Seafood Category Shifts Its Focus From Fresh to Convenient

Frozen and shelf-stable options should be promoted as great choices for inflation-weary and cooking-averse consumers
Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association
The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association has conducted chef demos at food retailers to highlight the ease of preparation of frozen sockeye salmon items.

When consumers — and many retailers — think of seafood, they normally envision fresh departments stocked with just-caught product displayed on ice, but frozen and shelf-stable options can play a key role in boosting seafood sales, particularly at a time when shoppers are seeking value.

“The current economic situation has definitely opened up the opportunity for frozen and shelf-stable seafood items as consumers are oftentimes looking to buy in bulk,” affirms Lilani Dunn, the newly named executive director of the Anchorage, Alaska-based Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA), a fisherman-funded group. “Both frozen and shelf-stable seafood also are great options for trending consumer issues such as food waste and quickness of ease of meal preparation.”

[RELATED: What Makes Alaska Seafood So Special?]

“Frozen and shelf-stable saw great gains during the pandemic,” notes Kayla Bennett, media and communications manager at the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), a Reston, Va.-based industry trade group, who goes on to cite recent statistics from Circana and 210 Analytics. “We are seeing some headwinds across all seafood categories, attributed to inflation. But we’re head and shoulders above where we were pre-pandemic. Frozen is down 3.1% from 2022, but up 32.4% since 2019. Meanwhile, the shelf-stable side is up 13.1% from 2019 and increased 0.2% in 2023. We’re not seeing the explosive growth we saw in 2020 or 2021, but overall, we’re trending in a very positive direction.”

The tinned seafood segment
The tinned seafood segment has been offering a greater number of premium products of late.

“A Matter of Perception”

To get the message across to consumers that frozen and shelf-stable seafood products are great choices, retailers must change shoppers’ ideas about such products.

“While we know that frozen and shelf-stable seafood increasingly delivers on both value and quality, and can be just as nutritious as fresh seafood, it truly is a matter of perception,” advises Athena Davis, marketing manager at the Wilmington, N.C.-based Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) North America. “When it comes to marketing frozen and shelf-stable products, we think sustainable and responsible sourcing are key factors for brands looking to differentiate and communicate their product benefits to shoppers. We know firsthand that retailers and seafood producers are seeing increased demand for more traceable and responsibly sourced seafood products, and that ASC’s certification is a valuable marketing point for frozen and shelf-stable products.”

Among the retailers that are effectively promoting such products, ASC singles out one that it partnered with last October on a National Seafood Month promotion. “We think New Seasons Market, in Portland, Ore., does an excellent job of merchandising shelf-stable seafood,” says Davis. “When you walk up to their fresh seafood case, you’re met with a bold display of trendy, colorful and premium tinned seafood products right beside the case.”

“Tinned fish is having its moment with younger audiences,” notes NFI’s Bennett. “If you don’t understand the hype, you only have to go as far as TikTok to see this trend firsthand. Meanwhile, canned and pouched products emphasize convenience and value, which are evergreen with consumers.”

In ASC’s work with brands across North America as part of a multiyear marketing campaign to build awareness and understanding of the value behind its certification and label, it has recently “seen a significant increase in producers and brands staking a bigger claim in shelf-stable and frozen spaces, whether through new product launches or brand extensions,” notes Davis.

[RELATED: Global Seafood Alliance Reveals Successful Consumer Campaign Results]

Canned and pouched seafood products
Canned and pouched seafood products emphasize convenience and value, making them attractive to consumers.

Speaking of frozen, BBRSDA has “partnered with retailers across the country, conducting chef demos at Sprouts, Harris Teeter and QFC,” says Dunn. “These demos help educate consumers [about] the ease of prep, introduce them to frozen sockeye salmon items offered, and also are paired with printed and digital assets that lead to recipes, cooking tips and other differentiators of our Wild Sockeye Salmon from Bristol Bay, Alaska, such as nutrition, place of origin, and the support of local U.S. fishers.”

She adds: “A frozen side or portion of sockeye salmon is a perfect starting point for any skill level of the at-home cook. We have a collection of Fast, Wild and Easy recipes that have few ingredients, which are typically found in household pantries. We also have a Salmon Cooking Guide that includes various cooking methods, as well as tips on how to handle working with frozen salmon.”

Riding the Frozen and Shelf-Stable Wave

Regarding how to leverage future trends in the frozen and shelf-stable seafood segments, Dunn asserts: “Gen Alpha should be a main focus for forthcoming frozen and shelf-stable seafood products. Not only will they be the buyers for their own households, but the benefits of Wild Alaska seafood check all the boxes that Gen Alpha caretakers are prioritizing: sustainable, natural, nutritious, delicious, product of U.S.A. The missing elements are familiarity and availability, and these could be achieved ... at the retail level.”

[RELATED: 5 Noteworthy Frozen Food Trends]

“Seventy-eight percent of consumers say seafood is healthy, and the seafood industry is always trying to expand consumption,” says Bennett. “A proven strategy for that is introducing more [frozen and shelf-stable] products into the market and reminding consumers of the variety and health benefits.”

Davis points out that “[r]eady to eat and convenience … are significant drivers for purchase, and brands are leaning into this.” Retailers should take note and follow suit. 

  • Why Frozen and Shelf-Stable Seafood?

    What makes frozen and shelf-stable seafood products particularly appropriate options for today’s consumers?

    “Shoppers … may be looking for better price points, or being mindful that there’s less chance of food and food dollar waste when you buy frozen and shelf-stable proteins,” observes Athena Davis, marketing manager at the Wilmington, N.C.-based Aquaculture Stewardship Council North America.

    Davis goes on to cite recent FMI seafood research highlighting several factors that may be contributing to this greater shopper appeal:

    • At-home food commands more of the food dollar.
    • Lower-prep dinners are gaining in importance.
    • Value-added seafood is a major contributor to top retailer outperformance.
    • 62% of seafood buyers are seeking to increase consumption over the next year.
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