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Seafood University: Adding value in-house can boost your bottom line

Ready-to-cook items meet your customers' need for convenience increasing seafood sales

An assortment of ready to cook, stuffed or marinated items gives your customers an easy and healthful dinner option on busy weeknights. - Eddie's
Joanne Friedrick
January 01, 2005

Convenience is still high on food-shoppers’ priority list, creating sales opportunities for retail seafood departments that are willing to answer that demand.

Value-added products, including marinated, seasoned, stuffed or skewered seafood, are a good solution for time-pressed shoppers looking for quick and healthful meals.

The Food Marketing Institute’s “Trends in the United States, 2004” reveals that although consumers seek low prices and ways to economize, they are also motivated by a desire for convenience, both in meal preparation and in shopping.

But that doesn’t mean they are spending all their time at the fast-food outlets. According to FMI’s study, “The proportion of consumers who prepare a home-cooked meal at least three times per week is static, at about 84 percent.”

While manufacturers of prepared foods often seek to fill the requirement for at-home meal solutions, your seafood department can compete with its own series of ready-to-cook items, prepared in-house.

Many retail seafood departments already offer marinades and seasonings on the shelves near display cases or on the countertops. But you can boost sales by offering seafood that’s already marinated or seasoned instead of just selling customers do-it-yourself ingredients.

At Eddie’s of Roland Park, a two-store gourmet food purveyor in the Baltimore area, Meat and Seafood Buyer Steve Miller has developed an assortment of value-added seafood entrées aimed at time-strapped shoppers.

Among his recent offerings were Crispy Sea Bass, created by applying an egg-and-cornflake crust; sea bass seasoned with Japanese panko breadcrumbs and herbs; marinated shrimp kabobs with vegetables; stuffed rainbow trout topped with a Crab Imperial sauce; salmon with fresh herbs; and wild salmon stuffed with spinach and pine nuts.

On the weekends, Miller says, the selection changes to accommodate male clientele, who are more apt to seek items for the grill.

While bacon-wrapped shrimp and kabobs are a good fit, so too, he says, is marinated Pacific swordfish.

These grillable products are a popular choice for tailgating season as well as in the summer. Miller says when the Baltimore Ravens are in town or local lacrosse teams are playing, he stocks up on grilling items. Hot dogs and hamburgers, he notes, are giving way to seafood.

“Tailgating is going more to upper-class items. It’s amazing what [customers] spend on tailgating,” he says.

Miller offers about nine value-added items daily in the seafood case.

“I try to mix it up, keeping different things,” he says.

Typically, unless it’s a perennial best-seller like bacon-wrapped shrimp, offerings are rotated so they don’t appear for more than three weeks in a row.

If you go longer, Miller explains, some of the excitement generated by that “What’s new?” feeling is lost, and customers may not come by to see what you have to offer.

However, he says, he is always willing to prepare something that isn’t on display if a customer really wants it.

Miller says he watches TV cooking shows and scans the Internet and his own cookbook collection to come up with recipes for the prepared items.

And, he adds, “Customers give us ideas all the time.”

Weekdays are the busiest time for Eddie’s, he says, as shoppers look for dishes that can be taken home and prepared simply and quickly.

For retailers who have been offering value-added items for a while, knowing how much to prepare can become second nature. But if you’re just starting out, the last thing you want is to overestimate consumer interest and damage your bottom line with too much unsold product.

Miller says the first time he offered value-added seafood, he began with 10 pounds, just “to see how it sells.”

It’s wise to track how value-added products do in general, and certain preparations in particular, and plan your offerings accordingly. Factors such as weather, holidays, special events and the like can influence your customers’ desire for ready-made products.

The holidays can be especially busy times for families, so be prepared to offer more meal solutions that can reduce some of the stress in their lives.

Use signage to make customers aware of what you have, or what is available just for the asking.

Miller says he makes sure his signs indicate that items not available in the case that day can be created. If you don’t have such a sign, he says, customers may just walk away without making a purchase.

Pricing is another consideration when offering value-added items. There are extra ingredients to consider as well as preparation time and the staff to make the products. However, Miller says he doesn’t believe it’s necessary to add a lot to the base price of the fish or seafood.

“If we run a 40 percent [mark-up] for regular seafood, we do 42 percent to 44 percent for value-added,” he explains.

He says Eddie’s, which operates a full-service seafood department, already has the staff on hand, so preparation time for value-added products isn’t a significant cost. In addition, he says, marinades and breadcrumbs add to the weight of the product, “so you’re already getting a little more” for each item sold.

Because Eddie’s staff is there to assist every customer, they are also able to explain the ingredients and preparation and give cooking instructions.

But if your store or department plans to offer value-added products in the self-service section, it’s critical that each package be clearly marked with instructions on how to store, cook and even serve the seafood.

If your store has a restaurant or take-out counter, that won’t necessarily detract from the seafood department’s ability to sell items that still need to be finished at home.

Miller acknowledges that Eddie’s gourmet-to-go case, which features some seafood-based entrées and side dishes, is a form of competition. But it is also an opportunity to merchandise his offerings.

Sometimes, he says, customers who are introduced to a seafood product at the take-out section will then come to the seafood case and buy it as a ready-to-cook offering to take home and cook for themselves.

January 2005 - SeaFood Business

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