One year into pandemic, seafood has become a “habit-driver”

The unprecedented disruption of seafood sales caused by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago is catching up to year-on-year sales figures.

While fresh seafood sales soared in March thanks to the early Easter holiday, frozen and shelf-stable sales dropped, compared to the huge pandemic stock-up buying spike of 2020, according to data provided to SeafoodSource.

Fresh seafood sales climbed 13.3 percent to USD 548 million (EUR 459 million), compared to March 2020, according to IRI and 210 Analytics data sponsored by Elanco. Frozen sales dropped 12.6 percent to USD 591 million (EUR 495 million) and shelf-stable seafood sales plummeted 52.7 percent to USD 204 million (EUR 171 million).

The significant pandemic sales spikes in March 2020 resulted in unfavorable year-on-year comparisons in the March 2021 figures. Still, "much greater declines” were realized in frozen meat and poultry, Roerink said, and compared to March 2019, sales of frozen, fresh, and ambient seafood all track ahead, 210 Analytics Principal Anne-Marie Roerink told SeafoodSource. Frozen seafood sales increased 29 percent, compared to March 2019, while fresh seafood sales rose 26 percent and sales of ambient/shelf-stable items rose 2 percent.

Frozen seafood was a sales growth leader in the frozen department throughout all of 2020, as well as in January and February of this year, “having benefitted from increased household penetration, increased trips, and an increased spend per trip,” Roerink said.

Frozen fish was seafood’s largest category in March, sporting USD 340 million (EUR 285 million) in sales. March sales of seafood’s second-largest segment – frozen raw shrimp – jumped 56.2 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels and also rose 5.3 percent compared to March 2020. In the fresh department, salmon was the biggest seller in March, boasting sales of USD 184 million (EUR 154 million).

Because many meal occasions are still being prepared at home and due the Easter holiday on 4 April, all fresh premium seafood – and particularly crab and lobster – performed extremely well last month, according to Roerink. Shellfish sales have consistently outgrown finfish, with the highest gains in the second quarter of 2020, while finfish sales have been slowly declining, according to Roerink.

“All top 10 fresh seafood types ranked by sales grew in March 2021 versus the pre-pandemic 2019 normal, with the exception of tilapia,” Roerink said. “Many also grew year-over-year, with a few more exceptions in salmon, catfish, and tilapia that could not quite match the sales spikes seen in 2020.”

In other good news for fresh seafood suppliers, retailers continue to invest in a broader fresh seafood assortment. The average number of items per week per store increased from 42.2 in March 2020 to 43.2 in March 2021.

“In contrast, average item count in the meat department continues to be down relative to pre-pandemic,” Roerink said.

Roerink said statistic trends make her unsure retail seafood sales will continue their significant growth over the next few months. Several indicators of consumer mobility – reflecting how much people are moving around to go to school, work, out to dinner, vacation or visit family and friends – are trending higher, which could reflect a shift from retail to foodservice spending, according to Roerink.

In March, airplane trips, OpenTable reservations, Apple driving and walking statistics, gasoline sales, and the reopening of schools indicated a higher level of consumer mobility, which is likely to result in a shift from home-centric food spending to greater foodservice engagement.

“It may also drive increased demand for time-saving, convenience-focused seafood solutions, including ambient, fresh and frozen items,” Roerink said.

However, 40 percent of consumers said they expect to dine out as often or more often as they did before the pandemic – up from a low of 19 percent in July 2020.

In a boon for retail seafood sales, remote work continues at highly elevated levels compared to before the pandemic. As of March 2021, 44 percent of those who work at home some or all days a week said they believe they will continue to do so after getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

“This means a continuation of more at-home breakfasts and lunches and less dinner-time commuting,” Roerink said.

In addition, 45 percent of younger school-aged children and 52 percent of teenagers are participating in virtual education only.

Meanwhile, in a separate Numerator Grocery Vulnerability Index, the data and tech company found that meat is “highly vulnerable” as more consumers shift to eating at restaurants. Meat is 50 percent more likely than the average grocery category to see a decline in sales as restaurants and quick-service restaurants reopen, according to Numerator Analyst Amanda Schoenbauer.

While Numerator did not track seafood in its index, frozen foods garnered a "wait-and-see" approach with an index score of 102.

“There is not a strong or weak enough correlation to say that it is more/less vulnerable than other grocery categories,” Schoenbauer told SeafoodSource. “It could tip either positive or negative in the weeks ahead as consumers increase their out-of-home dining.”

In a separate 2020 survey, Numerator found that seafood was more “habit-driving” in 2020 than in years past. New fresh seafood buyers said they were 78 percent more likely to have formed a habit in 2020, and new frozen seafood buyers were 14 percent more likely to have formed a habit.

The survey also found American consumers were most concerned about both health and finances, with 44 percent of consumers in the United States falling into the “most-anxious” category, compared to 34 percent of consumers internationally. Among the most-anxious consumers, 73 percent said they are interested in buying food from restaurants for home delivery and 70 percent said they are interested in ordering groceries online.

The pandemic also is fueling concerns around sustainability. Eighty percent of consumers internationally and 71 percent in the United States said they are more concerned about the environment, with 28 percent of American consumers saying those concerns are impacting their purchasing decisions.

Photo courtesy of LADO/Shutterstock


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