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Seafood University: The right image can spark sales

Do consumers see your product as an attractive meal option or dead fish on ice?

An inviting, visually appealing seafood department with signage offering meal suggestions pulls in shoppers. - Wild Oats Markets
Lauren Kramer
May 01, 2005

Some departments in American grocery stores are changing rapidly, their evolution fueled by smart marketing and positioning strategies that capture consumers’ attention. Sadly, for the most part, the seafood department is not among them.

“Fish looks cold and unappetizing in the display case, so it needs support in terms of signage, recipe cards, labels and demonstrations to make it more consumer friendly,” says Martin Roberts, president of GRID2, research and design consultants specializing in retail.

Located at the back of the grocery store, the seafood department competes with the meat and deli sections for consumers’ attention and frequently loses.

“At the average supermarket, the deli area is mobbed with customers ordering cold cuts, but there is very little buzz or excitement in the fish department,” observes Roberts. “People don’t linger, because it is cold and uninviting. It’s an impulse-shopping section, so it needs to be highly visible, well lit and in a high-traffic aisle in order to succeed. And it is not like that now.”

There are many strategies grocery stores could adopt to attract shoppers to the seafood department, and not all are cost prohibitive. Tim Morrison, supermarket studio principal at Little Diversified Architectural Consulting in Charlotte, N.C., suggests chalkboards to notify customers of the catch of the day.

“Display boards are effective in conveying where the seafood came from and when it was brought in,” he says. “Also, if a seafood department is manned by a staff member, this helps convey freshness and quality, which are key to a great seafood department.”

Finding a knowledgeable sales associate can be a challenge, and it’s one where independent grocery stores are typically more successful than large chains, according to Julie Dugas, senior designer and associate at Cubellismarco, a retail-design firm in Northville, Mich.

“It takes real commitment and effort,” she explains. “Most chains just focus too much on operations and forget that they are actually retail and need to be thinking like retailers. Concentrate on the customer,” she says.

Apart from a friendly face on the other side of the counter, the display case holding the seafood, and in particular the organization of seafood within it, can dramatically influence customer purchasing.

“We’ve found that the way product is presented to a customer can and will have an effect on how much product is purchased,” says Dugas. “If the display is powerful and fresh-looking, the perception will be that it’s good, and this can help drive sales. Making sure that the product has good visibility, good sight lines and adjacencies that make sense is also important to look at when laying out the store plan.”

The choice of which perishables display case to use can be a crucial one for grocery stores. For one of its clients, Pathmark, GRID2 made the display cases open at the bottom, allowing shoppers to see under them, giving the suggestion of cleanliness.

“Curved-glass fronts are preferable to straight, which have a mirror-like reflection effect, and condensation sticks to the glass,” says Roberts. “Curved fronts allow customers to get a very clear, condensation-free and slightly magnified view of the fish. This, combined with strategic lighting that is very bright and placed close to the display, gives the impression of fresher fish.”

Feng Shui experts have had some helpful advice for the seafood department display, advocating that red fish be placed in the middle of the case.

“Red is the color that attracts the most attention, and it draws you into the middle of the display,” says Roberts.

But price point is another factor in seafood display.

“When people first walk over to a case, if they see the most expensive items first, they will walk away,” says Roberts. He suggests laying out the fish in such a way that the lower price points are first. He also advises his clients to divide the display case between impulse buys and other items.

“The shellfish are impulse buys and should be placed at the highest-traffic location at the end of the display, preferably the right-hand side,” he says. “In the middle of the display, customers should encounter fresh fish like bass, snapper, salmon, trout and mahimahi.

The third section should be prepared meals, a selection of restaurant-style meals that should all be the same price.

“And the cooked section comes next, prepared fish that is not packaged in individual meals, where customers can buy fish by the piece.”

Seafood positioned in the front and center of the display case get the most visibility, says Morrison, and smaller gourmet displays convey freshness better than larger, unorganized ones.

There are two significant issues customers must overcome before they will buy fish. One is the unappealing nature of the product, particularly once it is cut into pieces and flattened onto Styrofoam trays. It’s difficult for shoppers to connect this image to an appetizing, nicely presented fish dinner. Then there’s the fact that many potential seafood-department shoppers simply don’t know how to turn the product into a meal.

“Overall, people are frightened of buying fish. They don’t realize how easy it is to cook and don’t know which types to buy. So to speak to today’s busy consumer, fish needs to be marketed as a meal, not as dead things in an ice-filled case,” says Roberts.

“At Williams Sonoma, fish images and recipes are included with their fish kettle to show people that fish is appetizing. Mass-market retailers need to think of ways to do the same, and signage is an excellent way to communicate the versatility of fish.”

For Pathmark, GRID2 created large panels with images of prepared fish dishes and suspended them from the ceiling in the fish department.

“Customers could look at the poster of paella or bouillabaisse and then directly connect the fish in the display case with a meal they could prepare,” says Roberts. “This type of signage inspires people to buy fish.”

Cooking demonstrations are another way to teach consumers how to prepare a fish meal. Computer modules installed near the department, where shoppers can type in a species of fish and print out recipes, are also extremely beneficial, says Roberts.

He believes grocery stores should try to exploit Americans’ love of barbecuing by encouraging them to grill fish.

May 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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