Survey on US seafood consumption contains surprises

While almost half of all Americans eat little to no seafood, many Americans love the stuff – and are willing to spend more time shopping for it and more money to buy it so they can eat it regularly.

The Food Marketing Institute’s first-ever Power of Seafood survey of more than 2,000 U.S. shoppers found numerous reasons as to why more Americans aren’t buying seafood, and discovered hurdles preventing even the most ardent fans of seafood from buying more.

FMI Vice President of Fresh Foods Rick Stein presented the initial results of the survey at the 2019 Global Seafood Market Conference in Coronado, California, U.S.A. on 17 January.  FMI surveyed 2,096 grocery shoppers representative of the general U.S. population in regard to geography, age, and gender. FMI also incorporated data from sources including IRI, Nielson, Technomics, and Datassentials into its results. The full results of the survey will be released at the 2019 Seafood Expo North America in Boston, Massachusetts, in March.

The FMI survey found only 56 percent of American consumers eat seafood twice a month – and that included canned and pouched products. And just one in five adults can be classified as a frequent seafood eater, meaning they eat seafood two times a week or more. 

“You have this huge portion of the population that is not heavily engaged in seafood,” Stein said.

But the average seafood eater spends more on food at the supermarket than the average non-seafood eater – USD 129 (EUR 114) versus USD 116 (EUR 102) per week. And frequent seafood eaters spend even more – approximately USD 143 (EUR 126) per week, according to the survey.

“Seafood consumers represent a small but lucrative demographic group,” Stein said.

Freshness and flavor have a major impact on seafood purchases, according to Stein, but a discount or just “being in the mood” can drive impulse purchases. On the negative side for seafood sales, shoppers admitted they are turned off of seafood by their lack of information about the product, he said. Seafood consumers do not feel very knowledgeable about seafood overall, though most want to become more knowledgeable, the survey found. Just 29 percent of customers feel very knowledgeable about how to buy seafood, and only 28 percent of those surveyed said they felt confident in how to cook, prepare, or flavor seafood. Similarly, 27 percent of grocery shoppers felt knowledgeable about the nutritional benefits of seafood, and just 26 percent said they knew how to judge freshness or quality.

Customers are frustrated by not knowing enough about seafood, with 48 percent of seafood consumers saying there is not enough information available to them about seafood. That lack of knowledge – but also, a desire to learn more – extended even to non-seafood consumers. Fifty percent of those shoppers said they wanted more knowledge about different methods for cooking seafood, and 48 percent wanted to know more about how to judge quality and freshness. Forty-two percent said they wanted more information about different species of fish and shellfish.

The survey found customers had high expectations but mixed reviews regarding the knowledge of seafood counter staff. While a majority of consumers said they wanted counter staff to at least be able to know how to judge freshness or quality, 45 percent said their seafood counter staff was only somewhat knowledgeable (though 45 percent said they were very knowledgeable).

Guy Pizzuti, the seafood category manager for the Publix supermarket chain, served on the GSMC panel that analyzed the survey. He said the results are extremely useful for him and others working on the retail side of the seafood industry.

“Executives will pay attention to and react to [this survey],” he said. “Whenever they see that consumer that is very highly indexed toward seafood, that is really attractive to them and their minds start to shift.”

Dave Wier, a seafood buyer and merchandiser for the Meijer chain of supermarkets agreed that the results, while at times painful, could be helpful – especially the data on the relative affluence of seafood shoppers.

“I’m thankful for this survey because I and a lot of my peers as seafood buyers and purchasers need to justify the ability to hold on to fresh counters in our stores … They’re not the most profitable areas in the store, and we spend a lot of time and effort defending our turf,” Wier said. “As space becomes more and more valuable in grocery stores and supermarkets, there’s going to be more and more pressure on those lower-performing areas. So this one item about premium shoppers is really what we stand on.”

Wier said supermarkets and the seafood industry need to work harder to bring infrequent seafood eaters and those who avoid seafood altogether into the category.

“We do a pretty good job with that premium shopper. What we don’t do a good job with is creating those premium shoppers,” he said. “And, for me, you create premium shoppers by starting someplace. So it’s Alaska pollock, tilapia, pangasius – whatever that seafood entry level might be, we’ve got to get them consuming that twice a week and them work them up into higher-value species.”

Pizzuti said the industry needs to change its approach to those type of customers.

“We’ve been talking about teaching customers how to prepare [seafood] since I’ve been in the industry, and apparently we still haven’t figured that part out. We all have recipes, social media, outlets, but somehow our stuff is not meeting that consumer and that’s a challenge we need to continue to work on and address,” Pizzuti said. “Trying to help the consumer prepare [seafood] and teach them how to cook it is one thing, but getting them a meal they can pop in the oven is really where we need to go to make [seafood] more convenient. If you can turn on an oven, you can cook seafood well, is ultimately where we need to go.”

Consumers’ worries over evaluating freshness is a “failure of the industry,” Pizzuti added. He said he trains his seafood counter employees to pull fish they wouldn’t serve to their own families.

“Why does a customer need to know how to evaluate freshness and quality? Because they’ve bought seafood before and failed,” he said. “They need to know they can buy fish or shrimp and have a successful dinner. I don’t think we need to go about educating them about what to look for and all those different things. We just need to sell them good, high-quality seafood they can take home and have a good meal.”

American Seafoods CEO Mikel Durham agreed that consumers are looking for easier meal solutions.

“They’re not looking for a long thing to do when they get home. When people are shopping for fish, we have to show them what we can do with it, and we have to make it look easy,” Durham said. “We can’t just focus on [the appeal of] raw [seafood]. We have to stimulate consumers to believe they can master this when they get home and its going to be tasty.”

Then industry needs to take into account the actual data of what consumers want and delivery it to them – fast, Wier said.

“Here they’re asking us, ‘How do I choose it? How do I season it? How do I prepare it? I want to buy more of this, I want to feed my family this, I just don’t know how.’ We’re so busy telling them about boat that caught it, but they want to learn how to cook it; they don’t care who caught it,” Wier said. “As an industry, we’ve taken our eye off … the consumer and solving what they really want. We’re terrible at this and we have to improve quickly.” 


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