"Quality, range, and service" – an online pioneer shares the formula for fish selling success

Published on
December 19, 2019

Well before online retail became the juggernaut it is today, The Fish Society was pioneering the idea of selling seafood, via delivery, on a website. 

The Fish Society started life in 1993 as a mail order business with a small advert in BBC Good Food Magazine. At that time, The Fish Society founder Alistair Blair was working as a journalist, writing for the Investors Chronicle and the Financial Times, running The Fish Society as a hobby business on the side. But the founder said that he always had the intention to do “something bigger” with it, recognizing an opportunity to capitalize on the “disappointing” range of fish available in supermarkets.

“Where was the Dover sole? The lobster? The turbot?” Blair said of his beginnings.

Increasingly, Blair’s story writing was focusing on the internet, and so it was perhaps a natural progression to take The Fish Society online. The first platform was launched in June 2000, costing a very modest GBP 300 (USD 395, EUR 356).

“I’m pretty sure that was the first fish retail website,” he said.

Business grew slowly but steadily until 2012, when it was doing well enough and had accumulated a large enough customer base for Blair to make it his full-time job.

Today, the team comprises 10 personnel, while the latest edition of the website is selling products to Europe, the United States, and Australia as well as the domestic U.K. market.

Ensuring that there’s always “clear blue water” between its own offerings and the seafood products sold by the main U.K. supermarket chains is a principle that has clearly worked well for the business.

“We do sell parallel products [like] cod and haddock fillets, but we believe ours are simply better – bigger fish, better (primarily thicker) cuts, a wider choice – whole fillet, fillet steak, on the bone steak, skinned, skin-on, etcetera, and always in a wide range of sizes,” The Fish Society’s Founder Alistair Blair told SeafoodSource. “Supermarkets are also very price-conscious. To be so, they generally take some shortcuts. Our primary objective is always quality. And our wide range of prime fish is simply not available in 99 percent of supermarkets.” 

Blair said he believes it’s quite feasible the business could reach the sales milestone of GBP 10 million (USD 13.2 million, EUR 11.9 million) within the next five years. In the meantime, the run up to this year’s Christmas holiday season has brought sales that are up 40 percent against last year, with orders flooding in for the traditional finfish and shellfish favorites, as well as carp and “a mountain” of smoked salmon.

“Sales per day in December are four times the average for the rest of year. But we have been planning for this since August, including training up a new fishroom person,” he said. “You have to be pretty slick to handle this spike.”

Throughout the course of the year, prawns and other crustaceans, along with prime fish, are The Fish Society’s biggest sellers. It has also become a major importer and exporter of cod liver.

“This is a hyper-niche product and, as it comes in small tins, it’s definitely our number-one item by units sold,” Blair said. “We also sell a lot of sashimi – this has been a fast growth category over the last five years.”

Despite the meteoric growth of online retail over the past two decades, internet fish sales remain “a very niche business” by comparison, Blair acknowledged. As such, the primary challenge is always to find customers, followed very closely by ensuring that the logistics systems are in place for the reliable delivery the highly perishable products. That results in close monitoring of how the product gets to the customers.

“We know the strengths and weaknesses of every courier company that has operated in the U.K. over the last 20 years. As we have used every single one of them,” he said. “When it comes to food and perishable products like fish, logistics really is the Achilles heel. You have to have your deliveries mastered and that means working with a quality delivery company, because you’re only as good as your courier. Every time he lets you down, you get tied up in bad will. If there’s a day-late delivery, it’s probably going to require eight phone calls and 90 minutes of to-ing and fro-ing to rectify.”

Reliability is also crucial when it comes to The Fish Society’s suppliers, with the insistence that quality is its top priority. Most of these companies are small, traditional operations.

“We have about 150 suppliers – many of them just for one kind of fish – the one in which they excel,” Blair said. “We are also approached by would-be suppliers every week, and we scrutinize their offerings for unusual or unique offerings.”

This year, it has focused on pole-and-line tuna, complementary to its longstanding standard of organic-only sourcing for farmed salmon.

Furthermore, while the company specializes in frozen seafood as it offers the ability to “more or less offer all fish at all times,” it also buys a lot of fresh products in order to do the processing itself.

“You can't buy a turbot fillet steak from any supplier. You have to do it yourself from whole, fresh fish,” Blair said.

This focus on end-product quality has helped overcome the propensity for prospective customers to believe that frozen products are inferior to fresh. Indeed, Blair said that this particular mindset has steadily subsided over the past 20 years – perhaps helped by his website’s “fresh versus frozen” consumer guide.

In early 2020, it will extend its reference pages further with a new section on fish nutrition. In compiling this, information from around 15 different sources has been knit together to give detailed data for about 150 different species.

“Every now and then someone gets in touch with us to ask what fish has got X, Y, or Z in it because they have a medical condition. For every person that asks that question, there’s likely to be another 50 people who want the answer. So we think it will be good to have the absolute bible of fish nutrition data on our site,” Blair said. “We want to make ours the go-to site not just for fish but for info about fish.”

To continue to service increasing consumer demand and expectations, an “all-new",  fifth-generation website is expected by early 2022.  

Photo courtesy of The Fish Society

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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