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    Supermarket FRESH FOOD Business: A rearranged kettle of fish

    Three words of advice for retailers looking to grow fresh seafood sales: shrimp, salmon, tilapia.

    Life would likely be a lot easier for supermarket operators if everything in the fresh seafood department moved as briskly as shrimp and salmon. And while the "sold out" sign typically poses the biggest problem—albeit a good one—associated with those two species, opportunities exist for retailers to lure customers to the counter more often by fortifying their supplies of shrimp and salmon.

    A look at the most recent consumption figures, released in late summer by the National Marine Fisheries Service, found three of the most popular retail seafood species—shrimp, salmon, and the lesser-known tilapia—making impressive gains on the list of the 10 most frequently eaten seafoods in America in 2001.

    With consumption of 3.4 pounds per person, shrimp has overtaken tuna as the top-selling seafood item in the country for the first time. The long-dominant tuna came in second at 2.9 pounds per person, down from 3.5 pounds in 2000. It was followed by salmon, which showed a healthy 26-percent increase from 1.6 pounds per capita in 2000 to 2 in 2001. Tilapia, which has gained an increasingly steady following in recent years, made the list for the first time and surpassed scallops as the 10th most popular seafood item.

    Salmon's impressive jump is a significant element of the seafood consumption profile, which represents about 89 percent of the seafood eaten in the U.S. Further supporting the explosive growth of the salmon category, the Norwegian Seafood Export Council reports that, as of April, salmon imports into the U.S. were up 23 percent from 2001, reinforcing America's position as the second-largest consumer of the species, behind Japan.

    Although total seafood consumption was down from 2000 to 2001, primarily as a result of a nearly 20-percent drop in the consumption of canned tuna, per capita sales of fresh and frozen seafood fared well, says John Sackton, v.p. of iTradeNetwork, Inc. in Bedford, Mass.

    "The overall trend is that fresh and frozen seafood is gaining increased market acceptance, while canned, cured, and smoked seafood are declining," says Sackton, noting that although total per capita consumption dropped from 15.6 pounds to 14.8 last year, fresh and frozen seafood consumption rose by one percent.

    He says strong marketing efforts by restaurant chains such as Red Lobster and Long John Silver's will continue to drive up seafood consumption, while consumers at retail react strongly to low prices for items such as salmon and shrimp.

    "I think there are a number of reasons why shrimp has become the No. 1 seafood item in America," says Linda Candler, communications v.p. for the Arlington, Va.-based National Fisheries Institute, which calculated the seafood consumption patterns based on raw data supplied by NMFS. "It's tasty, it's easy to prepare, it's versatile, and it's plentiful." Candler adds that the statistics confirm the increasingly important role fish farming plays in meeting the seafood demands of American consumers.

    She says more than 70 percent of U.S. seafood is consumed in restaurants, "which is obviously driving that shrimp train. But if consumers love this product at foodservice," she adds, "then supermarket retailers could take advantage of this news in a big way by giving consumers some ideas to take home with them, by promoting it in specials, by steaming, peeling, and spicing it, by doing in-store demos, and by making value-added entrees out of it."

    Promising news

    The parallel growth of shrimp and salmon portends promising news for supermarket retailers who already sell a lot of those species, says Larry Daerr, meat and seafood buyer/merchandiser at Supervalu's New Stanton, Pa.-based Pittsburgh division.

    "People love shrimp. There's no two ways about it. It practically sells itself," says Daerr. But that's no excuse for operators to rest on their laurels with the dependable and established category, he points out. Daerr urges retailers to explore the possibilities and exploit every new value-added opportunity with shrimp, even if it means sticking their necks out to bring in larger quantities on an everyday basis rather than just around holidays.

    "When ordered and promoted aggressively, there's little risk that you'll get stuck with it," says Daerr, noting the gradual transition from raw shrimp to cooked shrimp. "The new customer of today does not want to be bothered with the prep work associated with shrimp; they want to enjoy immediately. At one time, we were moving 10 pounds of raw for every one pound of cooked, and now it's swung almost totally in the other direction."

    Shrimp rings, he adds, have become an extremely popular grab-and-go item, "and almost every size sells well, since it fits into to so many uses, from parties to tailgaters to everyday celebrations." Daerr continues: "Today more than ever, retailers must stay very aware of who their customers are, and focus on them accordingly on a market-by-market basis."

    Daerr believes tilapia, a mild, light-flavored, affordable fish raised on farms, will continue making steady inroads at the retail case as more people become better acquainted with it. Likewise, he expects to see tuna continue to drop as the population ages. "The younger generation does not eat canned tuna nearly like they did in the days gone by, and I won't be surprised in the least to see salmon surpass tuna next year."

    The folks at Roche Vitamins, Inc., maker of Carophyll Pink, a nature-identical carotenoid developed for farmed salmon, think they've identified a way to make Daerr's prediction come true.

    The Parsippany, N.J.-based pharmaceutical and vitamin manufacturer recently conducted a comprehensive consumer preference study of salmon-purchasing households and found that in retail markets people equate salmon that's of a deeper red color with higher quality and greater freshness.

    The broad-scale study, which was undertaken in two parts, began by surveying 40,000 U.S. households to define the size and nature of the salmon market. Based on the 26,000 responses received, 49 percent of U.S. households purchase some type of salmon—canned, fresh, smoked, or frozen. Of those, 57 percent said they buy fresh salmon; they were the target group Roche was most interested in learning about.

    The study then sought to examine consumers by the number of times per year they purchase fresh salmon, and found that one-third are light users who buy it less than three times per year. Moderate users purchase fresh salmon three to six times per year. About 38 percent were found to be heavy users who buy salmon seven or more times per year.

    Visual value

    Roche sent 1,098 questionnaires to heavy users, and 630 responded to the company's request to share information on their buying habits, attitudes, and the attributes they look for when buying salmon. Foremost of the study's conclusions: The majority of heavy users said they do not care if the salmon is farm-raised or wild, so long as it is from a high-quality, reputable store and is visually appetizing.

    Moreover, intensity and consistency of color are what signal a fresh, flavorful, healthy-to-eat salmon to heavy users, who also said they choose salmon for its flavor, its high nutritional value, and its versatility.

    A section of the questionnaire probing consumers' purchase decisions at the seafood case found that they trust their local retailer to ensure freshness and quality and that they look for the visual cues of rich, consistent color and firm texture. The research also found that price was significantly less important than appearance. The No. 1 purchase criterion—with 44 percent rating it extremely important—was rich-looking, uniform flesh color.

    "This study further confirms the consumer's preference for darker salmon," says Chris Province, senior marketing manager at Roche. "We buy with our eyes, and when the consumer sees a brighter colored fish filet in the case, they make the assumption that it's higher quality, fresher, and more flavorful, which are the same drivers that apply in the meat case."

    Province continues: "We believe more salmon will be purchased if it is presented to consumers in the color range that is most appealing," a finding that suggests consumers expect to pay more for darker salmon, he notes. Farmed salmon fed Carophyll Pink—a product that's been sold to the aquaculture industry for many years—are more likely to have deeper flesh colors, Province says, and retailers can specify their color preferences to suppliers.

    "This research study is a part of our overall marketing philosophy to do more than just sell a product. If we can find a way for retailers and farmers to make more money and provide consumers with what they want, it's a win/win for everybody," says Province, who notes that additional results from the study will be presented during the upcoming West Coast Seafood Show, which returns to the Los Angeles Convention Center Nov. 3-5.

    This year's show, which will be co-located with the first Expo Comida Latina: The Hispanic Food & Beverage Show, will feature an increased focus on how global issues affect the seafood industry, as the safety and security of the U.S. food supply continues to be a major concern, particularly regarding the security of imported seafood.

    Pushing for irradiation

    To that end, NFI's Candler says her organization continues its efforts to advance the practice of irradiation of crustaceans, including shrimp, and molluscan shellfish, like clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops, with the Food and Drug Administration. "Following the anthrax situation, polls show consumers are much more accepting of irradiation, and we're continuing to push on that front," she says.

    Species harvesting practices and sustainability are two additional issues that remain at the forefront of inquiries from both NFI's restaurateur and retailer members, according to Candler. "Consumers are bombarded with a lot of different information about how things are harvested and what's OK to buy. So we've put out a new guidebook for October Seafood Month designed especially to help retail counter staff and distributors answer customer questions about seafood sustainability by species and environmental effects."

    The guidebook can be used by managers to conduct training sessions, distributed to staff for self-study, or kept as a reference in the seafood department or manager's office, Candler says. "Sheets on individual species can allow managers to duplicate pages for customers and focus on the species that they sell, or that customers have questions about in their market," she says. The guide can be downloaded for free at www.nfi.org.

    "Seafood consumption stands to go nowhere but up, especially in light of the increasingly important health messages we're hearing about relating to Omega-3s," says Candler. "So it's imperative and worth the investment for retailers to thoroughly train their counter staff, because a customer at your seafood counter with an unanswered question is a lost sale."

    And that's a mistake nobody can afford to make in today's cutthroat retail climate.

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