Maintaining a successful seafood section in the face of rapidly evolving industry standards and consumer expectations can be tough, but the participants in the “Retail Seafood Merchandising-Best Practices in the USA” panel discussion, held March 11 during the Seafood Expo North America (SENA) in Boston, had every angle covered.
The standing-room-only discussion was moderated by Chuck Anderson, VP of sales and marketing at Clinton Township, Mich.-based technology, implementation and certification company Seafood Analytics and a retail veteran himself, with stints at Ahold USA and H-E-B. Anderson kicked off the proceedings by enumerating some seafood trends he’d observed at retail, many of them centering on convenience and novelty.
His observations included ready-to-cook/ready-to-eat seafood options; expanding salmon varieties; flavored burgers/patties; local and/or sustainable product; raw-food items such as Japanese sashimi and Hawaiian poke, the latter of which, he remarked, has “a lot more growth to go;” peeled and deveined shrimp; imported Argentine shrimp; and the growing importance of Asian supermarkets in the United States — such as Island Pacific Seafood Market, a Filipino supermarket in California — as purveyors of top-quality seafood. Anderson noted that these establishments were now marketing the whole store around seafood, in the process drawing seafood business away from traditional channels.
For instance, Island Pacific has live fish tanks and a big outdoor ice table display, offers fish-cutting services, fries fish to order, and allows customers to buy a fish in the market and have it cooked to order at the in-store restaurant, among other features. The store attracts a clientele that’s 50 percent Filipino, with the rest a broad ethnic mix.
In the burgeoning meal-kit arena, he singled out Texas grocer H-E-B’s Meal Simple line for its appealing, easy-to-prepare seafood selections, which include Fiesta Jalapeño Atlantic Salmon Burgers and Pesto Pasta and Shrimp Bake. He also lauded a Massachusetts Whole Foods Market for adding a dash of theater to the department with regular “Buck Versus Seafood” events starring the store’s ebullient expert fish cutter.
- Ready-to-cook/ready-to-eat options
- Expanding salmon varieties
- Flavored burgers/patties
- Local and/or sustainable product
- Raw-food items, such as sashimi and poke
- Peeled and deveined shrimp
- Imported Argentine shrimp
- Growing importance of Asian supermarkets in the U.S.
- Reduced packaging
- 10K skin packaging
- Irradiated shelf-stable proteins
Overcoming 'Fear of Fish'
Nancy Wangles, director of deli and seafood at St. Louis-based Dierbergs Markets, pointed out the chain’s emphasis on prepared food/foodservice and presentation in its seafood sections, achieved through shared labor with the larger deli department. The reason for these particular emphases, she explained, was the common “fear of fish” among landlocked Midwesterners, and Dierbergs’ aim to make the protein more accessible and less daunting to them.
The grocer maintains its rigorous food safety goals and commitment to freshness by breaking down its seafood cases every night and reaching and resetting them every morning, Wangles noted, adding that underneath every fresh, colorful and interesting display is micro-grade paper to kill bacteria.
Wangles also pointed out that Dierbergs’ seafood offerings are all “100 percent chem-free” as part of the grocer’s commitment to natural offerings, clean ingredients, traceability and transparency. Other seafood section practices she cited were deploying “simple, meaningful signage;” offering on-trend appetizers, sauces and dips created in the chain’s central kitchen; establishing consistency in its prepared items; having a written, “non-negotiable” policy on food safety; seasoning and cooking fresh seafood for customers; and providing them with take-home educational materials.
Dierbergs associates undergo stringent training on a continuing basis, she observed, which had the effect of increasing their comfort level in talking to customers about seafood.
Giant Eagle’s seafood business is 50/50 fresh/frozen, appealing to two different consumers: the frozen customer is more value-focused, while the fresh shopper is more of a foodie seeking personal contact across the case. “Both do well,” noted Richard Castle, director of seafood at the Pittsburgh-based multiform business encompassing traditional grocery stores, upscale markets and convenience stores.
Execution is a major issue for Castle in achieving the worthy goals of differentiation, quality, service and superior value-added products. The chief way that he’s been able to carry out these strategies, he explained, was by improving communication to store teams. This means bringing team leaders and suppliers together in off-site meetings (and sampling sessions) four to six times a year, and also taking team leaders who’ve won seasonal sales contests to visit suppliers. It also means giving team leaders direct access to dedicated seafood merchandisers who visit stores on a rotating basis and issue a weekly merchandising letter featuring tips, recipes and recognition of exemplary team leaders.
Additionally, a SharePoint site on which stores can provide real-time feedback to problems and answer one another’s questions has proved to be a “really cool process,” according to Castle.
In working with Giant Eagle’s “really great” suppliers, he pointed out, price is important, of course, but food safety, integrity, quality, sustainability, problem solving and innovation “are paramount.”
In the Q-and-A session following the panel, emerging trends that received mention included reduced packaging for greater eco-friendliness/less waste; 10K skin packaging to help lengthen shelf life; irradiated proteins capable of being merchandised at ambient center store temperatures; aquaculture, which would be able to provide local product in landlocked/inland parts of the country, as noted by Phil Walsh, VP sales of St. Andrews USA, a Chilean purveyor of mussels (also identified as ripe for growth); and the rising awareness of sustainability at Giant Eagle in particular, while it hadn’t yet become a priority at Dierbergs. Many of these trends, as well as those mentioned by Seafood Analytics' Anderson earlier, were observed on the SENA show floor by the Progressive Grocer editor who wrote this article.
The session also yielded the news that Giant Eagle was “experimenting” with a seafood meal kit, as Castle divulged.
In other recent Giant Eagle seafood news, the grocer has joined the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership's Ocean Disclosure Project, as reported by PG sister publication Store Brands.