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What's in Store: Good to go

Seafood carves a niche in prepared-meals trend

May 2013 - Retail Report - WIS_table.jpg
By Christine Blank
May 01, 2013

Supermarket sales of prepared foods have risen significantly in the past few years, yet many stores lack a variety of customized, portable seafood options. Grocery stores and fish markets can play to consumers’ growing desire for ethnic flavors, customized retail meals and individual portions to boost ready-to-eat seafood sales.

Since the recession, some retailers have been wary about featuring prepared seafood meals because they are typically priced higher than meals with other meats. However, experts say it makes sense to play up seafood’s premium positioning. 

“Sometimes, accentuating the quality of a premium offering, while also highlighting its restaurant-like resemblance, could prove to be a profitable strategy that retailers could follow to better compete with restaurant dishes,” says John Frank, category manager, consumer packaged goods-food and drink, for research firm Mintel. 

“A big trend we see in retail meal solutions is ‘premiumization’: offering more upscale dishes than in the past as part of that restaurant-quality positioning. Seafood suits that goal perfectly,” adds Jenny Anderson, director of research and consulting for foodservice research and consulting firm Technomic. 

For example, retailers that have carving stations featuring prime rib, turkey and other meats could offer freshly filleted salmon and portions as well. 

“You might also see fish tacos at a station specializing in tacos,” Anderson says. Many retailers’ ready-to-eat meals featuring seafood are still less costly than comparable restaurant options, Anderson and Frank point out.

Unique stuffings, marinades and sauces also set supermarkets’ prepared seafood menus apart from other retailers — and even restaurants. For example, Gig Harbor, Wash.-based Harbor Greens Market, which has two stores, carries bacon-wrapped salmon skewers, bacon-wrapped scallops, salmon with crab and shrimp stuffing among other items. 

“It’s hard to compete as far as prices with the major supermarkets. You have got to have something that sets you apart, such as unique [prepared meal] recipes,” says Alex Swenson, meat and seafood director for Harbor Greens.

In addition, emphasizing ethnic flavors, allowing shoppers to customize their seafood meals and offering individual portions will help boost the popularity of supermarkets’ ready-to-eat meals, consultants say. 

As the popularity of ethnic cuisines grows, consumers are looking for ethnic meals in supermarkets and at grocery stores; 93 percent of people have prepared ethnic food at home or eaten it at a restaurant, according to a survey conducted for Mintel’s Ethnic Foods-U.S. report. In addition, consumers are most interested in trying Thai, Caribbean and Japanese foods. 

“Manufacturers and retailers have an opportunity to provide fish and seafood kits, either frozen or refrigerated, that contain all the ingredients needed to create a traditional ethnic dish,” Frank says.

While there are not many refrigerated seafood meal kits in stores currently, Frank believes retailers could profit by carrying lines such as the Sushi Bob kits from King & Prince Seafood. Currently in foodservice outlets like college campuses, five different kits contain “freshly frozen” seafood and pre-sheeted rice. “Holding in-store demonstrations on how to assemble the kits could ease some of the potential apprehension that some consumers may have,” Frank says.

Plus, retailers could provide their own refrigerated kits such as a Thai red curry fishmeal, which would contain curry paste, coconut milk, skinless whitefish fillets, potatoes and tomatoes, along with a recipe.

Retailers should carry portions that allow seafood to be customized to each family member’s tastes, according to Steven Johnson, grocerant guru with foodservice consulting firm Foodservice Solutions. 

“For a convenient meal, a retailer needs to sell single portions of salmon and other fish, along with different types of seafood kabobs,” Johnson says. A variety of seafood sauces should be supplied for those who have different tastes, he adds.

While retailers stand to capture a much larger share of the prepared-meals market in terms of seafood, the current sales growth in this category is impressive. In supermarkets’ deli departments, seafood-entrée sales grew 13 percent and sushi sales rose 13.8 percent for the 52 weeks ending March 26, according to Nielsen Perishables Group. Growth was slower in grocers’ seafood departments, as prepared seafood meal sales rose 4.7 percent.

“Not only have retailers added a much broader range of products, but they’ve gotten savvier about merchandising them and expanded them into other areas of the store. I do see seafood being integrated into offerings in the traditional prepared foods/deli department more often,” Anderson says.

Many supermarkets have also added restaurant-style concepts that focus on seafood, such as the oyster bar at Mariano’s Fresh Market in Milwaukee and The Food Bar at Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans stores. The Food Bar features lobster rolls, fish fry baskets and pan-seared seafood entrées. 

One of the biggest trends that Technomic executives have seen is the increase in cooking, seasoning and marinating seafood for shoppers in grocers’ seafood departments. For example, Williamsville, N.Y.-based Tops Friendly Markets has an extensive fish-fry program. 

“Another variation is seafood boils like the crawfish boils at Rouses, or offering to steam shellfish and fish free of charge, which is being offered by a number of different retailers,” Anderson says. 

Upscale retailers like Whole Foods, Bristol Farms and The Fresh Market offer self-serve food bars with shrimp, seafood salads, ceviche and seafood soups and chowders near the seafood department, according to Anderson.

Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.

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