Large U.S. grocer expands fresh variety, prepared meals

Published on
September 30, 2015

Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets, which operates more than 1,100 grocery stores in several states, is often modeled by other grocery chains. The largest employee-owned grocery chain in the United States is lauded for its focus on customer service, clean stores, employee benefits and other features.

In recent years, Publix has also stepped up its selection and merchandising of fresh, frozen and prepared seafood. Its new prototype stores feature additional ice tables, in addition to large full-service seafood departments, and include three or four doors of frozen seafood offerings, versus two or three doors on average in its traditional stores.

“Fresh and frozen consumer packaged goods have grown quite a bit. Overall, seafood has approximately 10 percent more space in new prototypes versus traditional locations,” said Maria Brous, spokesperson for Publix.

Publix has also been steadily increasing prepared seafood offerings – including sushi and marinated fillets – in recent years. “Prepared is the fastest growing area of the department,” Brous said. However, the chain launched its most exciting meal solution in all of its stores this summer: its “Fresh Seafood Cook-in-Bag Dinners.”

Here’s how the dinners work: flyers in each store’s fresh seafood department invite shoppers to first choose a fresh fish or shellfish item, and then select the ingredients and seasonings they would like to accompany their fish. Flavors include Caribbean mango sauce with orzo, spinach and bell peppers; Mediterranean sauce with pearl couscous, Kalamata olives and feta cheese; Dijon cream sauce with quinoa blend, spinach, sundried tomatoes, artichokes and bell peppers and sweet chili sauce with rice and Asian vegetable medley.

Seafood staff assembles the ingredients into a special cooking bag. Then, “All you do is pop it in the oven when you get home, following the time and temperature guide provided with each meal,” the flyer states.

“We anticipate this becoming a significant category for our seafood department,” Brous said of the meals that range in cost from USD 9 to USD 20 (EUR 8.04 to EUR 17.87) on average, depending on the type of seafood item shoppers choose.

Publix executives decided to add the Cook-in-Bag Dinners because “Customer trends are clearly pointing to convenience; as such, we strive to bring innovative solutions to our customers. We have seen similar technology in other areas of the store and brought it to seafood,” Brous said.

In addition to this prepared meal addition, Publix has been increasingly adding more variety in its fresh seafood departments. With its “Reel Variety” program, assortment has been “greatly enhanced,” according to Brous. “This program tells our customers that we can get them any fish they wish. As with most retailers, farmed continues to grow, but our Reel Variety program also focuses on underutilized wild species.”

Among the underutilized species or those not know by many shoppers that Publix has carried are corvina, cobia, branzino and wolfish.

To help shoppers understand how to use the lesser-known species – along with common seafood items – one seafood species is featured monthly in Publix’s Aprons recipe program. The recipes are provided complimentary to shoppers, and Publix staff cooks the recipe and samples it for shoppers.

Thanks to economic and health trends, Publix executives expect seafood sales to become a larger portion of the chain’s overall sales in the future. “As the markets in seafood have settled and are working their way down, our price points are becoming more attractive. Combine that with the continued press regarding health benefits – and the other protein commodities near record highs – seafood is poised to grow market share,” Brous said.

The grocery chain, which only sources fresh – not previously-frozen or carbon monoxide-treated seafood – also continues to offer more sustainable options. “Sustainability is about continuous improvement. Our goal is simple – each year, we want to offer our customers more sustainable seafood options than the year before,” Brous said.

However, executives are concerned about the “greenwashing” of seafood, Brous said. “There are a lot of claims being made. In some cases, more are claiming to be certified than is actually produced,” Brous said. “We have a philosophy behind our sustainable sourcing: we believe that our goals and process will drive true and lasting change. The industry, environmental groups and retailers must work together, then and only then will sustainability truly come to life in the industry. Our program marries all three of the stakeholders in sustainability.”

Publix would also like to add more locally-sourced seafood items, but faces significant challenges, including volume and distribution channels. “If we are able to obtain sufficient volume from one port and have distribution channels in place, we will not need to establish a relationship with the port 50 miles north,” Brous said. “When customers who live in every coastal town in the Southeast want product from every coastal town in the Southeast, local becomes a challenge.”

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