Getting a grip on seafood’s rising grab-and-go segment

Published on
December 28, 2021
Seafood grab-and-go items have been growing in popularity during the pandemic.

Before shelter-in-place orders swept much of North America in early 2020, Silicon Valley, California, U.S.A.-based strategy, insights, and product development firm Mattson was investigating an up-and-coming segment seemingly tailor-made for the mobile, modern consumer: grab-and-go.

The firm surveyed U.S. consumers online as 2019 came to a close and 2020 began, asking them about their habits as they related to the trend – defined by Mattson as “fresh food and ready-to-drink beverages” optimized for “guests to grab, settle, and go, with packaging that’s designed for transport and/or to enable consumption in-transit."

A majority of surveyed consumers, Mattson discovered, bought grab-and-go items two-plus times per week, and tended to purchase food and beverages together. Additionally, most respondents said they typically engaged with the grab-and-go format via convenience stores and at retail, although the opportunity for restaurant operators to embrace “grab-and-go as another off-premise key business pillar” was undoubtedly present. But the COVID-19 pandemic has since taken the budding potential of the grab-and-go segment and stratified it, Mattson noted.

“Now, clearly off-premise is becoming the new normal,” Mattson said

Mattson President and Chief Innovation Officer Barb Stuckey told SeafoodSource the pandemic fostered a new wave of food safety conscientiousness across channels.

“COVID ushered in a new normal for food safety awareness, and we anticipate that more single-serve packaging will proliferate across the food industry,” Stuckey said. “Grab-and-go is one of the best solutions. Most grocers have removed, or vastly reduced, self-serve, open food options, such as soup and salad bars. We are also seeing this happen in foodservice settings, where consumers want to get in and out of retail and non-commercial locations quickly, with minimal human interaction.”

Even delivery, Stuckey said, is getting a grip on new markets via the grab-and-go model.

“Grab-and-go is also an excellent option for delivery, as it saves operators from having to do ‘a la minute’ preparation in the short windows they have to fulfill orders. Grab-and-go communicates to consumers that a minimum number of hands have touched the food. In the current age of touchless delivery, this is comforting and appreciated by consumers,” Stuckey said.

According to Stuckey, the seafood industry boasts one of the grab-and-go segment’s pioneer products: portable sushi. Consumer approval for grab-and-go sushi options is seen by Stuckey as a positive omen for the rest of the sector.

“Consumers have proven their interest in, and comfort level with, raw seafood packaged to-go,” she said. “I think one success factor is that it’s sometimes merchandised in front of sushi chefs who are preparing it fresh. If this is the case, I would hypothesize that any grab-and-go cooked seafood options would be just as acceptable – if not more so – to consumers.”

The latest data from FMI – The Food Industry Association also points to a promising outlook for grab-and-go seafood following the pandemic. In its latest “Power of Seafood 2021” report, FMI found that “prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, dollar sales for retail foodservice overall (including beverages and other ancillary items) were up 3.4 percent and deli-prepared foods were up 3.1 percent, according to Nielsen IQ,” FMI Vice President of Fresh Foods Rick Stein told SeafoodSource.

“However, the pandemic fundamentally changed the growth trajectory of retail foodservice, much like it did for restaurants. As retailers had to close self-serve buffets starting mid-March 2020, dollar sales for deli-prepared foods quickly declined. Pre-packaged solutions were able to offset some of these declines, but sales decreased 17 percent during the pandemic period between March and the end of July [2020],” Stein said.

Over the past year, Stein observed food retailers becoming “increasingly creative and innovative about their foodservice and deli departments, findings ways to reinvent these departments to meet shopper’s needs for convenience.”

“I think post-COVID-19 pandemic, the foodservice department will rebound, but we might see it look very different, and the way shoppers interact with the department might change. This may include utilizing new technologies and utilizing tactics like delivery and pick-up more,” he said.

The convenience department

Convenience is at the core of the foodservice’s hybridization with retail, Stein said, where offerings such as sushi and value-added seafood are typically showcased for shoppers looking for a quick bite. COVID, of course, has shaken things up in this regard, too, according to Stein.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has changed this a bit and now we’re seeing the foodservice department go beyond convenience and also offer shoppers a culinary adventure. This is true for seafood foodservice at retail options – they are going beyond the traditional offerings and starting to offer more culinary options. For the shopper on the go, there are now poke bowl options and other grab-and-go seafood options. For the shopper seeking a meal solution that lets them take a night off of at-home cooking, we’re seeing pre-marinated seafoods and value-added seafood that take care of some of the preparation work,” Stein said.

When approaching and incorporating seafood grab-and-go items into their operations, Stuckey suggested buyers ease curious consumers into the category by featuring mainstream favorites such as shrimp, salmon, and tuna.

“This will allow consumers to keep one foot in the familiar. This is one key to success with innovative new products,” Stuckey said.

Microwaveable and ready-to-cook options have been seeing traction and are worth considering for retailers as well, Stuckey said.

“Products that are microwaveable – in other words, products that are meant to be consumed hot – might be more appealing to consumers since eating [non-sushi, non-shrimp] cold seafood is mostly done in restaurants, and may be a bit of a stretch in the grocery store environment. We also see potential in grab-and-go ‘ready-to-cook’ options,” she said.

A few years back, Mattson helped Marine Harvest (now Mowi) develop Rebel Fish, a ready-to cook product, Stuckey recalled. Being in many ways “before its time,” Stuckey said, “retailers struggled with where to merchandise it.”

“That was its main challenge. We’d hoped it would go with other convenient dinner protein options, such as packaged Chicken Apple Links. Instead, they put it with the smoked seafood options, which wasn’t a good place for a fresh fish product,” Stuckey said. As designated grab-and-go stations and areas pop up across retail and foodservice, ready-to-cook products such as these could find a better home.

Wellness was one of the biggest seafood consumption-drivers marked by FMI in its latest report, joined by easy cooking and sustainability. As such, Stein said he expects more grab-and-go seafood innovations to cater to these trends in the future.

“FMI’s Power of Seafood’ 2021 report finds seafood department sales in 2020 were up 28.4 percent,” Stein said. “Insights from the report find the biggest reason for increased seafood consumption is consumers are trying to eat healthier (59 percent). This is a consumer trend we expect to continue, and we expect retail foodservice departments will continue to innovate to match the demand for seafood options.

Convenience is king when it comes to grab-and-go food, Stein said.

“On health and well-being, 72 percent of frequent seafood consumers are putting more effort into making healthy and nutritious choices since the pandemic. At the same time, more consumers (36 percent) in general, and specifically more seafood consumers (53 percent), say they are cooking more meals with seafood during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lastly, four in 10 seafood consumers (41 percent), up from 29 percent in 2019, say sustainable seafood certifications have a major impact on their seafood purchases. Seafood buyers should weigh all of these trends when considering foodservice, deli, and grab-and-go options. However, convenience should remain central, as foodservice shoppers are primarily driven by a need for easy meal solutions,” he said.

Photo courtesy of g_dasha/Shutterstock

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