Russian seafood market faces challenge of generational taste shift

Published on
October 17, 2018

A new survey on Russian seafood consumption has outlined the challenges facing suppliers of the domestic market.

The survey, conducted in late August by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM), the biggest opinion research center in the country, asked 1,600 respondents aged 18 or older about their seafood preferences and buying habits. VCIOM presented the results at the II Global Fishery Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia in September, revealing price, quality, and convenience as the three biggest impediments to greater seafood consumption in Russia.

The survey’s results were not all negative – 73 percent of the population said they eat seafood at least once per week. Of that total, 42 percent of respondents said they eat fish several times a week, and an additional two percent said they eat seafood at least once every day. Just six percent said they don’t consume fish at all. 

However, hiding deeper in the survey was worse news for the seafood industry. Twenty-seven percent of respondents said they had reduced the amount of fish they had purchased recently, with just 11 percent increasing their seafood buying. Those who had reduced their spending cited higher prices (38 percent) and the absence of seafood of appropriate quality (36 percent) as the main reasons behind the decrease in their consumption. 

The survey shows Russia’s seafood market is experiencing considerable headwinds as consumers’ purchasing habits due to ongoing economic hardships and a generational shift in eating preferences, according to Stanislav Naumov, the group director of the X5 Retail Group, the biggest retail company in Russia.

Overall seafood consumption in Russia, at around 3.5 million metric tons, or around 10.3 kilograms per person annually, is still far below the recommendations provided by the country’s Ministry of Health, and much less than just five years ago, in 2013, when Russians ate an average of 22 kilograms of seafood each per year.

The average Russian buyer of seafood, based on data from the X5 Retail-owned Perekryostok supermarket chain, is a woman in her 40s, who spends RUB 280 (USD 4.30, EUR 3.70) on seafood each month and who eats seafood products twice a month. 

The low total on spending is concerning, Naumov said, as RUB 280 represents 0.66 percent of the average monthly salary in Russia of RUB 42,000 (USD 642, EUR 554) – enough to buy one kilogram of pollock or less than one kilogram of humpback (pink) salmon in a typical Russian supermarket.

Such little spending can only partly be explained by the spike in seafood prices seen over recent years, the factor most often blamed for the drop in the country’s consumption totals, according to Kirill Rodin, the executive director of public opinion research at VCIOM. Increasingly, young people are turning away from seafood altogether. While only six percent of the respondents in VCIOM’s survey said they didn’t eat seafood at all, among those between the ages of 18 and 24 years old, it’s 11 percent. 

“78 percent of [survey] respondents named their favorite fish dish, [but] for the youth, this figure is two times less,” Rodin said. 

Interestingly, Rodin said, younger consumers are less affected by the rising price of seafood. The average millennial and Gen X’er is now generating enough cash to afford seafood, which is more expensive than meat in Russia, but they don’t buy it, Rodin said. Rodin said young shoppers favor fast food over cooking at home, as shown by the rapid expansion of chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, which now each operate more than 500 restaurants in Russia.

The changing tastes of young people are not yet reflected in the offerings in Russian supermarkets, according to Polina Kirova, business development director of Rybset, a Russian seafood retail chain.

A ranking of the most popular seafoods purchased at Perekryostok is topped by preserves (18 percent of buyers), followed by salt fish (12 percent), crab and crab sticks (10 percent), grilled fish (10 percent), frozen seafood (nine percent), caviar (nine percent), and chilled fish (eight percent).  

But younger buyers have different tastes and preferences, Kirova said.

“Young people don’t want to spend much time on cooking. They expect one meal to be prepared within 20 minutes,” she told SeafoodSource. 

There has also been a shift in the marketplace over the past five years in favor of transparent packaging, so customers can see what they’re buying, Kirova said. And customers want smaller portions nowadays, she added.

“They don’t want big portions, they don’t need a package of 1.5 kilograms of fish any more,” Kirova said. “They need two times less which can be cooked for one meal.” 

These conclusions match with a list of factors that most influence consumers’ choice of seafood, according to Perekryostok. Visual appearance of the product is considered the most important factor (54 percent), followed by quality (49 percent), expiration date (44 percent), and price (42 percent). Less important were the species being sold (18 percent), where it was caught (13 percent), the brand of seafood (10 percent), weight (seven percent), and food utility and healthiness (five percent).  

Rodin, VCIOM’s group director, said that branding and marketing of individual species could be a path toward bringing Russians – and especially young Russians – back into buying seafood. 

Rodin said he was surprised that only 18 percent of the respondents to VCIOM’s survey selected their preferred species when buying, with the vast majority just saying they had bought “fish.” 

That opinion is shared by Alexander Timofeev, director of the Far Eastern Center for Regional Studies (FECRS), said his organization had found similar results after conducting its own survey.

“Many Russians have never eaten coho and Chinook, let alone scallop and whelk. Even in the Russian Far East, [which] provides 70 percent of the national catch and [is] a region with historically high fish consumption levels, many people didn’t taste ark shell (red clam) or surf clam despite the fact they are on offer in supermarkets,” Timofeev told SeafoodSource. “Most consumers cannot distinguish wild and farmed fish and explain the difference between them.” 

A push toward marketing seafood as a health food has not worked, Timofeev said. Most Russian consumers are aware of the health benefits of eating seafood, but this has not translated into driving sales, he said.

Kirova agreed that most Russian buyers are poorly informed about the differences in fish species available in the supermarket, and said it was her belief that they only factors they pay attention to when choosing whether to buy fish are color and size. Equally alarming, even when Russian consumers know which species they want to buy, they cannot name any brands they prefer – a situation “rather untypical for consumers markets,” Kirova said.

Rodin said the newly available trove of data collectively spelled doom for Russian seafood companies and those looking to sell seafood in Russia.

“Unless the seafood industry or the government takes measures to address this challenge, youth can be lost for the fish market [altogether],” Rodin said.

Reporting from Saint Petersburg, Russia

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