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How Do Consumers Decide Which Seafood to Purchase?

Sustainability, health and convenience are key considerations, with plant-based products gaining interest
Sustainability and health remain key concerns for seafood shoppers, suppliers and retailers.

Something fresh is happening in the seafood department of Town & Country Markets. In March, the Seattle-based independent with six stores across the Puget Sound region launched Maka, a new house-branded seafood line of ocean-friendly choices, including sushi, poké and rice bowls, as well as custom rolls and party platters.

According to Town & Country, the Asian-inspired line’s name means “fresh” and “beloved” in Hawaiian, representing the grocer’s commitment to providing the freshest and most delicious products available. It also sounds similar to the Japanese word maha, which means “great” — a reference to the expertise and creativity of the sushi chefs who developed the offering.

Above all, however, Maka reflects one of the grocer’s core values: its commitment to sustainability. The line adheres to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch recommendations for sustainably produced seafood, which aim to ensure a bright future for the world’s fish population and for those who fish for a living. Beyond the Maka offering, Town & Country plans “to advance its seafood market and its sustainability practices throughout 2023,” according to a company spokeswoman contacted by Progressive Grocer.

Speaking of sustainable sushi, Charlotte, N.C.-based Hissho Sushi, whose products are carried by such food retailers as Target, Sprouts, Walmart, Giant Food and Meijer, revealed ahead of Earth Day on April 22 that 100% of the seafood used in its products is transparently certified sustainable by an independent third party and traceable to producers and vendors that comply with strict standards for food safety and quality.

Advisory firm ResilienSEA Group LLC worked with the second-largest U.S. sushi provider to ensure that all of its purchases were being made from responsibly managed wild-capture and farmed sources. Austin, Texas-based ResilienSEA also helped Hissho establish strict supplier guidelines, which include eliminating species that are under threat, among them baby octopus, eel and mackerel.

“Responsible sourcing generates positive, long-term impact for our consumers, our industry and the environment,” said Hissho CEO Dan Beem last month, adding: “Looking toward the future, we hope that sourcing practices will improve for these items and we can add them back on the menu. Our retail partners’ customers have sophisticated palates, but they are also responsible consumers. Through feedback, they have largely told us that it’s important to them to understand where their food comes from and to protect the environment.”

Town & Country Sushi
Seattle-based independent grocer Town & Country Markets recently launched Maka, a house-branded seafood line of ocean-friendly choices.

Convenience Counts, Too

Seafood is more than just sushi, of course, and other trends besides sustainability factor into consumers’ seafood purchasing decisions. According to FMI’s 2023 “Power of Seafood” report, while 66% of seafood shoppers care about buying sustainable seafood, 69% cite nutrition/health as a primary or very important reason that they eat seafood; this metric rises to 81% among frequent seafood consumers. 

Additionally, despite the fact that pandemic lockdowns prompted more consumers to prepare seafood at home and gain more confidence in their ability to cook it, convenience is still a must for many, especially as people return to in-person work or school and have less time to make their own meals. To that end, although seafood shoppers say that they prefer fresh products, they acknowledge that frozen items offer several benefits, including a greater variety of choices, the avoidance of food waste, and handy preparation instructions. Indeed, 39% of seafood consumers surveyed by FMI note that frozen seafood is just as good as fresh, six percentage points higher than those who believe it’s not as good.

“Consumers want convenience with their food, due to busy schedules and hectic lives,” asserts Yasmin Curtis, founder and CEO of Two Fish, a Chicago-based restaurant-inspired brand that recently launched three new frozen seafood boil bags. “Frozen foods are convenient for handling preparation and desired portion sizes.” Two Fish got its start as a storefront crab shack in the close-knit Windy City neighborhood of Bonneville, where satisfied customers spread the word and helped the company kick-start its first retail showcase.

“Being able to introduce Two Fish at our first grocery store was a huge success,” notes Curtis. “The reactions we got from customers were very positive, and we even sold out of our product within the first 20 minutes we opened our display!”

Besides cultivating a loyal fan base, Curtis cites social media as “a huge part [of] advertising — Instagram, Twitter and Facebook are still and will always be the place for news, whether it’s a new product or a social event. People pay attention and love new food trends, and we can play on this, sharing fun, new ways to prepare and enjoy seafood to keep up with our audience.”

Every Two Fish seafood boil bag contains snow crab legs, shrimp, mussels or crawfish, along with corn and potatoes, accompanied by Two Fish’s popular “3 The Chi Way” sauce.

Hissho Sushi
In April, Hissho Sushi revealed that 100% of the seafood used in its products is transparently certified sustainable by an independent third party and traceable to producers and vendors that comply with strict standards for food safety and quality.

From Delivery to Grocery

In the ready-to-cook space, no-fuss options are also a priority. “We’re seeing convenience in cooking seafood continue as a trend,” affirms Kathy Liz, marketing director of Oshen, a fresh and frozen sustainable salmon delivery service from Miami-based parent company BluGlacier. “Salmon continues to be a priority in the seafood industry, and having easy, savory options is important.”   

In March, Oshen launched three marinated salmon selections — lemon pepper, garlic dill and sweet chili — at 20 Mariano’s locations across the Chicago area, marking the first time the salmon brand is offering products in grocery stores. According to BluGlacier and Oshen CEO Sebastian Goycoolea, “We teamed up with [Mariano’s] flavor specialists to create new marinated flavors that we know customers will love.”

So far, the marinated products have “been very well received, and we are excited about seeing further growth,” notes Liz. “We are working on expanding our ready-to-cook offerings in the near future.”

Asked about marketing such products in the grocery channel, Liz observes: “Raising product awareness is paramount in retail. Doing so through in-store signage that is in alignment with placement, and supporting that outside of the store, is important so consumers recognize your product with the promotions they see outside of the store.”

She also hearkens back to an earlier-mentioned shopper concern: “Understanding how their food is raised continues to be a priority for consumers; with that, understanding certifications and their seafood having third-party certifications [are key.] Going forward, continued ways of understanding where their food sources are coming from and making the cooking and eating process simple” will be highly important for seafood consumers.

 Plant Based Shelf Stable Sea Scallops
Mind Blown recently introduced Plant Based Shelf Stable Sea Scallops, a product the company describes as "a real game-changer in the world of sustainable seafood."

Plant-Based Makes Its Pitch

Meanwhile, in the plant-based seafood segment, innovation continues apace. In center store, for instance, Mind Blown has recently launched Plant Based Shelf Stable Sea Scallops on the brand’s website. 

“They are a true game-changer in the world of sustainable seafood,” says Shelly Van Cleve, co-founder and VP of innovations at Grimstead, Va.-based Mind Blown. “Not only do these scallops boast an authentic taste and texture that rivals that of their ocean counterparts, but they also offer significant benefits to the planet. By eliminating the need for refrigeration and reducing reliance on the cold chain, these scallops have a dramatically reduced carbon footprint. Furthermore, they alleviate the pressure on declining marine populations and reduce food waste.”

The brand doubles down on its dedication to sustainability by donating a portion of its profits to The Coral Restoration Foundation, based in Tavernier, Fla., in support of its work to rebuild coral reefs around the world. “By choosing Mind Blown products, you’re not only making a healthier choice for yourself, but you’re also contributing to the revitalization of our oceans,” asserts Van Cleve. “Our ultimate goal is to relieve, restore and revive the health of our oceans, leaving behind a legacy of abundance for future generations to enjoy.”

Another compelling argument in favor of plant-based seafood alternatives, according to Van Cleve, “is the high cost of traditional seafood. For instance, a pound of locally sourced crab meat averages a staggering $50, while scallops can cost around $35 per pound. If the prices of chicken or hamburger meat were that high, it would be difficult for many communities to access them. Therefore, the goal should be to provide affordable options that are accessible to all.”

She predicts the likelihood “that we’ll soon see our favorite seafood dishes transformed into plant-based alternatives. In the near future, [plant-based] crab cake sandwiches, fries and coleslaw baskets may be a ubiquitous sight on menus at seafood restaurants, food trucks, seaside cafés and even stadiums. The trend towards plant-based offerings is rapidly gaining momentum, and it’s clear that it will soon become a standard feature of the culinary landscape.”

The ISH Company, which is currently in talks with large retailers, with the aim of launching in grocery stores in 2024, agrees that a declining seafood supply, sustainability considerations and physical health are key reasons for consumers to switch to plant-based options.

As for who’s most interested in such products, Christie Fleming, COO and president of ISH, observes that currently, “many Gen Zers and Millennials are turning to plant-based options for health, environmental or personal reasons. According to the National Institutes of Health, 85.2% of college students are willing to try more plant-based meat. While some universities offer Beyond or Impossible products, plant-based seafood is less available for those that want to try it.”

Fleming additionally highlights the fact that “[m]any consumers are also adopting a flexitarian lifestyle to limit meat intake and eat more plants. … Research from Sprouts Farmers Market found that 47% of Americans describe themselves as flexitarians, the identification proving even more popular in younger crowds. As this population moves more toward plant-based substitutes, the demand for plant-based seafood is rising.”

ISH’s products, which are currently available at foodservice, include Shrimpish, Salmonish, Codish, Crabish and Lobsterish. 

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