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What's in Store: Seafood in bloom

Sunflower Farmers Markets gets detail-oriented with seafood display mix

Sunflower has absorbed losses and negotiated with suppliers to keep costs down. - Photos courtesy of Sunflower Farmers Markets
By Christine Blank
September 05, 2011

While Sunflower Farmers Markets — a 34-store natural chain based in Phoenix and Boulder, Colo. — has felt the impact of higher seafood prices this year, its longstanding seafood case merchandising techniques are helping the retailer thrive.

“Keep it very simple — that has always been our philosophy,” says Randy Ong, Sunflower’s director of meat and seafood.

In the stores’ 8-foot, full-service fresh seafood cases, Sunflower displays full rows of around 12 species of fish and shellfish daily. Instead of offering several different types of seafood that shoppers may not be interested in, Sunflower focuses on large quantities of the top-selling species.

“We might not have all of the varieties that you find at a higher-end retailer, but the philosophy is ‘full, fresh and quality,’” says Ong.

The full rows are important, says Ong, because it shows shoppers that the retailer aims to sell the full row.

“Nobody wants to buy the last piece of steak, seafood or other proteins,” says Ong. The full-row, limited-selection merchandising strategy has helped Sunflower compete effectively in the recent years of a challenging U.S. economy. “We compete very well against the stores that have multiple items. They have to raise their retails to account for shrink.”

Instead of raising its retail prices, Sunflower is absorbing losses and negotiating with suppliers to keep costs down. Sunflower’s primary distributors include Pacific Seafood of Portland, Ore., and Seattle Fish Co. of Denver and Seattle Fish Co. of New Mexico.

Another key merchandising tool in its fresh cases is an alternating color scheme. Instead of having white fish like cod next to other white fishes, seafood rows are alternating red and white throughout the case.

“We try to blend the colors: red fillets, then lighter fillets, then darker fillets. You get this beautiful color presentation, rather than a sea of white,” says Ong.

Sunflower features salmon, ahi tuna, cod, scallops, shrimp, catfish and stuffed salmon in its fresh case year-round. Shrimp is Sunflower’s top seller by volume, farmed or wild salmon is its second most popular fish and ahi tuna is third.

“We love to run fresh Atlantic salmon at a good value and our customers love it when the wild salmon is in season. When the fresh, wild salmon is not available, we use frozen, thawed wild salmon year-round,” says Ong. When the first Copper River salmon of the season arrives in May, Sunflower carries the delicacy but doesn’t promote it until later in the season when the price drops. “We don’t want to be that retailer where people see a $21.99-a-pound salmon price when they come in.”

By offering top-quality, sustainable seafood (most of Sunflower’s suppliers are Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified) at a value, the retailer’s seafood departments continues to realize growth. “We have probably moved 400,000 pounds of sockeye salmon this year,” says Ong.

Instead of featuring its prepared offerings in its fresh cases, Sunflower displays those items frozen in self-serve cases. “In our full-service cases, we don’t want to have a lot of that value-added there. We want people to be able to take their seafood home and cook it that night,” says Ong.

Around seven years ago, Sunflower started off with 4-foot freezer sections for value-added items, but has since expanded the area to 32 feet. Among the extensive prepared offerings are tortilla-crusted tilapia, corn-crusted trout, marinated mussels and salmon burgers. “Value-added has been huge for the growth of our seafood departments. Most consumers do not know how to prepare seafood,” says Ong.

Sunflower outsources its value-added seafood preparation to suppliers like Tai Foong USA, Fishery Products International and Icelandic. At every seafood trade show that Sunflower executives attend, they talk to additional value-added suppliers. “We are not scared to try anything. The consumers will react with their pocketbooks, and tell us which ones to keep and which ones not to keep,” says Ong.

A wide range of packaged portioned seafood is also offered in Sunflower’s frozen cases. “Those items that we don’t want to have a high price image on, we have in 4-ounce and 6-ounce portions. Shoppers can buy items like a fillet of halibut or swordfish in the under-$10 range,” says Ong.

Sunflower also promotes many of its MSC-certified fish in its frozen cases. Although the retailer does not require all of its seafood suppliers to be MSC-certified, it is moving more in that direction.

“We are just now looking into MSC and the private sustainable groups that can help us and make sure that we are providing seafood that is fished responsibly. However, almost every supplier we deal with is already involved with MSC,” says Ong.

Sunflower’s merchandising and value-pricing practices are not only working well for its seafood departments, but for the entire chain. It is opening two new stores this year, and is slated to add eight additional stores in California and other states next year.


Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.

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