Shifting tide

Local, domestic and value-added items are transforming the seafood department.

By Richard Turcsik

Change is afloat at the seafood counter of A&P. The product mix is being tweaked to include more local product caught on day boats out of Long Island and Chesapeake Bay. It is part of an effort to improve the department’s quality, with the goal of netting more customers in the process.

“Unilaterally our customers are asking for more local product,” says Tom O’Boyle, executive vice president of marketing and merchandising at A&P. The Local Day Boat Program is being rolled out throughout the Montvale, N.J.-based chain’s entire portfolio of stores, including A&P, Waldbaum’s, Super Fresh, The Food Emporium and Pathmark.

While the vast majority of America’s seafood is still imported—83% according to the National Fisheries Institute’s latest estimates—consumer concerns about saving American jobs, the environment, carbon footprint and the quality and safety of imported product is causing the tide to begin to shift to domestically produced seafood. “The feedback that we get from focus groups and store teams who interact with customers on a daily basis; they are always more apt and more interested to ask about and buy those locally grown items,” O’Boyle says.

A&P created a co-op partnership with local day boat operators to ensure that their daily catch is on the store shelves within 24 to 48 hours of being caught. “What’s better than fresh seafood?” asks O’Boyle. “From our perspective this is going to be best-in-class and we’re really going to be able to meet our customers’ needs by giving them something that is important to them.”

A&P’s goal, O’Boyle says, is to have a “very high percentage” of department offerings sourced from the day boat program.

Department sales are also getting a boost from A&P’s Seafood Road Show program. That is where special deals on seafood items are merchandised from counters set up at the front of the store. “We’re trying to get funds, special offers and complementary products to make the shopping experience easier,” O’Boyle says. “This way when a customer walks in and is not exactly sure what they are going to have for dinner, all the ingredients are right there, along with somebody who is an expert that can really walk you through the cooking or usage needs.”

According to suppliers, having a knowledgeable staff is critical to success. “One of the challenges of fresh seafood in large retail markets is the expertise behind the counter,” says Bob O’Bryant, marketing director at Pacific Seafood Group, based in Clackamas, Ore. “Often that person behind the counter doesn’t have that much experience and a lot of times doesn’t even like seafood,” he says. “If you want to draw customers you want to have somebody passionate behind the counter. Somebody who likes seafood, has cooked seafood, tested the product that is in the store and has enthusiasm about the product.”

O’Bryant says retailers should encourage their employees to take home and sample the products being sold on their shelves. “I think any time you have somebody behind the seafood counter who is excited about what they have, they probably sell two to three times more of that product,” he says. O’Bryant adds that his company often sends store staff samples of its products to try so that they feel comfortable suggesting them to customers.

Retailers can build sales by having taste tests—not just with consumers but with employees from other departments, O’Bryant says. “Cook up some seafood for all of the departments and get them excited about it. I find that in some of the supermarkets that have done things like that you’ll get the guy in the produce department saying, ‘this vegetable goes really well with the salmon that is on sale,’” he says.

Pacific Seafood Group is also looking to broaden the appeal of seafood with a new line of frozen gluten-free shrimp. “Our Starfish division has created some really good gluten-free seafood items, which have really taken off, and shrimp is what everyone has been asking for,” says O’Bryant. “It is coated in Panko breadcrumbs made with a rice and corn mixture.”

Promoting the Gulf

Retailers can expect to see more in-store taste tests and promotions of Louisiana Gulf seafood now that the state has gotten $30 million in funding spread over three years from BP as part of a settlement of last year’s massive oil spill. “We’ve just finished selecting an agency that is going to help us launch a large scale national campaign that will focus on consumers, foodservice and trade,” says Rene LeBreton, assistant executive director of the New Orleans-based Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board.

LeBreton says the marketing effort is needed because “our largest challenge right now is that there is a perception nationally that our seafood is unsafe or tainted.” A study conducted by the association in April found that 69% of respondents were still having some level of concern about Gulf seafood. That percentage had dropped only 2% since the last previous poll was taken in December.

“Sales are still down and we still have buyers sourcing from other places just to fill orders because certain customers are still asking for non-Gulf seafood,” LeBreton says. “Our first mission is going to be to recover some of that lost market share. About 24% of the people who have stopped eating Gulf seafood said this may be a permanent change in behavior. That is our fear and represents the lost market share that we need to try and regain.”

Much of that will be accomplished at the store level. “There is definitely going to be a focus at grocery that is going to include some kind of educational component at the seafood counter, with the seafood buyers, just letting them know what they need to know to be confident about seafood, or how to respond to customers’ concerns. They will have materials available for customers who have concerns,” LeBreton says.

One added incentive may be price. Right now Gulf shrimp prices at the wholesale level are less than imports for the first time in years. LeBreton says much of that has to do with demand.

Further inland, the domestic catfish industry has been fighting its own battles. Imports from China, Vietnam and other countries have flooded into the market in recent years decimating the business. “Some of that product has been misrepresented as catfish,” says Randy Rhodes, president of Harvest Select Catfish, a Uniontown, Ala.-based vertically integrated supplier of catfish. “It is actually other species and it’s hurt our industry. The Chinese catfish is the same as our domestic species, but much cheaper due to their labor costs and other factors,” adding that quality and safety standards do not measure up to those set by the government for U.S. suppliers.

To drive home its point, Harvest Select has painted one of its trucks red, white and blue and drives it around the country touting the “buy American” theme. “Buying U.S. product is something that everyone has to start looking at to support the U.S. farmer, processor and their communities,” Rhodes says.

That’s exactly what Linda L. Bean, of catalog retailer L.L. Bean fame, is doing up in Maine. Her Port Clyde, Maine-based Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine Lobster is revitalizing a legendary industry that has also fallen on hard times as many retailers, particularly restaurants, switched to cheaper imports. “The Maine lobster has big fat claws that are very distinguishing,” says owner Bean. “Around the world, a lot of crustaceans are called lobsters, but they are a different species altogether and are really more of a crayfish, with very diminished claws and mainly tails. That is why tails have become the popular dish. The very tender, succulent claws have been put in the shade. We are trying to feature that claw.”

Bean’s frozen lobster claws are being merchandised in Walmart frozen and scored under the Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine Lobster, Lobster Cocktail Claws brand. They are also marketed to other retailers under the Lobster Cuddlers name. “Making lobster accessible and affordable is the future of the Maine lobster because we have an abundant supply,” Bean says. “We are getting closer to home compared to other places where they come from, like Canada, where because of the Gulf Stream, the water is actually warmer than it is in Maine.”

Canada’s waters are ideal for growing blue mussels, and off the coasts of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island mussels farms abound. “There are very few farmed mussels in the U.S.,” says Linda Duncan, executive director of the Mussel Industry Council of North America, based in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. “Most of the wild mussels come out of Maine. There are various methods to get those, but often they are dredged and you get an inconsistency in size when you do that.”

Mussels have been growing in popularity on restaurant menus in recent years, but many consumers are leery of preparing them at home because they do not know how to handle them. The Mussel Industry Council has just published guidelines for retailers and consumers on mussels handling and preparation. “A lot of people don’t realize that when you take mussels home you don’t have to cook them right away,” Duncan says. “You can put them in a bowl put a damp cloth or wet newspaper over them and store them in the refrigerator.”

Salmon sales in the pink

Alaska’s fresh salmon season is drawing to a close, but consumers can still enjoy the mild fish year-round thanks to frozen filets. “The popularity of frozen product is certainly on the rise,” says Larry Andrews, retail marketing director, in the Seattle office of the Juneau, Alaska-based Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. “We did some research and it was certainly reflected that this is going on on a national basis, so consumers are feeling far more comfortable with frozen seafood in general. Consumers are far more familiar now with frozen products that are of high quality and realize that the [commercial] freezing process is different from what they do at home themselves.”

With its new line of value-added entrees, officials at Montreal-based Marina Del Rey Foods say they are taking the frozen seafood category to a whole new level. Packaged in gusseted two-serving bags, the line is available in eight varieties: Teriyaki Salmon, Mediterranean Salmon, Orange & Mango Tilapia, Tomato & Herbs Tilapia, Curry Basa, Roasted Red Pepper Basa, Cajun Paella and Spanish Paella. They retail for about $6.99 each.

“We go from freezer to plate in eight minutes,” says Dee Breazeale, national sales manager at Marina Del Rey’s Boca Raton, Fla., location. “Our fish is healthy and easy to prepare. It is boil-in-bag so there is no mess and no clean-up.”

Breazeale says that is important because most consumers do not know how to prepare seafood. “Most seafood is sold in foodservice with people dining out, but we allow them to have the same experience at home,” she says. “It takes the guesswork out and it doesn’t stink up the house.”

As the holidays approach, smoked salmon takes off. Seattle-based Ocean Beauty Seafoods is stirring interest in the category by changing the packaging of its Echo Falls brand hot smoked salmon into skin-pack packaging on a pre-printed board. “With this packaging the film sits right on the product and it looks like there is nothing there,” says Tom Sunderland, vice president of marketing and communications. “You don’t see the wrinkles in the film and I can have a lot better graphics and marketing message. At the same time, we’re also going to a maple syrup cure to the hot smoked keta salmon.”

Retailers can expect Ocean Beauty to debut a frozen smoky flavored salmon burger by the end of the year. “It is a whole muscle burger,” says Sunderland, adding that it offers a richer taste than products made from ground and minced fish. “We need to recognize that consumers make decisions with their taste buds. One of the easy traps to fall into is to think that issues like nutrition and sustainability are important, but those are tiebreakers beyond taste, price and availability.”

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