When it comes to effective merchandising of seafood, one size does not fit all.
Consumers are comfortable with the seafood in their region, and retailers who want to maximize purchasing must consider geographic variables when formulating a marketing plan.
While salmon is one of the most popular fishes throughout the U.S., for instance, there is divergent interest in lobster, which ranks as the third most popular species in the Northeast but doesn’t even make it into the top five in the Southeast, reports Information Resources Inc. (IRI), a Chicago-based market research firm.
The speed with which retailers can market seafood in their outlets often dictates demand and can be an advantage for supermarkets on the East and West coasts, said Melissa Rodriguez, IRI principal, protein.
Indeed, signage announcing that a product was caught in the last day or two can be a strong sales trigger, she said, adding, however, that it “is harder to do when you get further inland.”
Shopper familiarity with a species and its preparation methods also will have a major impact on interest. Midwest consumers, for instance, often gravitate to white fish, which can include cod, tilapia, catfish, and haddock, Rodriguez said.
“If the consumer doesn’t know how to prepare a fish, they are not going to be spending money on it,” she said, “particularly if it is more expensive year over year. It is not something they are going to be adventurous with.”
Yet, regardless of the assortments available in seafood cases, it is vital that retailers leverage the communication tools that can spur interest and activity.
While in-store signage, recipe cards, and co-merchandising displays containing seafood meal ingredients are often impactful, insights from seafood department associates can have the strongest effect on consumer purchasing decisions, Rodriguez said.
She noted, however, that such interactions are generally most prevalent at stores on the coasts, along with product signage and brochures that cover such topics as the suppliers’ sustainability and fair-trade practices.
“It is very important to make seafood approachable and have such information front and center at the seafood counter so consumers can see the data as opposed to having to ask for it,” Rodriguez said.
The resolve by retailers to also educate seafood department associates on species and merchandising techniques, however, is often dependent on how they position seafood as a revenue generator in comparison to other fresh departments.
“It is a very tactical decision to put time and effort behind labor in a certain area of a store,” Rodriguez said. “While it is critical for retailers to get consistent messaging and knowledge out, it come down to where they are strategically trying to drive traffic.”
Generating shopper interest in more species, however, will likely become easier due to generational shifts among consumers, Rodriguez said.
Millennials and Gen Z shoppers will account for half of the U.S. consumer base by 2030, and the younger consumers will generally be more adventurous than aging Baby Boomers in their purchasing practices.
Retailers, however, should still “start small” when introducing consumers to unaccustomed selections by focusing on one species at a time, she said, while also researching and carefully selecting the products that will likely resonate with consumers in their respective regions.
“The magic is going to happen when you understand what species the shoppers might have a propensity to buy,” Rodriguez said.
The use of digital merchandising tools, meanwhile, will likely have a major influence on purchasing regardless of geography, Rodriguez said. “Eighty-one percent of adults use social media daily, so it is important to reach them where they are at,” she said, noting that effective measures can include providing links to videos that demonstrate how to prepare different seafood varieties.
“It is getting over the hurdle of having consumers become comfortable cooking selections that they would not have been interested in before, especially if prices are going to remain higher,” Rodriguez added.
While social media and other vehicles can drive more shoppers to seafood departments, it also is vital for retailers to have the store associates who can effectively interact with the customers.
Ongoing labor shortages and employee turnover, however, is making it more difficult for many retailers to create a highly effective merchandising environment.
Retailers that are considering investing the time and money to properly educate seafood department associates may question if the employees are still going to be at the store six to 12 months later, Rodriguez said.
“They can train the workers, but where does that knowledge go?” she added. “That is the harder part.”