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What's in Store: Special events

Sunset Foods’ Fishtacular Fridays key to reducing shrink, driving sales

By Christine Blank
November 01, 2012

Customers walking into a Sunset Foods’ grocery store on a recent Friday morning were greeted with the fresh smell of oven-roasted salmon and bustling activity in the store’s seafood department. Employees were prepping 4- to 5-ounce portions of salmon for made-to-order fish sandwiches. 

From 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. every Friday, Sunset’s seafood departments offer fresh-baked fish sandwiches, often using leftover trimmings from salmon and other species. The fish is baked with grilling spices, put inside the bakery’s fresh rolls and topped with sauces from the deli. The regular Fishtacular Fridays are just one way the five-store Chicago-area grocery chain boosts seafood sales. 

While the weekly event started as an outdoor grilling event at just one store earlier this year, it quickly spread to all five units. 

“We are selling 150 to 200 sandwiches at each store. It not only helps with shrink in the seafood department, but we are also promoting fresh baked rolls out of the bakery, and products from other areas of the store,” says Dan Humphrey, seafood director for Sunset Foods.

Fishtacular Fridays have helped to spur a 10 percent lift in Sunset’s fresh seafood sales in 2012, compared to the first eight months of 2011. 

“A lot of the sales increases came from one-day events. We know that they are invaluable to us and we want to keep doing better,” says Humphrey. Sunset’s other annual one-day or weekend events include Hawaiian Days in April, a Copper River salmon sidewalk sale over Memorial Day weekend; a Shrimptastic Saturday in July; a Lobsterpalooza lobster sale and dinner over Labor Day weekend; an Alaska king crab sale in November; and a caviar and vodka event in December.

During the stores’ Hawaiian Days, Sunset buys around nine different species direct from Garden & Valley Isle Seafood in Honolulu. “It is spring, so we like to promote Hawaiian fish steaks and get everyone geared up for grilling,” says Humphrey. Similar to Fishtacular Fridays, the entire store gets involved in the seafood promotion. “Staff dresses up in their Hawaiian shirts, the bakery makes pineapple upside-down cake, the produce department has pineapple on special, and the grocery department puts out Hawaiian rolls. That way, the entire store benefits,” says Humphrey. 

During the annual Copper River salmon run in spring, shoppers buy the whole fish for between $60 and $70 each, then the seafood department staff fillet and de-bone it for them. “This year, we sold 65 cases in one day,” says Humphrey. 

Another successful event is Shrimptastic Saturday, held annually around July 4, in which the seafood staff grills shrimp skewers and corn on the cob outdoors. 

“We have three sizes of Gulf shrimp and we stress that it is a product of the USA,” says Humphrey. This year, Sunset sold around 2 tons of shrimp from its supplier in Texas, but the event was not a huge profit-maker, according to Humphrey. Instead, the sale was a great way for Midwestern shoppers to experience the great quality and flavor of domestic shrimp, raising awareness about the product.

Lobsterpalooza is held during Labor Day weekend. The sale touts whole Maine lobsters on special for $10.99 each. This year, Sunset Foods added a four-course lobster dinner, attended by Maine lobstermen, for $75 each. The publicity surrounding the event led to the sale of around 10,000 pounds of lobster, says Humphrey.

Sunset’s upcoming caviar and vodka event, held during the second week of December, allows shoppers to taste American caviar from Marky’s Caviar in Miami along with five different vodkas. 

“Our stores are in upscale areas, so this attracts them. Plus, a lot of people don’t know where to buy caviar, so we are trying to get it out there that ‘we are your home for caviar,’” says Humphrey.

On a daily basis, each store carries around 40 different fresh fish and shellfish items, including local freshwater fish such as trout, perch and whitefish. The stores’ value-added seafood section is small, but growing. Each store carries around 10 items, including crab-stuffed salmon and tilapia, salmon burgers, crab cakes, lobster rolls and shrimp scampi. 

“Value-added is taking off, but we don’t want to rush into it. Everything is made in-house, and we want to maintain consistency,” says Humphrey.

The retailer’s seafood managers and staff are trained extensively on seafood quality and safety and on educating shoppers, creating the atmosphere of a neighborhood fish market. 

“We buy the whole fish and fillet and de-bone it at the counter. That is our chance to build a relationship with the customer,” says Humphrey. 

The small, hometown philosophy has helped differentiate Sunset Foods from its large supermarket competitors. 

“At a large chain store, it’s hard to pull off these events. And they also cannot usually call and get a special order for customers. Being small stores, all of our managers have the ability to do that,” says Humphrey.

Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.

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