SENA Reconnect: New US seafood-buying trends here to stay
Given one word to explain the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic for seafood retailers, “chaos” is what Publix Seafood Category Manager Guy Pizzuti immediately names.
Speaking during a panel at Seafood Expo North America Reconnect, Pizzuti – who was joined by Hy-Vee Vice President of Meat/Seafood/Delicatessen Jason Pride, Meijer Seafood Buyer David Wier, and Food Marketing Institute Vice President of Fresh Foods Rick Stein – said the initial days of the pandemic came as a huge surprise for the entire industry.
“Coming out of the box, it wasn’t like we gradually built to it, that was the thing I think was the most shocking,” he said. “It came out of the box as a peak and it just sort of stayed there.”
Wier said at Meijer, the situation was much the same, with the entire food industry, not just the seafood sector, suddenly facing an unprecedented uptick in demand.
“Everything just accelerated so much more for us,” he said.
That chaos, however, came with lots of opportunity for the seafood industry. In 2020, the retail seafood category hit record sales, with three separate categories of seafood – fresh, frozen, and shelf-stable – all seeing more than 20 percent increases in spending, according to data shared by Stein.
Part of the seafood industry’s ability to quickly adapt to the new normal was its familiarity with the concept of working amid chaos, Pizzuti said.
“Seafood operates in chaos all the time. Supply issues are nothing new,” Pizzuti said. “Our supply chain is much more flexible, and as I said we’re used to handling supply chain issues and supply shortages. Where a lot of the others, that supply chain is so rigid, they had no opportunity to move or recover.”
Stein said his company has recorded an increase in the number of Americans buying seafood at least twice a week.
“The frequent seafood shoppers were at 25 percent, and they increased to 32 percent,” Stein said.
An initial uptick in seafood-buying during the early days of the pandemic never dropped off, Stein said.
“Seafood was in demand during the pandemic and that surge in shoppers is expected to continue,” he said.
Pride, of Hy-Vee, said his initial thought was that the demand was a temporary uptick, but that as time went on, it was clear the increase in retail sales wasn’t slowing down.
“To be very frank, I think it wasn’t until probably October that I felt it was going to continue to stay and ramp up,” he said.
Wier said it wasn’t long into the pandemic that Meijer began to buy larger amounts of frozen seafood in advance, anticipating demand later in the year – a move that proved fortuitous. He and the other panel members predicted the uptick in demand is here to stay. The pandemic, they said, presented an opportunity the seafood industry could never have manufactured on its own.
“An unfortunate event, a catastrophic event, but the seafood industry, especially retail, has been handed an opportunity that we’ve never had,” Pizzuti said. “There’s no way are numbers are where they’re at today without this.”
U.S. shoppers have long shied away from seafood out of fear that it was difficult to cook, he said. But thanks to the long-term efforts of the seafood industry to establish online resources, that barrier appears to have been broken.
“We tried and tried through all these industry efforts to teach people how to cook seafood, and nothing was taking any kind of significant improvement,” Pizzuti said. “All of a sudden, you have this pandemic and people turn to their phones and learn how to cook seafood.”
And, as Stein pointed out, “when a customer learns to cook seafood, they can’t un-learn it.”
Pride said Americans have always been big on proteins, and they just realized seafood meets their needs for protein that is flavorful and able to be prepared at home.
“Once they trust your seafood operation, and once they know you’re the place to get it, they’re going to trust you to pick a great fresh salmon fillet,” he said.
Consumers will continue to buy seafood in large numbers, even after foodservice operations carrying their favorite items are back in business, the panelists predicted. Because of that, Wier said communication between suppliers and buyers will be more important than ever.
“I think the communication part is really important, especially in light of the transportation issues we’re seeing right now,” he said. “When foodservice and restaurants come back online, that just puts even more strain on an already constrained supply chain.”