Strategies for Selling Seafood Post-COVID

Retailers, manufacturers and organizations offer tips for keeping shoppers hooked
Selling Seafood
During the pandemic, fresh, frozen and shelf-stable seafood sales soared as homebound consumers ventured into their kitchens to prepared home-cooked meals.

As bad as the pandemic was at its height, it had an unequivocally positive effect on seafood sales.

“In the first year of the pandemic, seafood sales saw some of the most dramatic increases among all areas of food retail across fresh, frozen and grocery and across all species,” notes the introduction to the 2022 “Power of Seafood” report from Arlington, Va.-based FMI — The Food Industry Association. “Sales of seafood benefited from a number of factors, including restaurants closing, consumers seeking healthier and nutritious foods, the desire for variety, the trend to cooking at home coupled with cooking fatigue, supply chain issues and higher prices for other proteins.” That growth was maintained in 2021, with seafood sales edging up an additional 0.9%.

Now that pandemic-related restrictions have largely been lifted and most people have returned to previous eating routines — among them dining out — how are seafood sales across the store currently faring? “Frozen seafood dollar sales were about $18 million higher than fresh seafood in June 2022, at $520 million versus $502 million, respectively,” notes Anne-Marie Roerink, president of San Antonio-based 210 Analytics, citing data from Chicago-based IRI. “This was due to a 13.3% decline for fresh seafood when comparing June 2022 dollar sales to year-ago levels. Frozen seafood dollars declined as well, but at a much slower rate of 7.4%. Only shelf-stable seafood (canned and pouches) increased, at 7.8%, along with an increase in volume sales.” The reason for this, Roerink observes, is that “[a]mbient seafood sales often do well during times of inflation and uncertainty.”

With this the case, the question becomes, how can retailers and other stakeholders “[continue] to sustain and build on” the growth across all seafood segments that occurred during the pandemic, as the 2022 “Power of Seafood”  report asks?

Selling Salmon
Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon aims to help consumers to cook salmon at home with its Fast Wild Easy campaign, featuring simple recipes with five ingredients or fewer.

Retail Inspiration

“We’ve seen strong sales in seafood, significantly stronger than pre-COVID 2019 sales levels,” says Brittney Bullock, category merchant and buyer, seafood, at Bronx, N.Y.-based e-grocer FreshDirect, part of Ahold Delhaize USA. “There’s softness compared to 2021, which was softer than 2020, which is indicative of customers’ behaviors resuming to more of a balance between dining out and cooking in the home, which is a sign of a much healthier, more normalized food economy. The pandemic has given us a chance to prove to customers that our quality and assortment is unmatched and the best value for a seasonal seafood meal is to prepare it at home.”

To retain shoppers who took up cooking seafood at home during the pandemic, Bullock suggests: “Keep giving customers inspiration to cook at home with great recipe content that is also extremely accessible, so they’re successful. Every week, there’s something new on the [FreshDirect] site for customers to try, and there’s always accompanying seafood on sale for them to buy. If you can build confidence among consumers, all while giving them the best deal on the freshest and widest assortment of quality seafood, customers will keep coming back. We also try to communicate to the customer very clearly on our sourcing partners so they can feel confident that they know where their fish is coming from. We want them to feel connected to the fisheries we source from and understand that those are the people they’re buying seafood from; we’re just the middlemen who cut and prep their order to their specifications.” 

selling seafood
Bumble Bee is launching a line of Quick Catch Tuna Bowls offering convenient mini-meals that can be eaten hot or cold.

According to Bullock, the most popular seafood items at FreshDirect include its farm-raised Sixty South salmon, wild Icelandic cod loins and wild domestic gulf shrimp, as well as farm-raised branzino from Greece.

For those who remain reluctant to prepare their own seafood dishes, FreshDirect offers assistance. “For years, we’ve worked to bring consumers into the category that may be wary or intimidated by the idea of cooking seafood at home,” says Bullock. “Our homepage has always included simple recipes to inspire customers who come onto the site to say, ‘I can make that.’ We’ve found it much more effective than just putting a fish on sale and hoping someone will buy it.” Additionally, the e-grocer’s ready-to-cook pre-marinaded seafood main courses and meal kits “come with cooking instructions, and so those are a great place for [cooking-averse] customers to start,” she points out.

[Read more: "Sustainable Seafood Catching on With More Shoppers"]

At Lakewood, Colo.-based Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, which boasts “a well-curated seafood category with very high standards to match the increased demand” related to alternative lifestyles such as pescatarianism and even “seaganism” — a regime in which people follow a vegan diet but include sustainably sourced seafood for healthy extra protein — PR Manager Katie Macarelli notes that the focus is on “making cooking with sustainably sourced seafood fun, easy and affordable! Each month, Natural Grocers publishes a Health Hotline. This is a fun, engaging resource for our customers — available in print or online — that includes seasonal recipes, consumer education, and in-store promotions and discounts.” 

Macarelli also cites the grocer’s “amazing” social media team members, who “really bring our monthly promotions to life,” as well as “old-school” recipe cards offered at Natural Grocers stores across the country. “You can walk in, browse our recipe display for inspiration, pick up the recipe card and shop for all the ingredients right there,” she says, adding that shoppers “can feel good about where [their] food came from.”

The retailer additionally provides free nutritional health coaching and in-store recipe demonstrations at its stores, as well as many more recipes on its website that incorporate seafood — “63, to be exact,” according to Macarelli.

Natural Grocers also touts its status as “the only specialty retailer with our size of footprint dedicated to delivering 100% humanely raised and sustainably sourced fish and seafood,” as Macarelli notes. “When we choose products and practices as an industry that support renewal, we create a future that is sustainable. By providing these products with transparent labeling and consumer education, we empower our consumers to vote with their wallets, which continues to support regeneration.”

selling seafood
Plant-based seafood options like the OmniSeafood Crab Cake are increasingly available at U.S. grocery stores across the country.

Frozen, Shelf-Stable and Plant-Based Innovation

Seafood suppliers have also been working to maintain seafood sales. For instance, Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon, the wild-caught brand of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, in Anchorage, Alaska, has come up with three inventive cooking-salmon-at-home campaigns, according to Marketing Director Lilani Dunn: “Fast Wild Easy, which uses five or fewer ingredients that can be found in your kitchen already; HealthFULL recipes that pair already nutritionally rich salmon with accompanying sides; and our well-performing and popular Salmon Cooking Guide that speaks to the variety of ways to prep salmon and includes pro tips from various culinary experts from around the country.” Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon is available frozen and canned.

“The best way to retain these new home cooks is to inspire them with the variety of recipes that they can make with seafood,” advises Jeremy Zavoral, brand marketing director at San Diego-based Bumble Bee Seafoods, whose products encompass shelf-stable and frozen items. “Everyone knows that Bumble Bee Solid White Albacore tuna makes a great tuna sandwich, but have you tried using it as a flatbread topping, mixing it into a ceviche or including it in a Mediterranean hummus dip?”

As for non-cooks, “We know that 60% of tuna consumption occurs at lunch and that younger consumers are more likely to purchase ready-to-eat meals that are convenient and healthy,” he notes. “That is why we are creating new product options designed for on-the-go meals like our Bumble Bee Protein on the Run kits, the first gourmet tuna snack experience on the market. Each convenient kit comes in one of three delicious flavors — Zesty Lemon, Black Pepper or Mild Jalapeno — and features buttery, savory artisanal crackers and a rich, smooth caramel treat to finish.”

Adds Zavoral: “Later this fall, we will also be launching a new line of Bumble Bee Quick Catch Tuna Bowls featuring wild-caught, dolphin-safe, high-quality tuna for a convenient mini-meal that can be eaten hot or cold.”

Bumble Bee’s innovation also extends to its packaging. In keeping with the company’s commitment to sustainability, Zavoral notes that “earlier this year, we announced an industry-first shift from shrink wrap to paperboard cartons on our multipack can products. This is significant because it will eliminate an estimated 23 million pieces of plastic waste annually, and it also moves our company to 98% readily recyclable packaging within our total product line. The paperboard is made from 100% recycled material, with a minimum of 35% post-consumer content, and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. That means that the multipack can product packaging is fully recyclable in home recycling systems, both the box exterior and the cans inside. Consumer testing also revealed appreciation for the modern and unique package design, easier-to-read label and option to easily stack the box on a home pantry shelf.”

Plant-based seafood is also an increasingly popular option, including the OmniSeafood Golden Fillet, OmniSeafood Classic Fillet and OmniSeafood Crab Cake from OmniFoods, which are due in U.S. grocery stores nationwide through the second half of this year. 

“For retailers, this is a whole new product range that offers diversity, variety and great quality,” says David Yeung, co-founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based Green Monday Holdings and OmniFoods. “It also means an added dimension of environmental consciousness. For consumers, this is a good chance to become much more aware of the mercury and micro-plastic pollution that have a clear negative effect on our health. It also is a chance to know about the crisis in ocean conservation and sustainability due to overfishing and unsustainable seafood consumption.”

Yeung also cites inflation as a factor in consumer adoption of such products: “Given the backdrop of seafood and meat prices skyrocketing, [plant-based seafood] is no doubt becoming an even more attractive option.”

Selling Seafood
Farmed-seafood certification programs such as Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) are encouraging consumers to seek out certified products at retail.

The Rise of Aquaculture 

While wild-caught seafood remains prominent, seafood produced through aquaculture is steadily increasing its profile.

“Farmed seafood awareness and consumption has grown significantly in the U.S. in recent years, reaching the point that now more than half of all seafood purchased in the U.S. is farm-raised,” asserts Kathleen McDavitt, U.S. market development manager at the Utrecht, Netherlands-based Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), which offers a highly regarded farmed-seafood certification program. “Retailers see this consumer acceptance of farmed seafood and are working to meet that demand, but selling farm-raised seafood also is a fact of life as pressure continues to dangerously impact wild stocks. There simply isn’t enough global capacity for wild-caught seafood to meet consumer demand, and retail companies are seeking solutions that must include social and environmental responsibility.”

McDavitt suggests: “On a tactical level, grocers could take advantage of this growing demand [for aquaculture] through sampling, digital marketing campaigns, marketing events, etc. On a strategic level: Put a label on it! The ASC logo is far more than just a marketing label. It is used by ASC as an assurance tool that demonstrates chain-of-custody protocols have been followed throughout the supply chain. Relying on ASC’s certification program and putting the ASC logo on products makes it easy for retailers to assure consumers they are enjoying healthy and responsibly farmed seafood. Simple point-of-sale signage can give a big boost as well.” 

She adds: “ASC just this year has embarked on a multiyear campaign to educate consumers on the benefits of certified farmed seafood and the meaning of our sea green label to help better inform consumers on their next visit to the seafood case. This campaign includes national social media outreach, influencer campaigns, media relations and local sampling events in select markets this fall at food festivals, restaurants and grocers. In its first year, we kicked off the campaign with ‘The New Way to Seafood’ tagline and will continue to evolve and expand our message in 2023 and beyond.”

The Global Seafood Alliance (GSA) also offers farmed-seafood certification, under the trusted Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) program. “There are two primary ways for retailers to inform customers about BAP,” says Steven Hedlund, manager of communications and events at Portsmouth, N.H.-based GSA. “With the growth of online retail sales, it is really important for retailers to explain their use of BAP for sourcing on their website and to communicate it also on their online shopping platforms and apps. Another great way is to use the BAP label on store-brand products, request its use on branded seafood and highlight the BAP products with signage in the fresh case. Seeing the label at the point of sale is very reassuring for customers. There also is no logo licensing fee associated with using the BAP logo.”

As to how likely shoppers are to pay attention to this tactic, according to Hedlund, “64% of consumers would choose products with the BAP label over other proteins, and about half of consumers have favorable views of retailers who display the BAP label.”

Further, GSA plans to conduct its first consumer communications campaign for National Seafood Month in October. “Retailers can join with us to help promote their stores and BAP-certified farmed seafood at the same time,” notes Hedlund, adding that GSA's new consumer-facing website offers more information about the label. 

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