Plenty of Fish Opportunities in Retail

Marketers and suppliers offer programs and products to build on seafood sales growth
Bridget Goldschmidt
Managing Editor
Bridget Headshot
ASMI Hot Pollock Sandwich Main Image
The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute provides recipes like this hot pollock sandwich to stimulate interest in various fish species.

Despite an inflationary landscape and a return to restaurant dining in the waning days of the pandemic, the seafood category is well positioned for the future.

“The past year was a precarious year for various proteins, as consumers adjusted their purchasing habits to combat inflation,” notes Amy Dukes, head of retail marketing at Juneau-based Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), referencing FMI – The Food Industry Association’s “2023 Power of Seafood Report from earlier this year. “However, while global seafood sales saw a slight (3.8%) year-over-year decrease in 2022, sales were still higher than in 2019, indicating the widespread increase in seafood consumption that began in 2020 (when home seafood consumption hit an all-time high) is here to stay. Shoppers who became more comfortable preparing seafood at home continue to appreciate the versatility, health benefits and environmental friendliness of the category, with many ‘gateway’ species like wild Alaska salmon and cod having earned a consistent place at the table.”

[Read more: "Grocers Share Their Successful Seafood Strategies"]

The key to growing seafood sales is to keep that momentum going, and the organization has a wealth of ideas about how to do just that.

“ASMI recently launched its Cook Wild campaign in an effort to remove what the recent research uncovered as the biggest barrier to seafood purchase, by providing shoppers nationwide with timely and simple cooking inspiration,” says Dukes. “The campaign includes direct-to-consumer inspiration and cooking tips via influencers and chef partners, as well as a toolkit for retailers and other industry members to help make cooking wild more accessible to their customers. The program included an exciting sweepstakes offering a year’s supply of Alaska seafood, a limited-edition Hedley & Bennett seafood apron, and a cooking class with an Alaska chef.”

She also notes that “[r]etailers can capitalize on the widespread availability of premium species like wild sockeye with attention-grabbing deals, where shoppers won’t have to compromise quality for cost savings.”

When it comes to getting consumers out of their seafood comfort zone, Dukes advises: “Prepared items in the seafood case like pre-marinated filets, kebabs or items like cakes/burgers can help shoppers branch out into a new species that they may not be comfortable experimenting with from scratch just yet. For example, using species like Alaska rockfish or flounder in a prepared fish taco mix, or marinated sablefish filets in addition to the more commonly found salmon.”

In regard to emerging trends in the category, Dukes believes that the future is wild and flavorful. “In terms of overall trends for the industry, the demand for wild and sustainable seafood will only continue to grow, as 82% of shoppers prefer wild over farmed seafood,” she asserts, citing Datassential research. “Flavor trends for seafood products are following many of the major flavor trends across the food industry, including increased global influence (especially of Asian flavors like miso and Gochujang), flavor fusions, and refreshing flavors like botanicals and citrus.”

Farm to Fork

Meanwhile, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) has found that “[d]espite the impact of inflation on seafood sales, retailers around the world expanded their offerings of ASC-labeled products in all categories in 2022 and 2023,” asserts Kathleen McDavitt, ASC’s U.S. market development manager.“ This suggests that there is still strong shopper demand for certified responsible seafood even as pressure from inflation persists.”

The organization is in the second year of a multiyear marketing campaign – its largest to date globally and the first of its kind in North America – to build interest in, and awareness and understanding of, responsibly farmed seafood and the meaning behind ASC’s sea green label.

“We want to meet consumers where they’re at and bring them along on the farm-to-fork journey, which modern aquaculture is very much a part of,” explains Athena Davis, marketing manager at Wilmington, N.C.-based ASC North America. “Recognizing the consistent growth trends of farmed seafood and potential risks associated with products that are not verified by a reputable third-party certification and labeling program, our goal is to provide seafood shoppers with the information they need to make informed and responsible purchases.”

Adds Davis: “Our campaign is designed to increase recognition of ASC’s label and access to these in-demand certified products through a series of national activations in key local markets. In 2023, we successfully brought the ‘Sea Green. Be Green.’ experience to Portland, Ore.; Washington, D.C.; and Southern California via retail sampling events and promotions, food festivals, chef-driven dining experiences, and always-on digital and media outreach. We will soon announce 2024’s target cities and look forward to an exciting round of fresh in-person and online activities.”

When asked about how to introduce seafood shoppers to unfamiliar species, Davis replies: “If retailers are interested in carrying new seafood species, they should provide consumer education that’s accessible and speaks directly to their shoppers’ needs. Seafood can be intimidating, so offering more information about the species and its source, potential health benefits, hands-on experiences, and simple ways to cook it at home make for easy introductions. In-store sampling of lesser-known seafood products that are high in quality and flavor also gives shoppers an immediate and eye-opening introduction. While shrimp and salmon are still leading in consumption, we’re seeing positive results on the ground with consumers tasting ASC-certified species like barramundi, kanpachi and trout nationwide.”

In fact, ASC and New Seasons Market’s National Seafood Month collaboration included an interactive in-store filleting demo showing shoppers how to deconstruct a whole trout. A digital version was made available online, along with point-of-sale handouts with step-by-step instructions at all 19 store locations. 

Unsurprisingly, sustainability looms large for ASC in the near future. “A few trends we see coming in the next few years are more certified sushi options in the prepared foods departments, and more exciting promotions of certified seafood store-wide that increase consumer interest and engagement,” notes McDavitt, while according to Davis: “From sustainable farming practices to food waste, consumers – especially Gen Z – will be taking an even harder look at how we eat and the impacts on the planet. As we look at current and forecasted seafood trends – seaweed comes to mind – there is an opportunity for retailers to step up their game when it comes to sourcing and marketing sustainable seafood.”

Acme Smoked Fish Truck Main Image
Acme Smoked Fish has launched on a new consumer campaign to reach more consumers through humor.

Smokin’ Hot

Among seafood suppliers, the past year has served up its share of challenges, but also cause for hope.

“In the smoked seafood category (cold smoked, hot smoked, herring, and seafood salads), unit sales have definitely been impacted by inflation and consumer purchasing pattern changes,” admits David Caslow, co-CEO of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Acme Smoked Fish. “The best estimates suggest that the overall volume in this category at grocery stores year to date has reduced by 6%-7%. This is the largest reduction in any single year that I can remember in my 28-year career. However, if you consider the full cycle of COVID-19 impact, you will see that over the past four years the category has actually grown at a compounded annual rate of 5%, which is healthy.”

[Read more: "SENA 2023: The Sustainability Saga Continues"]

To meet consumers’ perennial need for convenience and flavor in the hot smoked segment, Acme will introduce a line of single-serve Flavored Hot Smoked Salmon fillets early next year in three unique flavors: Honey Maple, Lemon Garlic and Kansas City BBQ. 

“Our innovative R&D team developed these delectable flavors with extensive consumer research,” notes Caslow. “[O]ur Lemon Garlic and Kansas City BBQ smoked salmons were extremely popular with consumers, and Honey Maple is a fan favorite of Acme’s. These fully cooked salmons can quickly make a nutritious and enjoyable meal with a tossed salad, grains or pasta.”

The company will also launch Cold Smoked Tuna next year and bring back its Blue Hill Bay Tuna Poké in response to popular demand. Another big item on next year’s agenda is updated packaging with a revised logo and branding.

Acme works to engage consumers through its website as well. “We invite eaters to go behind the scenes with us online and learn more about smoked fish, get inspired by new recipes and find new kinds of fish to try,” notes Caslow. “We also hope to inspire consumers through our commitment to sustainability, with stories of projects we support that are fighting climate change. We are also embarking on a new consumer campaign to reach more consumers, honoring our commitment to smoke the best-quality fish out there. We hope to bring a smile and more connection to enjoying a meal around the table with smoked fish.”

Among the company’s most recent education tactics are “partnering with chefs who share their recipes and creating online resources like a new Smoked Fish 101 section to share more about our smoking and curing techniques and the resulting flavors,” he adds.

Thanks to that earlier-mentioned consumer need for convenience “[a] growing trend we’ve been paying attention to is meal kits, available both at the grocery store and online,” says Caslow. “We’re also seeing that snacking occasions have grown among consumers. We’re thrilled to introduce our own snack meal kit early next year, a Lox in a Box concept ready to enjoy for lunch or snack time.”

Chicken of the Sea Lemon Garlic Main Image
Chicken of the sea teamed up with spice maker McCormick to bring consumers three new flavors of wild-caught tuna.

Take It Easy

Over in center store, meanwhile, shelf-stable seafood has experienced a definite resurgence.

“Consumption in units is down from the peak of the pandemic, but sales are growing in segments like on-the-go packets,” affirms Griffin Raasch, director of marketing at San Diego-based Chicken of the Sea. “Consumers are continuing to cook more meals at home and are looking for better-for-you, convenient, affordable options. It’s a challenging inflationary environment for both consumers and manufacturers, but shelf-stable seafood remains a budget-friendly protein that helps consumers to make healthier meals in a short amount of time. Chicken of the Sea has a broad range of options – tuna, salmon, sardines, mackerel, clams and oysters – that allow consumers to still have variety in their meals while still getting the nutrition they crave.”

[Read more: "The Top Foods and Beverages Trending With Retail Dietitians"]

Among its recent offerings, the iconic brand teamed up with Hunt Valley, Md.-based spice maker McCormick to bring consumers three new flavors of wild-caught tuna – McCormick Lemon Garlic, Thai Kitchen Sweet & Spicy, and McCormick Dill Tuna Salad – available in convenient formats for consumers to take anywhere or easily add to a meal. 

To encourage shoppers to purchase more seafood across the store, retailers should highlight its functional benefits, convenience and variety, Raasch believes. “One way Chicken of the Sea is doing this is through partnering with retail registered dietitians to focus on in-store displays that call out the variety of nutritional benefits that seafood has to offer,” she observes.

Beyond that, “Chicken of the Sea is always listening to what consumers are looking for to uncover new ways to inspire shoppers,” she says. “This new Chicken of the Sea packet launch utilized emerging trends, market research and a strategic partnership with the flavor experts at McCormick. We heard that consumers were gravitating towards citrus, creamy and spicy flavors profiles, so worked with our partner to help bring them to life, taking fan favorites and putting a unique twist on them in an easy, on-the-go format.”

Looking forward, Raasch observes: “We’ve seen a lot of exciting innovation and collaborations happening throughout the food category over the last few years, focusing on convenience and flavor. Consumers today, particularly Gen Z and younger Millennials, are looking for convenient on-the-go types of products, since they don’t have as much time for sit-down meals. We are also seeing ethnic flavors becoming more mainstream. The new Chicken of the Sea Wild Caught Tuna seasoned with Thai Kitchen Sweet & Spicy is tapping into a trend where there are more Asian flavors in the market, with seafood like gochujang and curries. With the launch of the Chicken of the Sea-McCormick partnership, we hope to see even more innovation and category crossover as consumers seek out new and exciting snack and meal options.”

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