FRESH FOOD: Hooking them in

If you want to understand your pattern of weekly seafood sales, look at your own shopping habits. All of us are food customers at one time or another, and as such, we're conditioned to choose many of our purchases based on media images, colors, and price points. Consider the evolution of supermarkets' weekly advertising vehicles. During the '50s and '60s, the model was black-and-white newspaper print. Later it was discovered that consumers reacted favorably to a few front-page splashes of color.

Then there was the "hot" fifth-week ad, which was all-color. It cost a bundle to produce, and vendors were encouraged to participate by the offering of large advertising allowances and cash deal incentives to offset print and distribution expenses. The impact of these ads in terms of sales increases for merchants and vendors was significant. Today we have the weekly color circular that, like clockwork, is mass mailed to millions of homes.

But when it comes to seafood, customers buy with their eyes, ears, and noses. They react to fresh, heaping displays of colorful fish. The atmosphere must be free of any offensively fishy odors, and the counterperson or point-of-sale material has to speak to them. In short, the seafood department must be one of the best-looking and cleanest departments in the store. Since seafood is primarily an impulse purchase, perception is everything.

A review of the Labor Day circular ads for 20 supermarket chains throughout the country reveals some encouraging results and patterns. Overall, supermarket chains are making a substantial effort to give their seafood departments serious exposure. Most have a designated seafood ad position, usually on the meat page. Of course, the right seafood item placed on the front page of a weekly circular can draw an attractive volume of customers to your store.

More than 60 percent of the chains covered in the review placed a seafood item on the front page of their holiday circulars. Shrimp represented nearly 25 percent of that front-page venue, with snow crab clusters or fresh fillet of salmon otherwise selected to represent the seafood department. Front-page seafood exposure can create exciting sales results. Often a front-page shrimp, crab leg, salmon, catfish, or live lobster promotion at a hot price point can generate sales 10 times the normal weekly movement of that item.

Retailers, knowing which seafood items best attract customers, have structured their Labor Day ads to hit the hot buttons. On average, seafood ads that appeared inside of the circular (usually on the meat page) featured 5.7 seafood items. More than 30 percent of the chains featured from seven to 12 advertised seafood items. Shrimp is the No. 1-selling seafood item in the United States; therefore, it received major exposure in nearly all of the circulars. More than 95 percent of the chains offered a shrimp special, while 30 percent of the merchants had a sale on two or more shrimp items.

A review of the top 10 per capita seafood items reveals that five are fillets (salmon, catfish, cod, tilapia, and flounder or flatfish). This category was well represented in nearly all of the holiday seafood ads, with 80 percent of the chains advertising one fillet, and 45 percent featuring two or more. The top fillet choice for ad copy was salmon, followed by catfish and tilapia.

While most of the Labor Day print ads featured item and price, a few offered information, as well. One of the concerns often mentioned by consumers when asked about preparing seafood at home is their fear of cooking. Some retailers use a corner block in their ads to include facts about a featured item, as well as a recipe. While sacrificing a valuable advertising spot may be risky and difficult to measure in terms of sales dollars, the intangible here is that the retailer has an opportunity to demonstrate to customers that it want them to be informed. As is often said by one well-known clothing retailer, "An educated consumer is our best customer," and the same holds true for food shoppers. The more comfortable your customers are with cooking seafood at home, the better opportunity you have of maximizing your seafood sales.

Salesmanship and buy appeal

In addition to the print ads, there are radio, television, and now the Web page to add to the arsenal of seafood advertising. While all of these forms of advertisements do a wonderful job of creating impressions in consumers' minds, when it comes to perishables, once the customers walk through those electronic doors, everything changes.

The customers buy meat, produce, seafood, and deli with their eyes. The best-advertised price in town could never excuse a messy in-store display, off-condition product, or a sales clerk with a bad attitude.

Therefore, a weekly circular may bring customers into stores, but it's up to the seafood department staff to make the visit pleasurable. The weekly circular is a huge expense for a supermarket chain. As part of your training package, it may be a smart investment to show your staff what it costs to bring customers into the store each week. Then work hard to empower them to do all that they can to make every customer they see feel welcome and appreciated. That's the best impression you'll ever make.
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