Seafood’s Next Wave

As the pandemic winds down, retailers should focus on education to keep sales flowing
Bridget Goldschmidt
Managing Editor
Bridget Goldschmidt profile picture
a plate of food on a table
With frozen seafood items from companies such as Gorton's, consumers can be assured of high quality.

It’s no secret that seafood sales skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. But once readily available vaccines and improved treatments have mitigated the threat of the coronavirus, enabling consumers to eat out safely again at their favorite seafood restaurants, will they continue buying items to prepare at home?

“I foresee great 2021 sales strength for seafood,” asserts Anne-Marie Roerink, principal and founder of San Antonio-based Texas 210 Analytics. “Whereas many departments have seen sales growth on a slow march back to normal, both frozen and fresh seafood gains are holding strong.” 

Roerink believes that trends such as the following will help maintain seafood success: the awareness of seafood as a healthy, nutritious choice; the growing desire of consumers to explore different species; the rise of e-commerce; and shoppers’ increasing concerns regarding sustainability and traceability. 

Beyond those currents in seafood purchasing, “I would love to see the seafood department go after major and secondary holidays,” notes Roerink. “Pandemic celebrations are smaller and at home. That means people are looking for smaller proteins, and seafood has a huge opportunity to step in.”

Of course, seafood isn’t just for special occasions. “On the everyday side, it’s important for retailers to support meal planning and execution,” counsels Roerink. “Americans aren’t used to cooking at home this much dinner plus all the other meals to boot. The golden oldies are overused by now, and the initial enthusiasm for scratch cooking has worn off. The more retailers can help with meal planning, bringing a varied protein offering while shoppers are in-store to cover the entire week, the better, and seafood can be a big part of that.”

The best way to keep seafood sales buoyant, according to Roerink, is to create more knowledgeable shoppers.

“Now is the time to educate more than ever before,” she advises. “People are cooking, and people are tired of the same-old. That means a wide-open door for seafood to drive additional engagement to the category and across different items. Driving home all the pluses that seafood has to offer will be a great way to do so. [There’s] the online opportunity, but I have also seen more retailers use some space in the circular to write more on the story of seafood. Others have program-wide sustainability and animal welfare efforts. Yet others post all the seafood nutritional facts in the department. [These are all] great ways to highlight the goodness of seafood.”

graphical user interface
Among Sea Best's products is a line of frozen seafood dips in on-trend flavors.

“At Natural Grocers, education plays a key role in helping our communities make an informed purchasing decision,” notes Christie Zimmerman, product standards manager, food at Lakewood, Colo.-based Natural Grocers at Vitamin Cottage. “We believe that consumers do not need to be ‘told’ what to do we only need to present materials in an easily understood manner so that they can feel empowered to make a decision based on facts, data and transparency. Labels can be confusing, so we’ve worked hard to condense a lot of complex industry jargon into about 10 seconds at the point of purchase in stores.” 

Frozen Assets

One interesting effect of the pandemic on seafood sales was the growth of the frozen segment.

“In looking at both meat and seafood, it is very interesting to see how frozen was long seen as a negative in meat, whereas in seafood, fresh and frozen are equally big,” notes Roerink. “In fact, they were equally big at the start of the pandemic, but frozen seafood actually outgrew fresh.”

In the recent past, while consumers may have purchased frozen products for their convenience, they didn’t necessarily believe they were making the best purchase from a quality standpoint. That perception appears to be changing.

“Going into the pandemic, consumers were already embracing frozen seafood, in line with a resurgence of frozen foods in general as consumers realized that frozen foods are generally as nutritious, if not more, than their fresh counterparts,” observes Megan Rider, domestic marketing director at the Juneau-based Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. “The pandemic has only strengthened this trend, with more people wanting to stock up on frozen foods in order to limit trips to the grocery store. According to a 2020 FMI report, 82% of consumers are likely to purchase frozen fish.”

“Not that long ago, ‘fresh’ was viewed as the preferred choice to frozen seafood,” admits Chris Hussey, VP of marketing at Gloucester, Mass.-based Gorton’s Seafood. “Now consumers increasingly value frozen for its ability to naturally preserve the taste, texture [and] nutrients of seafood, and to reduce food waste. As consumers are making fewer trips to the grocery store and stocking up their freezers, frozen seafood offers a high-quality, convenient, easy-to-prepare and stock-up-friendly alternative.”

“2020 was a great year for frozen seafood,” affirms Bluzette Carline, director of corporate marketing at Jacksonville, Fla.-based Beaver Street Fisheries Inc., maker of the Sea Best brand. “Frozen seafood has typically been given a bad rap, as many shoppers preferred fresh over frozen. But out of something bad came something good for our industry. While Americans were faced with stay-at-home orders, many needed to stock their freezers with healthy frozen proteins to carry them through till the next trip to the store. This blessing in disguise was a great way to overcome the stigma around frozen seafood, and many quickly learned that frozen can taste just as fresh and delicious as fresh.”

According to Hussey: “Frozen seafood is finally starting to get the love it deserves, so we recently launched Gorton’s ‘It’s Seafood Time’ campaign to inspire consumers to reimagine seafood and how it fits into their daily lives, while reinforcing all the real benefits it offers. Oftentimes, the best things in life, including seafood, go overlooked it’s full of omega-3s and protein, tastes fresh, is incredibly versatile, etc. and we want to change that.”

The brand is promoting the message via its multidimensional marketing support. “As part of an integrated plan spanning shopper marketing, TV, digital video, digital display and a partnership, we use social media and influencer marketing to teach consumers about the health benefits of eating seafood,” explains Hussey. “During a time when the public is looking for recipe inspiration and new, easy meal ideas, we want them to know that they can depend on us and the options we can provide to their households.” 

The pandemic “has presented an ideal opportunity for our industry to take advantage of the current discovery [of] frozen seafood by consumers,” notes Carline. “The perfect time is now to educate and establish a comfort and familiarity with seafood that may change consumer perception for the future.”

There’s also the notion of what “frozen” seafood actually means.

“Most consumers assume fresh means ‘fresh,’ not ‘previously frozen, [and] now thawing at your local butcher counter,’” says Natural Grocers’ Zimmerman. “Certainly, some ‘fresh fish’ sold is truly fresh, but in general, the rule is that fish is only fresh for about two days. The farther one is away from the source of where the fish was caught, the less likely it is that the ‘fresh fish’ was only caught two days ago. It’s more likely to assume the fish was frozen, shipped and then taken out of the freezer to sell as ‘fresh.’ In reality, shoppers are mostly paying for someone else to thaw out their fish for them.

a store filled with lots of different types of food
Grocers are posting clear signage on the origin of their seafood, as at this Stop & Shop fresh seafood department, which also offers value-added prepared items for time-pressed customers.

“On the flip side, there is a misperception that ‘frozen’ means old or bad in some way, and that is simply not true,” continues Zimmerman. “A large portion of commercially sold fish are frozen right on the boat or at a processing facility nearby. This means when consumers buy frozen fish they can actually enjoy fresh fish if they are willing to plan enough time for the fish to thaw out at home. It gives the consumer more control to know that the fish has not been sitting out on a butcher counter for four days before being sold to them. This is one of several reasons why Natural Grocers does not have a fresh fish or meat counter in our stores, and why we predominantly sell frozen fish.” 

One thing for retailers to bear in mind, though, is the kind of shopper they’re marketing to.

“It’s important to point out that the frozen seafood shopper and the fresh seafood shopper are very different demographically,” cautions Roerink, “but importantly, from an opportunity point of view, both areas see a huge lack of engagement among Millennials and Gen Z. Narrowing the engagement gap between younger shoppers and Boomers would provide a huge boost for sales, and I think many retailers are on the right path to do just that. The cook-in-bag type of packaging that allows shoppers to buy a fully prepared meal that just requires some time in the oven or microwave will take away many confidence barriers.”

Farm-Raised and Wild-Caught

Another aspect of seafood ripe for educational opportunities is the promulgation of claims such as farm-raised and wild-caught, which leave many consumers perplexed as to which items designated as such are best.

“Much like grass-fed versus grain-fed, or the USDA beef-grading system or many other claims used around the stores, there is a lot of confusion out there among the average shopper” regarding seafood claims, acknowledges Roerink. “People create their own definitions in their heads, which may be right or wrong. For claims-based seafood to be a true advantage, it is important that people understand what those advantages are. Are they health-related? Planet-related? Animal welfare-related? The more people can take educated purchasing decisions, the more the claims-based offering will actually make an impact.”

“Consumers unfamiliar with farm-raised seafood likely assume that it is all bad, and certainly there are operations that are overstocked too many fish in a small area  or in unclean water filled with fecal waste or non-circulated water,” explains Zimmerman. “However, there are also some great farm-raised operations that carry appropriate sustainability certifications protecting against those concerns, and in the case of our farm-raised shrimp, are certified organic and sustainably certified. Most consumers still prefer wild-caught, and we do, too, as long as it is done in ways that do not over-fish delicate ecosystems or endanger the environment.”

Natural Grocers customers “can understand the difference between farm-raised or wild-caught by simply looking for the label ‘farm-raised’ or ‘wild-caught,’ and the geographic location of where the seafood was caught,” she notes. “This type of labeling is required on fresh and frozen seafood products under Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS USDA). At Natural Grocers, we only carry wild-caught fish, which we clearly label at the point of purchase with our Gold Ranking shelf tag on the Seafood Ranking chart on the freezer door.” The retailer’s Seafood Ranking System designates each individual frozen seafood SKU/UPC as Silver or Gold, witha corresponding chart on seafood department doors and more information on the Natural Grocers website, in the Sustainability/ Standards section.  

“The key is to understand the issue of sustainability and know which species are more at risk, and when it is smart to choose farm-raised over wild-caught,” says Beaver Street Fisheries’ Carline. “There are reasons to and not to on both sides. It all comes down to being an informed and educated shopper.”

“Many consumers look for wild-caught over farm-raised because they perceive it to be healthier, as the seafood is in its natural habitat,” observes Gorton’s Seafood’s Hussey. “However, other consumers prefer farm-raised due to concerns about overfishing. Both wild-caught and farm-raised can be equally sustainable and high quality when sourced responsibly.”

Ultimately, the availability of farm-raised and wild-caught seafood at retail shouldn’t be framed as an either/or choice for consumers.

a plate of food with a slice of orange
The best way to keep seafood sales buoyant is to create more knowledgeable shoppers through education.

“There are great as well as horrible farm-raised seafood operations globally, and there are great as well as horrible wild-caught seafood operations globally,” emphasizes Dick Jones, CEO ofKailua-Kona, Hawaii-basedBlue Ocean Mariculture, the exclusive producer of Hawaiian Kanpachi, a premium yellowtail responsibly raised using environmentally sustainable farming methods.“As a supermarket buyer for 14 years, having led both Whole Foods Market and H-E-B grocery seafood departments, it is clear to me that the responsibility that retailers share is to develop strict procurement policies and procedures that promote quality, consistency, clarity of message, and transparency. Consumers want high-quality seafood that is good for them and their family, and [grocers] are looking for a solution, grounded in truth, as to how we get the consumer to eat more seafood, whether wild or farm-raised, and how we get the seafood departments at retail as profitable as they can be while increasing the sales.”

Next Steps

What’s ahead in the journey of what has become the United States’ second most-preferred protein, behind chicken? 

“Given the significant climb in seafood sales this past year, grocers are relying on access to a stable seafood supply more than ever,” points out Hannah Heimbuch, senior consultant at public affairs firm Ocean Strategies and an Alaskan commercial fisherman herself. “Domestic fisheries are of course a vital piece of that security. We have an opportunity now to nurture this growth as an industry — as a seafood supply chain that is increasingly valuable to the American economy. Sustaining that growth is going to rely in part on policies that promote fisheries resilience. Fishing and processing operations continue to weather the costs of COVID-19; Congress is looking to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the nation’s fisheries law; we have an executive order that could seriously impact access to federal fishing grounds; and we have a call to action to permanently protect Bristol Bay from the proposed Pebble Mine — centered in the watershed producing the world’s largest source of wild sockeye salmon. America’s diverse seafood industry is fully up to these challenges, and the consumer trends we’re seeing make it a clear priority.”

“Socially conscious certifications, like Fairtrade or other groups attesting to the boats, ships and processing plants being safe working environments for employees,” are also important going forward, maintains Zimmerman, of Natural Grocers. “For years now, we have been asking our vendors for more transparency when it comes to their social impact. We are finally starting to see other seafood companies catching up and opting in for certification that reflects that no children or forced labor has been used. We’ve been ahead of this trend and are glad to see it getting broader attention.  It is a much-needed change to ensure people are being treated with dignity and respect.”

With so many issues to illuminate for shoppers, education at the point of purchase and beyond becomes more crucial than ever before. Luckily, grocers are up to the task.

“Retailers are getting better at supporting education on seafood in the store,” says Carline. “Whether it be talking to the employee at the seafood counter, picking up related material to take home [to] learn and prepare seafood, or online marketing and recipe support, more and more retailers are understanding how imperative it is to create an informed shopper.”

It’s the online piece that’s particularly exciting to Roerink. “On pack and in-store, we only have so much real estate to educate consumers before it turns into clutter,” she points out, “but online, we have endless opportunity to tie back to recipes, educate about the provenance, educate about the claims, etc. This is a big opportunity for retailers to drive added-margin items” such as claims-based items, which tend to be sold at a price premium. As Roerink notes, “Shoppers who have a high interest in claims-based products are often willing and able to pay the price differential.”

    Point-of-Sale Seafood Selling Tips

    The key to maintaining robust seafood sales is to hook your customers and reel them in, time and again, but what are the best ways to do that?

    “Shoppers today want a lot from their food,” asserts Anne-Kristine Øen, director U.S. at the Norwegian Seafood Council, whose American office is in Boston. “They want to buy products that are tasty, nutritious, sustainably sourced and foolproof to prepare. ... There are several opportunities to have the resources and tools necessary right at the point of sale, such as the freezer or fresh case.”

    Øen provides the following suggestions:

    Presentation: Place recipes at eye-level or an easy place for shoppers to see when shopping. Alert your staff that the recipe cards are available, and train associates to hand the cards to shoppers or point shoppers toward them.

    Level Up: Near the seafood counter, display a shopping basket of all of the nonperishable ingredients that the recipe requires, so that shoppers can visualize what they’ll need to purchase. With simple recipes, create a display for shoppers to put all of the ingredients in their carts. Help online shoppers plan meals by providing the option for website visitors to click on a seafood recipe and easily order all of its ingredients online.

    Cross Promote:  If a shopper decides against the purchase of fresh fish, recommend looking at fish in the frozen section to see whether it meets the shoppers’ needs better. Don’t forget the frozen section place a display or recipes in a holder near the frozen food section, too.

    Knowledge: Many shoppers have questions about seafood, including questions about different species, preparation methods, storage practices, flavor profile and even how it is produced. Ensure your staff members are knowledgeable about seafood to help consumers.