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School of fish: Educating staff about seafood sustainability

Grocery stores are educating their employees about seafood sustainability. But what does that word really mean?

Sustainable: It’s one of the buzz words of our time, along with “local,” “natural” and “GMO-free.”

But there’s a problem with this word. What’s it even mean?

Not many people know. An NPR survey last year found 67% of consumers are “somewhat confident” in seafood sustainable labels; another 20% think they’re a bunch of hooey.

Can staff help? Not if they don’t know the answer either.

Make no mistake, there’s sales opportunity in the sustainable market: The same study revealed 49% of consumers are willing to pay 10% or more for sustainable seafood.

Thus, it’s important to educate your staff about seafood. Their knowledge makes consumers–who might be leery of buying a piece of fish with a heftier price tag–more confident, says Phil Gibson, senior vice-president of California- based Encore Associates and former director of seafood at Safeway for the U.S.

READ: Safeway tops Greenpeace seafood supermarket ranking

Indeed, as more seafood in supermarkets gets marked with third-party sustainability logos, such as Marine Stewardship Council and SeaChoice, it’s becoming important that employees not only know the difference between salmon and tuna, but also that they can adequately explain why one fish is sustainable and the other isn’t. Some retailers are already working on it.

Saskatoon-based Federated Co-operatives, which works with SeaChoice, invites representatives from that organization to present at its annual meeting.

Federated also provides stores with a sustainable seafood manual containing SeaChoice rankings and information on different species of fish and catch methods.

“That way, employees can educate themselves,” says food safety manager Lisa Sparrow-Moellenbeck. Federated also offers an e-training module to its 225 stores that provides even more information for staff. New hires, in particular, are encouraged to read it.

READ: Federated Co-operative’s ‘Reel’ program for seafood sustainability

Canada’s biggest grocer, Loblaw, uses a blend of technology and real-time information to inform its seafood staff. In 2009, it became the first major food retailer in Canada to commit to selling solely sustainable seafood.

Throughout the year, head office sends emails to its seafood departments to keep them updated on sustainability, and a specialist team visits stores to work with employees.

“We try to reiterate information as many times as possible and provide it in as many forms as we can, such as online and on paper, to make it easier to absorb,” says Loblaw’s Melanie Agopian, senior director of sustainability. “We also try to make it as simple as possible and give context around what we tell employees.”

United Supermarkets, in Lubbock, Texas, keeps up to date on sustainability through its supplier, Seattle Fish Company of New Mexico. Seafood managers with the chain have a yearly meeting with the Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies the supplier. Twice a year it meets with the suppliers; and every other week a seafood merchandiser from Seattle Fish Company visits each of United’s 17 seafood counters, to work side-by-side with managers.

“All the learning is done on the job,” says Scott Nettles, meat and seafood director at United.

READ: Ahead of sustainability deadline, Loblaw adds ASC-certified fish

For smaller grocers, teaching staff is all hands-on. Dan Donovan is the owner of Hooked, a two-location seafood retailer in Toronto. To ensure his employees know their stuff, he only hires culinary graduates. But he takes the time to educate them further.

“We teach fish anatomy, fishing methods and their ecological impacts,” he says. “We also give them a grounder on farmed versus wild. We don’t want to give customers rote answers, but a firm understanding of [sustainability] principles.” Donovan also keeps his staff up-to-date with emails and a blog that includes tags and a search engine so employees can find information easily.

Educating staff is vital to sales of sustainable seafood. But how do you transfer this info to customers?

Thrifty Foods in Victoria participates in ThisFish, a traceability program. The process is simple: fish harvesters identify their catch with a unique code. The harvester and other handlers upload information about the fish, including when and where it was caught and how it was caught. Consumers can then use the code to trace to the source.

Choices Markets in Delta, B.C., uses Ocean Wise tags in its seafood case to highlight sustainable seafood. “We leave it up to consumers to educate themselves,” says meat operations manager, Rob Hunt. When Choices started working with Ocean Wise, its sales of red snapper–a threatened species–dropped to close to 40 pounds from around 300 pounds per week. “We didn’t say a word about the new program to customers,” says Hunt. “We just didn’t put a [sustainable] tag on it.”

READ: Loblaw starts selling responsibly farmed salmon

United Supermarkets educates customers by chatting them up. According to the company, it’s working. While seafood only accounts for about 8% of the meat department’s sales, the sustainable part of the seafood business is what’s growing faster than overall sales, Nettles says.

Hooked’s Donovan also prefers to educate in conversation.

But he offers a caution: “You’ve got to find the view of sustainability that matters to [shoppers],” he says. “Is it their health, the fisheries, the fish, the environment? Scratch around to find an edge.”

Donovan is aware of the downside of teaching customers, of course. It slows down transaction time, he admits. But the pluses outweigh any cons. One of those, he says, is having employees who love what they do.

“Our staff gets such a lift from having those kinds of conversations. They learn from each other and from customers. It’s elevating their job to a higher level, so they have greater job satisfaction.”

And isn’t that a good thing?

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