Can we talk?


Lisa Duchene, SeafoodSource contributing editor

Published on
November 8, 2009

The seafood counter at my local Wegmans in central Pennsylvania was buzzing with people last Sunday. My shopping list called for frozen shrimp and it took less than a minute to find a four-pound bag of 31-35 Easy Peels from Belize. The words “earth-friendly” and “Belize” on the bag tipped me off. Into the cart it went.

I cruised the seafood counter, looking for more examples of how Wegmans talks to its customers about sustainability. I was impressed.

On its counter, Wegmans has a product chart listing species in the case along with the name of an organization providing verification of sustainability — Marine Stewardship Council for a lot of the wild fish and Environmental Defense for the Belize-farmed shrimp. Asterisks on some species indicate Wegmans is working with their suppliers to better understand and document their sustainability efforts.

When I encountered “country conservation and quota systems” I got a little confused, and figured most consumers would, too. I asked the nearest clerk: So exactly what does that mean? After a bit of back-and-forth, the clerk confirmed my guess: it basically means there’s a government entity in place regulating the fishery that satisfies Wegmans. (There are species in which that’s not enough for the retailer.)

But what if there were nobody to ask? Then what? When it comes to talking about sustainability with consumers, you have to wonder whether specialty retailers and service counters have the edge?

Yes, according to Jon Hauptman, president at Willard Bishop, a grocery retail consulting firm in Barrington, Ill. “Seafood sustainability requires a personal touch and personal interaction supplemented by point-of-purchase materials and signs,” he said.

Reid Pomerantz, director of meat and seafood at Andronico’s, an eight-store specialty retailer in San Francisco, said despite signage with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s red, yellow and green ratings, getting the message about the retailer’s sustainable seafood effort all comes down to counter staff.

“You can hang up whatever you want to,” said Pomerantz. “When it comes down to it, it’s how the people in the department interact with the customers and educate them.”

Andronico’s does two things that I think represent very smart seafood-sustainability marketing: The sales staff responds by sharing the consumer’s concern and explaining that’s why the store has worked with the environmental group FishWise and Monterey Bay Aquarium to make sure it’s purchasing responsibly. The sales staff also highlights a fish that represents responsible purchasing ? and flavor.

Chain supermarkets are at a disadvantage here, said Hauptman. But they should still talk to customers about their sustainable-seafood efforts. “In this increasingly competitive environment,” he said, “any retailer who’s doing something supportive for shoppers needs to find a way to communicate the features and benefits.”

If you don’t have service counters, he advised, make sure the store employees who work nearest to the seafood cases at least have talking points around environmentally responsible seafood. A blank stare will not do the job here.

“The shoppers will give you the benefit of the doubt if they think the interest is genuine,” noted Hauptman.

So true. I’m not a scientist, and I haven’t been to inspect the shrimp farms in Belize. Ultimately, as a seafood shopper, I look to see what my grocer’s doing, and I’ve been pleased to see the steps Wegmans has taken. It can now provide third-party verification of sustainability for about two-thirds of the products in the case ? including the shrimp in my freezer.

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