New opportunities identified for seafood sales growth in Britain’s challenging retail market

Published on
February 15, 2019

As a retail product, fish has historically faced many challenges, but it is now ideally positioned to capitalize on some important emerging food trends and a changing retail landscape, delegates heard at the recent annual U.K.-Norwegian Seafood Summit in London.

Because of the high-price perception of seafood, as well as the inherent barriers relating to a lack of product and cooking know-how, the volume of fish sales in the U.K. grocery market has been on a declining trend going back at least as far as the credit crunch. At the same time, the major supermarket chains have steadily increased their retail footprint, and in doing so, they have impacted the British high street and squeezed out many fishmonger shops, particularly from poorer areas. This in turn has reduced local access to these important products for countless consumers, professor Hillary Shaw of De Montford University, Leicester, told the audience at the summit.

With the population’s health issues alone costing the U.K. government around GBP 25 billion (USD 32.6 billion, EUR 28.5 billion) annually, it’s essential that value-chains establish new purchasing opportunities that connect all demographics with the seafood category, Shaw stressed.

With the British public increasingly scrutinizing the food that its eating and the impacts that these products have on both personal well-being and the health of the planet, such efforts would be well-timed.

Dan Aherne, CEO of importer, processor, and wholesaler New England Seafood, highlighted in his talk the fact that food is increasingly becoming a currency of self-expression. 

“People are now defining their [characters] by how they look after themselves; how active and fit they are, and the food that they are putting inside their body is becoming more and more important. There is a level of aspiration in eating well. Obviously, there are people that are struggling to meet their weekly grocery bill and that is a society challenge. But for seafood, there are still so many consumption occasions and a lot for our industry to go at,” Aherne said. “I think we are actually in an incredibly lucky category. We are in one of the few food types where government is saying ‘eat more.’ They are saying we need to be eating fish twice a week, whereas the average person is only buying it in retail every 21 days. The opportunity for growth is massive, and I think the key thing for fish is to differentiate itself.” 

For example, Ahern reckons that seafood should be a big beneficiary of the flexitarian food trend. To which end, he stressed the importance of not letting it get grouped in with red meat and poultry products. 

“Instead, it should be one of the choices consumers go to. The overlap is already there with many seeing that fish is the healthier, lighter option,” Aherne said. “But it has got to be seen as both healthy and delicious. We all know what we should do less of and what we should be doing more of, but there’s a massive difference between knowing and doing. I think we need to build an emotional connection and position that deliciousness and tasty element as much as we focus on health. Because health alone isn’t enough to get people to change their habits.”

Another obstacle that needs to be overcome is the widely-held perception that appetites cannot be satisfied by eating a piece of fish, he said. 

“It’s not until they experiment with a number of different species that they realize they can have a very satisfying meal based around seafood,” Aherne said.

Meanwhile, the retail infrastructure is also shifting in seafood’s favor. Most of the large U.K. retailers own vast property estates, and a lot of these are not well-suited to today’s much more demanding consumer. As such, and to secure market share and improve returns, the race is underway to re-engineer stores and make better use of the spaces available. 

Aherne believes that the retailers that will ultimately come out on top in this respect are the ones that prove to be the most agile. 

They understand retail, they understand consumer patterns, but they have these legacy estates, so it’s about how do they make best use of them, he said. 

“If you think about the challenges with fish – the lack of understanding and the lack of consumer awareness – [the retailers] therefore need to do the education. With concepts like sushi kiosks popping up in retailers, consumers are getting a far higher education in terms of the deliciousness of raw fish and they are getting accessibility. And it’s also meeting that retailer challenge of what to do with the space that they have,” Aherne said. “I think the opportunity for fish is to find new and fresh ways to engage and give it to the consumers. We perhaps don’t have the same established buying patterns as some other food categories, but we still have so much untapped potential. We can perhaps accelerate ahead and attract people to our products in the new world."

Mike Watkins, head of retailer and business insight at Nielsen UK, highlighted two macro trends that are also “very relevant” to the seafood category: Firstly, over the next 10 years, there will begin to be a global decline in the hypermarket concept, which will see bigger stores start to give more space to chilled, fresh and frozen food and less space to ambient packets, bottles and cans. Secondly, within that greater space, ranges will be extended with different types of foods made available.

“This will bring new ways for consumers to eat seafood,” Watkins said.

Watkins added that seafood also fits in with the huge consumer demand for provenance. 

“Local, British-origin and sustainable – those are the big trends in food. Within provenance comes quality – the two are very closely linked,” he said.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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