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What's in Store: Robert’s Seafood Market puts on a new face

Family business’ wholesale-to-retail switch pays dividends

Robert’s has doubled its fresh fish offerings to draw out local seafood lovers. - Photo courtesy of Robert’s Seafood Market
By Christine Blank
February 01, 2014

Contrary to other independent fish markets that are reducing their fresh seafood selection to control costs, 98-year-old Robert’s Seafood Market in Springfield, Ill., has increased its fresh offerings. Expansion is the name of the game for Robert’s, which also completed a major renovation in December, nearly doubling its space to 2,500 square feet and increasing its prepared seafood and non-seafood grocery selection. 

The longstanding fish market, which started out as a retail store and then switched to a joint wholesale and retail operation, has re-invented itself as a successful retail-only location. In 2006, owner Dean Robert opted to sell the wholesale portion of the business to Sysco and focus only on retail. This move posed branding and presentation challenges in the marketplace. 

“All of a sudden, we couldn’t find large volumes of seafood like we had before and we needed to re-identify the customer base with what we are now: pure retail,” says Brian Aiello, GM of operations. Utilizing the Robert family’s connections in the community and investing in marketing and advertising, Robert’s Seafood effectively built awareness about its fresh seafood offerings for residents in the busy Chicago suburb, where there was a generational shift, of sorts, in the works. 

“All of the seafood species we were known for in the past, such as shucked oysters and smoked chubs, appealed to the older, previous generation. The new generation, which is more health conscious, re-energized us to address the opportunities going forward,” Aiello says.

As a result, the market continued to carry a selection of oysters and chubs, while adding many new fresh selections. “Some of our selection was fresh-frozen, and our goal was to go to almost a pure fresh case. We built up our assortment of heart-healthy products to go along with what the customers were asking for,” Aiello says.

A few years ago, Robert’s carried eight to 10 fresh fish species daily. Now it carries at least 16 different fresh varieties daily, along with a large selection of shellfish. Even during the latest economic downturn, Robert’s owners opted to continue carrying a wide variety of high-quality seafood and not shift to more cost-conscious, frozen items. 

“We brought in a larger selection, and increased our [print] advertising budget. Lo and behold, the true seafood lovers kept coming out,” Aiello says. The wide finfish variety appeals to Chicago-area customers who hail from all over the country and the world, according to Aiello. “We are able to do special orders and bring in things people want to try. As a small, stand-alone store, we are able to quickly respond to requests.” 

He also noticed that younger customers were more interested in a wide variety of in-shell oysters, instead of limited varieties of shucked product. The store features five to six different oysters from all over the country and holds oyster tastings, including a recent event with a local wine store.

“While shucked oysters have been steady, shell oysters have been triple-digit growth for us,” Aiello says.

Now, it seems that Robert’s entire customer base appreciates the larger selection and continues to buy premium items. “We have opened up people who used to come in for a basic selection of salmon tilapia and cod, and really started going out on a limb to offer something different,” Aiello says.

As a result, the store’s shrink rate is less than 5 percent, much better than most grocery stores, according to Aiello. Buying smaller quantities of fresh seafood at a time, in daily deliveries, also aids in that effort. 

While finfish is Robert’s top selling category, its wild Gulf shrimp business is growing at a fast clip.  

“We brought on our first branded Gulf Wild shrimp four years ago, which has really helped the brand awareness in the area,” Aiello says. Private label shrimp sales grew 23 percent in volume in the fourth quarter of 2013.

In-store space once devoted to cooking classes now features specialty produce, cheeses, pastas, oils, crackers and fresh, local bread. 

“We added organic grains, rice and gluten-free products. The more health-conscious items are what customers were asking for,” Aiello says. “We also brought in some meats, including 21-day aged steak, so we are a one-stop option. We are going to take away any excuse not to stop at our store on the way home.” 

Robert’s is also utilizing some of its additional space for prepared seafood items. The store features up to 10 different prepared meals a day, along with two or three soups prepared in-house. “Smoked seafood has shown very good growth. We take the salmon and smoke it with a teriyaki flavor, and we also offer smoked shrimp and smoked herring,” Aiello says. In the fourth quarter of 2013, sales of prepared seafood items grew 28 percent.

The changes that the management team is making are paying off. In 2014, the company’s net sales will be double what they were when it switched to retail-only in 2006. “We are looking forward to hitting our 100th year in business very soon, and want to keep a great family tradition going in a business that is not easy to predict,” Aiello says. 

Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.

 

February 2014 - SeaFood Business   

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