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Fishing for seafood sales? Try extra service

The less shoppers have to think about seafood, the more likely they are to buy

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Seafood is one of the easiest and fastest foods to cook, yet today’s consumers want more. To meet this demand, grocery stores are making seafood more convenient and simpler to put on the table.

Since the fresh-fish department is one of the lowest trafficked in supermarkets, the more retailers can do to help and educate customers, the more seafood sales are likely to increase, says Neil Stern, senior partner with McMillan Doolittle, a retail consulting firm in Chicago.

“People are not as familiar with varieties of fish and what’s out there; it’s intimidating,” Stern says. “There’s a massive education effort that retailers need to do. They need to provide great service, with knowledgeable people behind the case.”

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In this regard, larger supermarkets may wish to take some tips from smaller fishmongers such as Hooked, a two-store boutique fish shop in Toronto.

All employees at Hooked are trained chefs. Every staff person can talk with customers about how to cook the fish, what to serve with it and what wine goes down well with it. It means that customers don’t have to go digging through cookbooks or the Internet once they get home, says Hooked’s owner, Dan Donovan.

But Hooked also makes seafood more convenient in other ways. Donovan sells marinades, rubs and sauces to use with seafood, taking away the guesswork for customers. And he’ll fillet the fish to save them that step at home.

Donovan and his staff will even marinate fish for customers. First, shoppers call the store and let the employees know what time they’d like to pick up their seafood.

Then, at the specified time, the store will vacuum pack the fish with the marinade. The vacuum pack speeds the marinade time threefold, says Donovan. Once the customer is home, the fish is ready to cook.

None of the fish sold at Hooked is pre-cut. Donovan prefers to skip this convenience step.

“Cutting to-order allows us that moment to engage, which is important to us,” he explains. He does, however put together some portioned and bagged products, such as poached octopus, tuna for tuna salad and tuna conserva (preserved tuna).

As a final convenience offering to customers, Hooked staff cooks some seafood to order, particularly lobster, crab, salmon and shrimp. “It’s not something we push, but we certainly do it a lot,” Donovan says. “Most people just don’t want to deal with the hassle.”

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Choices Markets, a seven-store chain based in Vancouver, sells some pre-prepared fish such as salmon pin- wheels with cream cheese in the centre, salmon burgers and kebabs, to make life as easy as possible for its busy customers.

And although meat operations manager, Rob Hunt, wishes he could display his fish on ice, it’s all filleted and cut up, ready for shoppers to quickly grab and go.

In July, Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets in Chicago did the opposite. It launched a program in the seafood department of its Naperville store. There, customers are gravitating more to having their fish cut to-order, says meat and seafood buyer Wally Locke.

As part of the program customers choose the fish they want, then staff fillet and package it while the customer picks up their other groceries. Shrimp is one of the most popular items in the program, Locke explains.

“We’ll do whatever they need done, but as a general rule [customers] want you to clean shrimp.” The program is doing so well it will probably expand to the retailer’s other stores.

Caputo’s Markets also has plans to launch another program this summer, similar to Hooked’s. Customers will select their fish and a marinade, and the seafood department will package them up together, with advice on how to take the fish out of the marinade.

Programs such as these are great for consumers, says Phil Gibson, former director of seafood at Safeway, and now a consultant with Encore Associates in San Ramon, Calif.

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“The biggest drawback with expanding seafood sales is that people don’t know what to do with it when they get home. It’s like mystery food so the easier you can make it, the better it is for that customer.”

There are also opportunities to make the entire seafood experience more convenient with cross-merchandising, as some retailers already know. At Choices, Hunt cross-merchandises lemons and rubs near the seafood case to save customers from having to search the store for these items.

Jim Hertel, managing partner at Willard Bishop, in Barrington, Ill., says mixing up merchandising is a great idea. “Cross-merchandising takes co-ordination in-store, but the net impact of making the department a one-stop shop for an easy meal makes the effort pay off.”

Caputo’s displays bottles of wine in the seafood department, selecting types that pair well with fish. It also includes wine in its advertisements.

Locke says he features items such as rubs, lemons and bags for broiling fish in the department, too. “We slip these things in because it helps people and we make the sale.”

Makes perfect sense. The more supermarkets can help customers and make seafood more convenient, the more they’ll be swimming with the tide instead of against it.

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