having for supper tonight?’ ‘Can I suggest something?’ We try to get that second and third follow-up question in there without being too pushy.”
Read more: Go fish: Can seafood sustain 2013 sales? 
Studies show those reluctant consumers make up a sizeable percentage of the grocery shopping public. According to Nielsen Perishables Group, 55 million households made at least one purchase from the seafood department last year, compared with 116 million who purchased from the meat department, and 91 million who purchased from deli and prepared foods. A one-point increase in household penetration would increase incremental seafood department sales by $30 million, and getting half of shoppers to buy seafood on one more trip each year would grow department sales by $328 million, per Nielsen data.
Taking a more proactive approach to customer service could be the key to bringing more consumers over to the seafood case, retailers and consultants believe.
“Most consumers have not made a decision about what to buy until they’re standing in front of the counter,” said Demott. “That’s the opportunity to really engage with them.”
Seafood sales rising
Capturing those extra dollars is important for a category that’s regaining its bearings after a rough couple of years. According to Nielsen, seafood dollar sales are up 6% over a year ago, while volume growth is at 4%. Between 2008 and 2012, according to market research firm Packaged Facts, sales of fish and seafood products increased from $13.3 billion to $14.7 billion
But growing sales of lobsters and cod fillets requires more than simply chatting up the customer. Chuck Anderson, former director of seafood for Ahold  and current head of retail sales at Pier Fish, said supermarkets face a special challenge with seafood. Not only do employees have to justify the premium price of many offerings, but they also have to know their species inside and out, provide cooking recommendations, and allay any food safety concerns.
“The fear of ruining a $25 seafood purchase is great for many consumers,” said Anderson. “Well-trained front-line employees can help customers overcome these fears with information and support.”
Most retailers have time-honored training programs in place to bring employees up to speed. Some have decided to go a step further. At United, employees are encouraged to do their own research on seafood offerings, figuring out which items they like best, how to prepare them and even what sort of wine to pair with them. Nettles said stores have dedicated service specialists who will stand in front of the seafood counter and engage with customers.
“If the guest doesn’t know exactly what they’re looking for, we try to have some suggestions ready for them,” he explained.
At Festival Foods, DePere, Wis., employees are encouraged to go to similar lengths to connect with customers.
Read more: SN's dedicated seafood page 
“We have many stores running with a ‘catch of the week’ item,” said Lars Batzel, Festival’s director of meat and seafood. “We want to empower our associates to be motivated to drive sales by saying it’s OK to take chances as long as you had a solid plan and learned from it.”
Empowering employees also means keeping them informed, Batzel said. To make sure they’re up to date on the latest product information and store policies, Festival employees receive regular updates via the company’s videoconference system.
“We attempt to utilize videoconference training to connect all stores at the same time to get the same message and keep them up to speed on programs without losing valuable time,” said Batzel.
With the rise of sustainable seafood initiatives, going the extra mile to educate employees and maintain constant contact with them is more important than ever.
“Customers today are very knowledgeable about sourcing and sustainability,” said Demott. “If you don’t know your stuff, they’ll be able to tell.”
At PCC Natural Markets  in Seattle, new employees go through an extensive orientation that introduces them to sustainable business principles. This includes highlighting the numerous environmental practices within the cooperative, as well as regulations within the communities where it operates.
“For example, most of the municipalities where PCC operates a store prohibit the use of Styrofoam trays for packaged meat and seafood,” said Eli Penberthy, sustainable seafood expert with PCC.
Customer service in the seafood department can be a big differentiator, but retailers can also reach out to shoppers in a variety of ways.
• Write it down: Whole Foods Market highlights apple descriptions and cheese-pairing information with little signs in its produce department. Why not take this approach with the seafood department highlighting the flavor profiles of different types of seafood, what it pairs well with and how to cook it best?
• Demos, demos, demos: Retailers can inspire shoppers to try preparing different types of seafood by demoing innovative, cooked seafood samples.
• Prepared foods: If you have any products in the prepared foods department that incorporate seafood — say, a lobster macaroni and cheese — hand out recipe cards so customers can duplicate the dish at home.
— Jenna Telesca
After this initial training period, employees can expect to receive regular updates from Penberthy and department managers. PCC closely follows seafood standards set by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which categorizes species’ ecological and sustainable profile according to a traffic-light system. When Seafood Watch updates its standards, which happens twice a year, Penberthy emails all meat and seafood staffers with relevant changes. She also answers questions from members and employees alike in the co-op’s monthly newsletter, Sound Consumer.
Retailers like PCC emphasize consumer education both inside and outside their stores. PCC’s website provides a downloadable brochure that lists recipes as well as information about its sustainable seafood policy. Hannaford , which implemented a sweeping sustainable seafood policy in 2012, encourages shoppers to email its “Seafood Expert” with questions about sourcing. Wegmans, meanwhile, features an online calendar showing when wild-caught seafood items are in season. The chain also profiles every one of its seafood offerings, complete with flavor profile and seasonal availability.
Online guides aside, the actual sale has to happen in-store, which is why retailers are taking the initiative with their approach to customer service. Even with the rise of frozen and prepared seafood options, Anderson said, shoppers are still looking to employees for guidance. Those companies that invest in proper staffing and training, he noted, are the ones that can answer their questions and reel in those extra sales.
“Having to ring a bell or flag down a meat or deli employee is not good customer service,” said Anderson. “Good customer service requires dedicated, trained seafood employees.”
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