Asda fish counter homepage

Historically, one of the biggest problems for retailers has been getting those who experiment with a wide variety of fish when eating out to maintain that enthusiasm when filling their shopping baskets.

It’s well documented that this reluctance to cook fish at home is created by many factors, not least because many consumers are daunted by the idea of handling and preparing it. There’s also a sizeable band of consumers who stick only to the market favorite species because they lack the confidence to buy and cook the alternatives.

In the United Kingdom, the latest project geared to tackling these problems is Asda’s “Fish Made Simple” initiative, the launch of which has been accompanied by a large TV advertising campaign, using the face of Darren Wrend, one of the retailer’s fishmongers.

Following the overhaul of all its 302 fresh fish counters this month at a total cost of GBP 1.6 million (EUR 1.9 million, USD 2.6 million), Wrend and his fellow Asda fishmongers firstly help shoppers choose their fish from over 20 varieties. Customers then select their preferred marinades, sauces, flavored butters or crumb toppings. Finally, they choose a cooking method so it’s handed over in either a microwave bag, oven bag or BBQ foil tray ready-to-cook.

The Wal-Mart subsidiary claims the three-step initiative gives its customers more than 100 different fish and sauce combinations. But what will probably prove more crucial is that each dish in the range costs less than GBP 2.40 (EUR 2.88, USD 3.83).

Jill Skipsey, fish counters buyer at Asda, told SeafoodSource the inspiration for Fish Made Simple came from customer research projects that found in general the British public loved eating fish on holiday or in restaurants and wanted to eat more. They know it’s good for them, but they’re often too scared to prepare it at home, she said.

“It was obvious to us [that] customers needed help with flavors to go with fish and to have simple ways to cook that were not time consuming. We took inspiration from other countries’ fish shops, Iceland in particular, and other proteins (McGee’s Butchers in Northern Ireland) on how to sell ready-made solutions like fish kebabs and fish with sauce,” said Skipsey. “We decided, following perception data feedback, it was not right to put a lot of flavored fish on the counter [and] it would be better to offer the sauce, marinades, crumbs and butters as a free addition so we would still have fantastic quality fish on the counter that the customers could see. We then spent a lot of time developing the best flavors for fish from recipe books, restaurant menus and visits abroad.”

Asda has said it’s too early to gauge the impact on sales of Fish Made Simple but did remark that the reaction from its customers “had been very positive” thus far. Behind the scenes, it will no doubt have high hopes as trials conducted in four stores leading up to the launch showed a 15 percent increase in fish sales. 

In a further boost to its fish category, the retailer started offering gurnard across its fish counters this month. It will also be making coley available in a pre-packed format and is looking to expand sourcing of hake, pollock and coley for counters throughout this year.

“Due to our improvements in quality and [offerings] we have seen sales grow ahead of the market since May 2011 (Neilson data),” said Skipsey. “The fish counter sales have been particularly strong due to training development of our [staff] so volume growth has been greater than value growth on our counters.”

Skipsey also said that Asda hasn’t seen any negative impact from its decision to come away from the Marine Stewardship Council chain-of-custody certification. This move, taken in 2011, was due to internal audit demands and associated costs.

“Some customers are more aware on sustainability, and we did see growth in the smaller sales species following the [Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall] Fish Fight program. However, for most customers quality (look and taste) of fish is more important; they buy with their eyes. We saw significant growth when we moved to line-caught cod and haddock, but we feel this was more due to the look of the fish — less bruising, blood spots, etc.,” said Skipsey.

“MSC is not really a customer message, so we have had no customer queries on the counter since we removed the logo. We are still purchasing all the MSC fish we had before from the same MSC fisheries, but we do not use the logo as we did not have the resource to audit every fish counter every year, which was needed to keep the chain of custody,” she said.

While in the past, UK retail initiatives such as Sainsbury’s “Switch the Fish” and Marks and Spencer’s “Forever Fish” campaigns — both launched less than a year ago — proved to boost sales over a period of time, Asda’s undertaking has the potential to have a much more long-term affect on its seafood sales.

Reasons for this projection are two-fold. Not only does Fish Made Simple directly address the core issue of giving consumers greater confidence in purchasing fish, but because the retailer’s target market is more price-conscious shoppers than, say, Marks & Spencer or Sainsbury’s, it’s making its fish offerings long-term, affordable options. After all, price and getting value for money has always been UK consumers’ No. 1 reason to purchase fish.

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