Young’s chief buyer: Understanding today’s consumer will boost whitefish sales

While whitefish products are well-placed to capitalize on the public’s growing dietary shift away from red meat in the United Kingdom, the entire value chain needs to do all it can to overcome what has become a relatively static consumption pattern and to cement the products’ position as an important source of protein in the market, according to Stuart Caborn, chief procurement officer at Young’s Seafood Ltd.

Per person, the U.K. population’s meat consumption is four times larger than its fish intake, Caborn told an audience at the recent annual U.K.-Norwegian Seafood Summit in London. 

“The reasons for that are that we don’t like handling [fish], we don’t know what to do with it, it’s expensive, and we don’t want to mess it up,” Caborn said. “But we do know that seafood is good for us, and when we go to restaurants, we choose it a lot from the menu. We just don’t trust ourselves with it at home.”

There is, though, a big opportunity for at-home seafood consumption, and particularly for the whitefish category, as Brits seek healthier diets, he said. But to achieve growth, he stressed that the value chain needs to ensure it fully meets the needs of those consumers, and also that its messaging is on-point.

“Modern consumers are reducing their red meat intake. They are living a more flexitarian diet. Fish is in ‘the sweet spot’ – it’s intrinsically healthy so we need to communicate specific health messages to different consumer groups. [Currently], not all messages meet the needs of all consumers,” Caborn said. “With overall consumer confidence ebbing, and as shoppers think more about their spending habits, we also need to do all we can to be seen as the attractive choice, both economically and to minimize food waste in the home. The ease of preparation is becoming increasingly important, with consumers telling us now that ease-of-use is more important than the time to actually cook it. It [used to be] all about how quick you can cook something; now it’s about the ease of cooking it. What also comes within that is the packaging design, the recipe repertoire, and no waste.”

Since 2014, the U.K. seafood retail market has actually seen some “positive sales” trends among most species, although most of this growth can be attributed to inflation, Caborn said. Nevertheless, closer scrutiny of data (value and volume) confirms that with market favorites like cod and haddock commanding higher prices, there has been a re-emergence of other whitefish species. Of these, pollock in particular is having a renaissance – partly driven by inflation, but also through species substitution.

“Pollock is actually having a big effect on other whitefish categories, including cod and haddock,” he said.

This shift shouldn’t come as a surprise to Young’s. Shortly after the Brexit announcement in June 2016, the company commissioned research looking at the buying behavior of U.K. consumers. Its findings confirmed that most consumers were worried about supermarket prices, petrol prices, and the value of their savings. With regards to seafood, when asked what they would do if prices increase, one-third of those consumers surveyed said they would consider reducing the amount of seafood products that they buy. Another third said they would consider moving to alternative brands or own-label equivalents, while 25 percent said that they would accept a price increase as long as it was within reason. 

“While it’s clear that consumers will not just drop out of seafood altogether, the U.K. market is not immediately receptive to inflation,” Caborn said.

The key challenge within the whitefish category is there’s a lot of competition, with plenty of cheaper substitutes available for the likes of cod and haddock. 

What also won’t help, he explained, is if the value chain perseveres with the reduced-price volume-driven sales promotions. While the longer campaigns usually see a modicum of increased consumption of those species involved, previous consumption patterns tend to revert as soon as the price normalizes. At the same time, the higher demand invariably leads to raw material price increases and so the manufacturers, brands, and retailers immediately switch sourcing as soon as the campaign is over. 

Therefore, for the whitefish category to truly secure long-term consumption growth – and in addition to dialing into the needs of consumers and extolling the health benefits of whitefish products – Caborn believes it’s crucial that there is much greater stability across the entire value chain and that an aligned strategy is in place all the way through to the retailer.

“All parts of the value chain need to win,” he stressed.

That process starts, Caborn said, with a greater receptivity to listening to customers and learning what they want and need.

“We need to listen to our consumers and we need to understand exactly what’s important to them. This means investment in research and understanding peoples’ consumer needs,” Caborn said. “And if we can all sustainably increase seafood consumption in the U.K. to the magic two [portions] a week, that represents a GBP 1 billion (USD 1.3 billion, EUR 1.1 billion) opportunity.”


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