How ‘broken’ U.S. seafood merchandising can be fixed

Published on
April 29, 2015

Fish that looks dried out. Signage that doesn’t list how the seafood was caught or harvested. Fresh seafood departments with very little traffic. These are just some of the signals showing that — for the most part — supermarket seafood merchandising is “broken” in the United States, according to Phillip Walsh, VP of business development at Miami, Fla.-based Alfa Gamma Seafood Group.

While Walsh, former director of seafood sales and procurement for Stop & Shop and a seafood executive for Harris Teeter and Kings Supermarkets, believes the system is broken, he offers several solutions for fixing it.

In the United States, fresh seafood counter sales make up only around 1.8 percent of total seafood sales. For every 100 customers, only six stop at the seafood department. What’s more, discounting drives up to 60 percent of weekly sales, which is simply not working, he insists. Money and time are not being put into the basics such as using quality refrigeration systems, buying wild seafood that has been caught to freeze and selling it chilled, and properly displaying fish.

Offering high quality fresh fish that does not look dried out is one essential step to turning around fresh seafood sales.

“We are doing things that don’t make sense. The go-to people for seafood cases have cold air underneath that blows up and over the fish. It is very dry air so, 12 hours later, you are going to be missing five pounds of the fish,” Walsh said. Additionally, some refrigerated seafood cases use misters in an attempt to rehydrate the fish. The freshwater does not mix well with the saltwater fish, so the hydration doesn’t last, he said.

Displaying too much fresh seafood is another common problem in U.S. supermarkets.

“They want full-service seafood counters in stores that don’t support it; the inventory turns aren’t there,” Walsh said. Generally, stores that produce under USD 15,000 (EUR 13,500) a week in seafood sales need to be self-service. “To ask people running the counter to order right and keep it straight with 40 different varieties is not going to work. If you carried only seven items per week, you would have a different item for every day of the week for your very heavy user.” If the store runs out of a certain item that is not on special that week, it needs to be OK with management, he added.

Walsh said Costco is an example of a retailer that has the right balance of variety and offering quality fresh items. The retailer limits its fresh seafood offerings to seven in most stores, and they are all case-ready.

The cure for what ails fresh seafoodInstead of discounting, which Walsh says does not produce profits for fresh seafood departments, he suggests providing consistent quality and utilizing better merchandising techniques. “Don’t ever give them a bad piece of fish. It should be frozen at sea, it should travel frozen and then be sold chilled,” Walsh said.

Americans are stuck on the fact that their fish must be fresh, said Walsh, which does not always mean the best quality. It’s also far more expensive to ship. “In Japan, 95 percent of the fresh fish has been frozen, because they are concerned about quality.”

Fish should be laid out in rows, displayed on an aluminum pan so it can conduct cold, and species should not be mixed up with each other. Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle does a great job displaying seafood this way, and it looks the same from store to store, Walsh said. “Everyone behind the counter is fully knowledgeable on fish and their displays are very tight.”

Another U.S. supermarket chain doing a great job with buying and merchandising fresh seafood is St. Louis, Mo.-based Schnucks. “The people behind the counter are knowledgeable. They buy from people they know they are going to get good fish from,” Walsh said.

Signage on each fish and shellfish should state where it was caught, how it was caught, the processing technique used and how best to prepare it. For example, during his presentation to retailers at Seafood Expo North America this year, Walsh gave this example of display signage that can help boost fresh seafood sales: “Hand cut from fresh, North Atlantic, hook-and-line caught codfish. These semi-firm, sweetly flavored boneless fillets are best baked, broiled or pan-fried. USD 9.99 per pound.”

Another way to spur seafood sales is by publishing an internal weekly newsletter that celebrates successes, shares innovations and provides a ranking for the store’s top 10 seafood sales. “When I did that, the departments were very competitive on sales. I also shared information on resources, such as, ‘There’s a big grouper run going on right now in a certain region.’”

A public-facing e-newsletter is also important. “You can talk about the fish you are featuring this week, where it’s caught and how it’s caught. Talk about what you are doing to enhance your sustainability and quality,” Walsh said.

The story behind seafood is so great — how it is caught, who is catching it, its flavor profile and other characteristics — compared to other proteins, according to Walsh. Retailers simply need to convey that story to their staff and their shoppers in order to make the seafood department a bigger contributor to the store’s success.

Contributing Editor

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