Supermarkets looking to new species to spike sales

Published on
March 11, 2018

There's a quiet revolution taking place at seafood counters across the United States.

Sensing an opening in the marketplace, grocers in the United States are branching out to new – and often more sustainable – types of seafood to boost sales in their seafood departments.

From the 17-store Busch’s chain in Michigan, to the Pennsylvania-based Acme Markets, a 179-store chain owned by Albertsons Companies, to the ubiquitous giants Publix and Whole Foods Market, more forward-thinking grocers are selling lesser-known seafood species and more innovative value-added products. These and other trailblazing retailers are adding high-quality farmed fish and shellfish, and experimenting with different types of wild fish and underutilized species.

The trend is hardly widespread. Atlantic salmon and shrimp remain, by far, the top sellers in U.S. supermarket chains. However, the retailers pushing the envelope on new species aren’t operating solely on a hunch. Data provided by the research firm Technomic clearly signal that American consumers – and particularly younger consumers – want more choices when it comes to the seafood they buy. Technomic found that 62 percent of recent survey respondents aged 18 to 34 said they wanted restaurants to offer a wider variety of seafood, with 56 percent also saying they sought out more ethnic seafood dishes, and 55 percent saying they sought seafood entrées with new or unique flavors.

New consumer trends, especially among millennials, could help in upping the popularity of so-called “undiscovered species” and previously underappreciated farmed seafood. But creating new markets and growing existing ones for emerging and underutilized species takes additional work, according to several retailers. The key, they said, is finding better ways to connect and communicate with consumers. Companies that sell seafood need to get better at reducing the hesitance customers have spending money on something they’re not familiar with, they said. They can also help their cause by amping up the excitement of their e-marketing, putting out signs comparing the taste of an unfamiliar species of fish with a more familiar one (the “tastes like chicken” effect), touting the sustainability bona fides of alternative species, and by offering free samples. The retailers agree: getting customers to try new types of seafood is not easy, but with an adventurous younger generation of eaters coming into the marketplace, there’s sincere optimism that it can be done.

Breakthrough marketing efforts 

Bringing in new species, along with enhancing the marketing of its current items and better educating shoppers, helped Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Busch’s boost its sales in 2017.

After realizing slower-than-anticipated 2016 sales in the chain’s fresh seafood department, Busch’s merchandizing team and staff from distributor Fortune Fish began 2017 by expanding their offerings and price points, said John Taormina, director of meat and seafood for Busch’s. To complement the company’s initiative, Bensenville, Illinois-based Fortune Fish put together a training guide on seafood specs for Busch’s seafood associates, and as a result, the better-educated staff began to communicate more effectively with customers. In addition, Busch's added in-case signage now that better explained the characteristics of each species, including where it was caught or farmed and its sustainability points. Training sessions to keep the grocer’s staff well-informed about what they’re selling is now an ongoing effort, rather than a one-time affair, Taormina said.

“I update all my seafood merchandisers bi-monthly about new products and whether they are farm-raised, sustainable, and other characteristics,” he said.

Enhanced marketing efforts – and creating excitement around species that had not been emphasized heavily in the past or were being featured for the first time – also helped boost sales at Busch’s in 2017. For example, Busch’s notified customers via its website, social media, and one-to-one marketing, that jumbo soft-shell crabs would be in season around six weeks prior to their arrival in the stores.

“We tried selling soft-shell crabs in the past without a lot of success, but, this time, we sold about 200 dozen in the first week they came out. Around 90 percent of those were pre-ordered,” Taormina said.

In addition, Busch’s held special sales events that created shopper excitement, including an event promoting a variety of Hawaiian fish that the store was featuring for a limited time.

As a result of these multi-pronged efforts, Busch’s fresh seafood sales rose 23 percent on average across its stores, and margins have “dramatically improved,” Taormina said. “We plan to continue the efforts we put in place in 2018.”

Farmed species become wildly popular 

Supermarkets are carrying more branzino, barramundi, oysters, and other farmed species as their quality has improved and consumers have become more aware of their flavor and sustainability benefits.

“As global catch declines and global demand increases, farm-raised seafood will have to rise to meet the occasion,” said Nick Anastasi, production manager for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based distributor Samuels and Son Seafood. Plus, with a lack of availability in many species due to seasonal changes as well as extreme weather this year, he said, “there has been a big interest in farm-raised fish, as it is available 365 days a year.”

Greg Hulme, regional seafood director for Whole Foods Market Midwest, said the Austin, Texas-based chain’s Midwest stores recently integrated value-added barramundi offerings, including one with a pecan and mustard pretzel crust.

“Our customers love the fish’s firm texture, mild taste and variety of cooking options and flavor pairings,” Hulme said. “We hope the interest it is generating will encourage more people to give it a try. I can see this species becoming a favorite staple for seafood fans.”

Barramundi has grown increasingly popular amongst retailers across the country, according to Clayton Brown, director of retail sales for distributor Fortune Fish.

“Customers are really enjoying experiencing a new fish that they have never heard of or tasted before,” Brown said.

Some grocery chains are also adding a wider variety of oysters, as shoppers become more adventurous in their tastes and oyster farmers produce shellfish with unique flavor profiles.

“Historically, retailers would just list oysters on their signs as basic ‘Bluepoint’ or ‘Delaware,’ with no real call-out to where or how it came to be,” Brown said. “However, these days, it is artisan-raised oysters with names such as ‘Stingray,’ ‘Kusshi,’ ‘Olde Salt,’ ‘Rochambeau,’ and ‘Fanny Bay’ that the fishmongers are excited about selling and their customers are excited about trying.”

Busch’s stores have benefitted from adding a few different artisan-type oysters, along with a dozen raw oysters in a mesh bag, Taormina said.

“The mesh bags have been the number-one growth item in shellfish,” Taormina said.

Whole Foods’ Midwest stores also recently began carrying Kusshi oysters from British Columbia. “Fans love their small size and ultra-clean flavor,” Hulme said. “Midwesterners have a deep love of oysters, and we are excited to bring this new variety to our shoppers.”

Meanwhile, Princeton, New Jersey-based McCaffrey’s, which operates six stores, is carrying more farmed branzino, New Zealand king salmon, and pompano.

“Farmed pompano from Panama is getting more popular because wild pompano is not available year-round,” said Saidur Rehman, seafood manager at the chain’s Princeton store. Educating staff and shoppers about the unique flavor profile and sustainability of New Zealand king salmon has boosted its profile at the chain’s six stores, Rehman said.

Grocery chains supplied by Samuels and Son have had tremendous success with “artisan-farmed” salmon products such as Verlasso, Skuna Bay, Ora King, and Wild Isles, according to Anastasi. Farmed striped bass, cobia, redfish, tilapia, rainbow trout, and arctic char are also gaining ground, Anastasi added. And because wild scallops are in short supply during winter months, sales of Japanese farmed Hokkaido scallops have risen, he said.

Frozen value-added farmed products are also generating more attention. For example, sales of fish-focused Love the Wild’s meal kits, which Cleveland, Ohio-based Heinen’s Fine Foods began carrying soon after Seafood Expo North America last year, have caught on with the 22-store chain’s shoppers.

“LoveTheWild has been very supportive with demos and supporting the team. The fish comes already prepared and is sustainable,” said Marty Gaul, seafood director for Heinen’s.

Wild species still in high demand 

Retailers are also realizing success with bringing in new wild species – or ratcheting up their marketing of wild mainstays such as Alaska salmon.

Publix Super Markets runs a summer promotion of wild Alaska salmon featuring in-store demos and coupons. The campaign annually produces strong sales, according to Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix.

“Since we offer only fresh, never-frozen fish out of our service case, we must maximize the opportunity we have to bring wild salmon to our customers while available,” Brous said. “To achieve this, we run what we call the ‘summer of salmon’ promotion, which starts with sockeye in early July, runs through keta in August, and closes out with coho salmon.”

The promotion has been run for the past five years, and shoppers now know when the season is near, “and there is an anticipation associated with the first sockeye of the season to start the event,” Brous said.

Building off solid sales of pre-portioned farmed salmon, Malvern, Pennsylvania-based Acme Markets has just added Icelandic cod portions. So far, sales of the mild-tasting whitefish have risen every week, according to Charlie Bell, assistant sales manager for meat, seafood, and pre-pack at Acme.

“We have had enormous success with five-ounce and eight-ounce farmed salmon portions, so we looked at adding something new. Icelandic cod was being pushed and was getting a lot of exposure,” Bell said. “We instructed our seafood captains to talk about it; so, when customers are looking at salmon portions, we suggest cod portions as well."

Acme added the six-ounce Icelandic cod portions in December, and promoted them alongside the farmed salmon portions in its weekly circular, for between USD 3.99 and 4.99 (EUR 3.21 and 4.02) per portion.

Embracing “underloved” species 

While some retailers are branching out and carrying underutilized and invasive species, it is still a somewhat rare occurrence. Larger grocery chains in particular don’t typically have the flexibility in buying programs to purchase small lots of underutilized species that might only supply a handful of stores.

The Heinen’s chain is an exception. In 2018, with support from the Culinary Institute of America’s Menu of Change initiative, Heinen’s plans to buy underutilized species (which Gaul refers to as “underloved”), such as yellow perch from Lake Erie, Open Blue farmed cobia, and wild wolffish. Gaul said she’s not deterred by the irregularity or occasional small deliveries of such catches.

“We might get 50 pounds of one item, so it might be just a few stores that will promote it that particular week,” Gaul said. “If we are going to pull it out of the water, we want to use it as much as we can.”

While many retailers are hesitant to carry new species because of the uncertainty of sales success or lack of knowledge about the product, there are still true fishmongers who are more willing to take a chance on something new, Anastasi said. In many cases, those risks are paying off by piquing the interest of millennials and other consumers. Following his own advice, Anastasi recently led Samuels and Son to buy a “healthy supply” of underutilized icefish from the Antarctic.

“Underutilized species are always a welcome sight,” Anastasi said.

“It is a totally sustainable fishery and a beautiful product with a clean, white flesh,” Anastasi said. “Most of our customers had never heard of it, but we moved a decent amount because there’s always a retail customer who is sick and tired of eating the same five species – someone who is looking to branch out.”

It’s easier for retailers to market a new wild fish when it is an invasive species, according to Anastasi, since it is “an extremely responsible choice for the customer.”

Certain invasive species such as lionfish, snakehead, and blue catfish are still rare sights at a grocery retail counter, but are now being carried by more retailers, according to Anastasi. “Taking a species that is causing harm to the environment and turning it into a tasty dinner is the best way to neutralize that threat,” Anastasi said.

“The market is there”

With seafood consumption remaining stagnant in the United States over the past decade at around 15 pounds per capita, some retailers may hesitate at adding new species to their seafood counters. But Marcy Bemiller, the founder of Candor Consulting, which advises seafood companies on how to go to market in North America, said retailers who aren’t seeking to add new products to their seafood options are missing out on a big opportunity.

According to Bemiller, American consumers feel dual constraints when it comes to seafood – a frustration with their current limited options, and anxiety over buying seafood they haven’t tasted before and that they don’t know how to cook.

“How many times can you eat salmon or tilapia each week? If people had more choices that they knew they liked, they would definitely buy more fish,” she said.

Bemiller acknowledged that “educating the consumer” is an overused term in the seafood business, but insisted that it needs to be done – and done better. Most retail customers are only really familiar with three to four types of seafood – usually salmon, cod, tilapia, and whatever the regional specialty may be, she said. But they’re curious, and would like to know more about what else is out there.

“‘Education’ can be as simple as providing a fact sheet to every seafood counter, and can go as far as providing an incentive to seafood counter staff to sell more alternative products,” Bemiller said.

There’s enough variety in seafood that consumers at every economic level can afford to eat more of it, Bemiller said. And the increasing number of ways that consumers can buy seafood, from prepared meals to in-store restaurants to meal kits, has made seafood much more accessible and convenient than it has ever been before. But in order to take advantage of all opportunities, more than anything else, Bemiller urges retailers who want to sell new seafood products to “get them in the mouth of the end consumer.”

“If you want to sell other species of fish at the seafood counter, retailers need to demo the product and suppliers need to supply the samples. You have to look at the long-term profit, not the short-term cost,” she said. “Because once people see the fish cooked, taste it, and they like it, they’re not so afraid to buy it and take it home and cook it for their family.”

Contributing Editor



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