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What's in Store: Big chill

Supermarkets ramp up frozen seafood offerings to meet consumer needs

Retailers use coffin cases to showcase a wide variety of frozen seafood products. - Photo courtesy of Rouses Market
By Christine Blank
December 05, 2011

Seafood retailers are faced with one daunting challenge after another, but there is a bright spot. One of seafood’s positive growth areas is frozen seafood, a category that continues to spark product innovation and one that retailers continue to grow with additional space and merchandising techniques.

Consumer demand for frozen seafood products has risen because people are eating out less often and they are continuing to seek convenient and healthy foods, suppliers and retailers say.

“Before, people would indulge themselves with a seafood meal in a restaurant. Now, they are recognizing that seafood can be affordable when prepared at home,” says Mark Zieff, brand manager of U.S. retail for High Liner Foods USA. Shoppers are also understanding that frozen prepared seafood can taste just as good as seafood prepared in restaurants, adds Zieff.

For example, Fishery Products International, a division of High Liner, recently added a line of FireRoasters flame-seared frozen fish fillets.

“Fire roasting is a very popular preparation in restaurants and is very difficult to duplicate at home. It is a great-looking, great-tasting product that has a very simple glaze and is not prepared with heavy batters or breading,” says Zieff.

Grocery chains are expanding space allocated for frozen seafood to also cater to consumers’ growing preference for comfort foods. “Comfort foods such as breaded and battered items, casseroles and sauces have become as popular if not more popular than the healthy category since the downturn in the economy,” says Bob O’Bryant, marketing director for Pacific Seafood in Clackamas, Ore.

Frozen seafood sales at all supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers (excluding Walmart) rose 4 percent to $2.35 billion for the 52 weeks ending Oct. 2, 2011, compared to the same time period last year, according to SymphonyIRI Group. At the same time unit sales grew only 0.40 percent to reach 354,864,800 units.

Supermarkets have expanded the seafood offerings in their freezer cases steadily over the past few years, and more are adding coffin cases filled with frozen seafood and expanding their premium frozen seafood cases near the fresh seafood counters.

“There is a certain customer that shops for fresh seafood, so when they see frozen seafood adjacent to fresh seafood, it is quality by association. Retailers also see a benefit when they merchandise frozen in the fresh seafood department: Now they are creating a seafood destination that is going to attract many different customers,” says Zieff. O’Bryant speculates that retailers are featuring frozen seafood items in more areas because shoppers have gotten used to eating seafood more frequently, such as two to three times a week instead of once a week. “The price of chicken, beef, and pork has gone up significantly over the last few years. People don’t see the price discrepancy with seafood that they used to,” O’Bryant says.

“Coffin cases used to be just vegetables and meat; now you will see a whole center case full of seafood. End cases were always saved for the highest-velocity items like chicken, and now they feature seafood,” adds O’Bryant.

San Antonio-based H.E. Butt and The Kroger Co. of Cincinnati have both expanded their frozen seafood offerings and have expanded the “number of different ways they offer seafood to consumers, including chilled, fresh and frozen,” says Zieff. “Kroger is a great example of a retailer that is expanding their cases and providing their seafood in a greater variety of formats. They recognize that providing home meal solutions is very important to their consumers.”

Publix Super Markets in Lakeland, Fla., often features its Publix frozen white shrimp on special on the end cap of its coffin cases, across from the fresh seafood department. It also calls attention to sale items in its premium case — such as Bantry Bay Mussels — next to its stores’ fresh seafood counters with signage and circulars.

“We have seen a double-digit increase [in frozen food sales this year]. This may be attributed to increased promotional activity, improved availability and/or historical performance. Consumers are looking for value, whether fresh or frozen,” says Maria Brous, a spokesperson for Publix.
While Publix has not added new frozen seafood products this year, it plans to add new private-label frozen seafood items in 2012. Executives also plan to source new frozen seafood products at the 2012 International Boston Seafood Show.

Out of all frozen seafood items, private-label products have realized some of the highest sales increases over the past year. Dollar sales rose 14 percent to $1.19 billion for the 52 weeks ending Oct. 2, according to Symphony/IRI Group data. Unit sales rose 5.37 percent to 52,708,540 during the same time period.

Many grocery chains have launched new private-label frozen seafood lines or expanded their lines in the last few years. For example, Safeway heavily promotes its Waterfront Bistro private-label seafood line with full cases. Rouses, a 38-store chain in Thibodaux, La., is adding a private-label Rouses Gulf Coast frozen fish fillet program later this year. A Louisiana supplier designed the 1-pound bags for the fillets, which will include flounder, drum, and grouper, among others.

“On the East Coast and West Coast, they take their abundance of fish and sell it throughout the country. No one in the South has really tapped into that market yet,” says James Breuhl, seafood director for Rouses.

In addition to selling the line in all Rouses stores, the retailer plans to sell the line throughout the United States as a private-label product.

“We want to not only create jobs for fishermen along the Gulf Coast, but create a whole new industry,” Breuhl says.

Rouses had similar success with adding private-label frozen white shrimp a few years ago. Now, around half of its seafood department sales are made up of frozen shrimp. Overall, frozen seafood products make up 40 percent of all Rouses’ seafood sales, according to Breuhl.

In addition to private label, shoppers have also been buying more bulk packs of fish fillets. “Since we have picked up a 3-pound bag of tilapia from the Great Fish Co. in the last year, I have gone through truckloads of that product. I don’t think that trend is going away anytime soon,” Breuhl says.
Pacific Seafood has realized success with its Snow Mist family value packs of seafood since the economic downturn in 2008, according to Pacific Seafood’s O’Bryant

“They are 1.5- to 3-pound packages of seafood products, targeting lower price points and a great value on the unit price. A family of four could eat several meals out of the package,” O’Bryant says. Like other bulk frozen seafood packs, the Snow Mist value packages are clear bags with simple design and bilingual English/Spanish text.

Gluten-free breaded seafood has also been a fast-growing trend in the frozen seafood category, according to O’Bryant and others. Two years ago, Pacific Seafood’s Starfish brand launched a line of gluten-free battered and breaded fish products. By early 2012, the manufacturer will add another three or four products to the line.

“It used to be a fad and now gluten-free is the fastest-growing product sales in supermarkets,” O’Bryant says.

Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.
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