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SeaFood University: Perk up seafood sales with in-store display tanks

Added costs for live product and equipment upkeep pay off in heightened perceptions of quality and service

Nothing says "fresh" like a tank of swimming fish and lively crustaceans. - Jungle Jim's
Joanne Friedrick
March 01, 2005

If you’re looking to set your seafood department apart from the local competition and have some extra floor space that could be put to better use, a display of live product sends a message of freshness and fun.

Some retailers go beyond the typical live-lobster display and offer various species of live fish, crab and even shrimp.

“The whole idea behind [a live program] is to let customers know they can get the freshest fish possible here,” explains Scott Severs, meat-and-sea­food-operations manager at Jungle Jim’s International Market in Fairfield, Ohio.

Jungle Jim’s offers a host of live product year-round, including Maine lobster, Dungeness crab, rainbow trout, tilapia, hybrid striped bass, turbot, catfish and, on occasion, freshwater prawns.

Of course, when stocking as many live species as Jungle Jim’s does in its seafood department, ample room is critical. In Severs’ 300,000-square-foot store, there’s plenty of space in both the display area and the back room for fish and shellfish tanks.

“We’ve got a serious holding-tank facility in the back of the store,” says Severs, It encompasses both refrigerated saltwater and freshwater systems that can accommodate 500 to 700 pounds of tilapia, 400 pounds of striped bass and 400 pounds of crabs and lobsters on any given day.

On the selling floor, there are five 600-gallon tanks and three 150-gallon tanks to handle product being sold that day, he says. The smaller tanks may hold just 15 fish at a time.

In addition to allowing customers to select individual fish for on-site filleting, which occurs out of sight, Severs says a live program is appealing to the area’s Asian consumers, who are accustomed to purchasing live fish.

That premise holds true for Seattle-area Asian retailer Uwa­jimaya, which lists on its Web site a dozen or more live species in its seafood departments. Among the products available are king, box, Dungeness, blue and snow crabs; Maine and rock lobsters; abalone; geoduck; namako a.k.a. sea cucumber; conch; Manila and cherrystone clams; prawns; oysters; crawfish; sea urchin and periwinkles.

Severs has expanded his offerings as more farm-raised product becomes available.

“There are only so many species that are farm raised for this purpose,” he says, noting tilapia is the most prevalent. But as he has worked with certain suppliers of farm-raised product, they have directed him to other species, such as the recently added burbot, a Great Lakes fish.

Besides the space issue, which is significant for most retailers, Severs says expense is also a consideration. To keep the freight costs manageable, he needs to order live product in 400- to 500-pound lots.

At Farm House Foods, a chain of three fish markets in the Cleveland area, live catfish have been featured since the mid-1980s.

Two of the stores feature 800-gallon steel storage tanks along with 150-gallon display tanks, while the third store just offers a retail tank. There is also a display lobster tank at the store in Maple Heights, Ohio.

The availability of live catfish, says President Dan Simon, whose parents Leonard and Estelle began offering the fish in 1985, “shows people we’re more diverse than the regular fish store.”

That also is why Jungle Jim’s has ventured into the live fish market, says Severs.

“None of our major competitors do live fish, although some do lobster,” he says. And, Severs adds, a few small ethnic markets offer tilapia.

Simon concurs with Severs that expenses such as freight, mortality of live product — which Severs said is almost zero on most deliveries — and tank maintenance can eat into margins, and these extra costs must be weighed against the marketing value of having a program that is different from what is offered among the competition.

Severs says he doesn’t add the preparation cost of his live-seafood program into the price of the product, although it does carry a higher price point than frozen. For example, frozen tilapia may sell for $1.39 per pound vs. $3.99 for the live fish.

“I try to give customers good value,” he says, adding “it will pay dividends in the long run.”

“I can’t say people are marching in here to buy live fish,” notes Farm House Foods’ Simon, “but having them on display sets our store apart a bit and people like to see that.”

He says he focused on catfish because of the popularity of the species among shoppers in the neighborhood as well as the ease of keeping it alive. Simon receives deliveries of farm-raised catfish every other week. The storage tanks can accommodate up to 1,000 pounds of fish.

Another consideration when offering a live seafood program, noted both Simon and Severs, is staying on top of the maintenance issue.

Severs says tanks within the selling section of the department are drained and cleaned weekly by himself and the seafood department staff, while the large holding tanks in the back are monitored daily to maintain the proper pH, salinity and ozone levels.

At Farm House, explains Simon, each store manager is responsible for maintaining the holding and display tanks. The steel holding tanks, he says, require no filtration, just proper aeration and circulation, while the state-of-the-art display tanks rely on biofilters, UV lights and active filtration to keep them operating properly.

“Not everyone can handle it,” says Simon of the work involved in offering live fish. Yet, he says, it provides an opportunity to market his fish business in a different way.

Farm House Foods’ three delivery trucks mention the availability of live catfish, as do the stores’ fliers. And word of mouth also brings people into the stores to see and shop for the fish, he says.

Jungle Jim’s is already considered a destination store, with its waterfalls, stuffed animals and storybook characters, so having a seafood section with a half-dozen or so live species is just in keeping with the store’s theatrical nature.

While your store may not support the size or number of displays provided by Jungle Jim’s or Farm House Foods, just a single tank of live fish that can be prepared to order, or a tank of crabs along side your lobster display, could make a difference in how customers perceive your department.

After all, what better way is there to send a fresh message than with product that swims?

March 2012 - SeaFood Business


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