Unbreaded, frozen seafood is not the first choice for many consumers, but supermarkets offering a well-conceived selection in the self-service case can hook shoppers who may not purchase any otherwise, retailers told SN.
The emphasis on healthful eating, and the benefits of omega-3 oils found in fattier fish like salmon and pollack, are helping to drive sales in the overall seafood category. Even though most dollars are going to fresh product, frozen items have something fresh doesn't: convenience. Sales of frozen shrimp, particularly, have "gone through the roof," according to Chris Rossi, frozen food merchandiser for Wakefern Food Corp., Elizabeth, N.J., supplier to the ShopRite stores.
That's not all. Figures from ACNielsen, Schaumberg, Ill., show that over the past three years, sales of several subcategories of unbreaded, frozen seafood have done extraordinarily well, particularly crab (up 27%, 16% and 8%, for the years 2001, 2002 and 2003) and shrimp (up 25%, 42% and 11.6%, for the same years).
Ken Chapin, director of meat and seafood for independent Yoke's Foods, Spokane, Wash., said his department's offerings have a faithful clientele looking to avoid waits at the service counter.
"We've taken different -- usually high-end -- items like scallops, shrimp and tuna filets and we bag it, pre-price it, and put it in frozen foods so consumers can come up and grab a bag that's already packaged and ready to go."
In stores operating under the newer Fresh Market store format, the frozen items are boxed and slotted into a 24-foot frozen coffin case on the outer perimeter of the Pier 39 seafood department. Chapin said that bulk items comprise about 16 feet of the entire selection, the rest of which is national-branded items.
Bulk frozen is part of a larger umbrella seafood program at Yokes. Chapin said management decided to reinvest "200%" in the department, and established the Pier 39 concept in the new-generation Fresh Market units.
"We enlarged the scope, [and] put in an eight-foot ice case that we do a 'Wow' display in. We bring in eel and shark and whole fish, and make a beautiful display to attract attention. Then, we have another 24 feet of fresh fish on top of that. We've made a big deal out of it."
The frozen, self-service cases add to the completed picture, and allow a different customer to shop the department, Chapin added.
"I think it's those people who are shopping for the week. They just want something they can keep in their freezer," he said. "They'll come in looking for seafood that's already priced, packaged. It's like a drive-through for them. They can just go in, grab what they want, bring it home, and use it as they need it -- instead of standing at the service counter, waiting for it to be weighed and wrapped and all that." The convenience lies within the package itself. The filets are individually quick-frozen, and pack sizes vary from small (two portions) to large (up to five portions).
"Also growing are cod, a lot of your more expensive cuts. A lot of the companies are precutting and prepackaging tuna steaks and halibut steaks. And salmon, you'll see a lot of salmon coming in frozen," said a Yoke's department manager, Ken Hobbs. He noted that convenience aside, price can also benefit sales.
"Usually you can get a better buy on some of it, so you can promote it a lot cheaper than fresh," Hobbs added. "We mostly direct people to the fresh; we mainly advertise fresh. Frozen is more for the items that are in less demand. But occasionally, you'll get a buy on something you can blow out for an ad. People will stock up on frozen salmon and smoke them."
At Associated Grocers, Baton Rouge, La., Carrie Esposito, grocery frozen category specialist, said that the convenience factor extends not only to the act of buying seafood, but to home preparation.
Associated Grocers supplies frozen, bulk seafood primarily to those who have more freezer space, and who are looking for innovative items and want to match their competitors, Esposito said.
Frozen seafood is divided by ACNielsen into four categories: Entrees, Frozen Fish, Remaining Seafood and Shrimp. Each of those categories is also subdivided. For example, entrees as a whole were flat in dollar sales for the year ended Sept. 6, at $178 million. Yet, two-food entrees are up by 8%, to a dollar total of $24 million. Entrees comprised of seafood only were down slightly, to $24.9 million.
By contrast, unbreaded, frozen shrimp was up by 11.6%, to total sales of $668 million.
Random-weight fresh fish and shellfish have a household penetration of 49.16%, according to ACNielsen's Homescan Fresh Food Service.
Fresh fish -- including salmon, other fish, catfish, perch and flounder -- is purchased by nearly 39% of households; random-weight shellfish is bought by 30.41%. Shrimp is the most popular here, too, but crab and "other shellfish" were close behind.
"Frozen seafood is basically holding its own, but the fresh seafood department over the years is where the increase in sales has been," said Rossi of Wakefern.
"What are still selling is the [frozen] snacks, the fish sticks for kids," he said, noting that "it's tougher to get an increase. We do resets on the sections twice a year -- we put new items in, and take slower-moving items out. In ShopRite, frozen seafood usually takes up two doors. Every time we look to get room for a category, seafood is where we tighten up. We rarely get three doors out of it, even if we want to."
"We still find fresh outsells frozen a lot," added Yoke's Foods' Chapin. "It seems like that's what most people want. But the frozen does serve its purpose, especially if they're shopping later in the evening, or other times when the seafood counter is closed."
Hilmar Jonasson, corporate chef for Iceland Seafood, Newport News, Va., demonstrates the company's Samband brand around the country, and gives seminars to other chefs about how to use frozen filets.
"We have worked only a little with supermarkets," he told SN, but the products, sold mostly in five-pound bags, are carried by Farm Fresh, Hampton, Va.; Giant Food of Carlisle, Pa.; and the GFS Marketplace, Chicago.
Jonasson said that during the weekend of Oct. 4 to 5 in Baltimore, at a festival in the Inner Harbor, he served samples of cooked fish to about 6,000 people, one in three of whom asked where they could buy it. He didn't know what to tell them, because they can't.
"I wish we could sell more fish in supermarkets, but it's tough to get in. It's very competitive," Jonasson lamented.