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What's in Store: Lent still has strong impact on seafood sales

Lent promotions provide crucial bump for retailers’ seafood departments

By Christine Blank
March 01, 2014

For many seafood retailers, Lent is the golden season. It is the period of time — unofficially starting with the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day and continuing through Easter — during which retailers record peak sales. In recent years, grocers and fish markets have wisely upped their fresh and frozen promotions throughout the season and added volume and variety to their fresh seafood departments.

“For the past three to four years, we have seen double-digit increases in the seafood department during Lent,” says James Breuhl, meat and seafood director for Thibodaux, La.-based Rouses. “A lot of that is attributed to keeping it fresh: bringing new things to the table and not offering the same old-same old every year.” 

The 44-store grocery chain steps up its in-store seafood-boil events during Lent and introduces new frozen fish lines, dips and prepared seafood items. “We also promote more with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and change up our fresh selection to add more from around the country and around the world,” Breuhl says.

Dayton, Ohio-based Dorothy Lane Market also holds special events during Lent. One of its most popular promotions is held every Friday, when sales associates grill crab cake sandwiches to order for shoppers at its three stores.  

The company also runs special three-day sales on fresh seafood that is in season. “If we can get an amazing price on something like steelhead, we feature it as one of our ‘red board’ sales, a big chalkboard sign outside the stores. That item is promoted on our Facebook page and through emails. People flock in over that,” says Kim Swing, seafood manager for Dorothy Lane’s Washington Square store in Dayton.

The increased focus on unique items and promoting popular seafood at a discount is paying off for grocers around the United States. Millions of Catholics celebrate Lent, eating seafood on Friday and other days from March 5 through April 17. There are 75 million Catholics in the United States and 41 percent attend church services at least weekly, according to Pew Research Center. 

This bodes well for seafood sales: The number of people forgoing meat on Fridays rose 20 percent from 2011 to 2013, according to a survey by online food ordering service GrubHub.

“The Catholic faith here [in Louisiana] is huge, and that brings in a lot of customers. We see a 20 percent increase in seafood sales compared to rest of the year,” Breuhl says. Lent also happens to coincide with the fresh crawfish season in Louisiana, which allows Rouses to step up promotions of live and cooked crawfish.

Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday during Lent, Rouses stores sell boiled crawfish and vegetable accompaniments in front of its stores. “The aroma entices them into the store. Not only do you increase sales on seafood during Lent, but you drive sales throughout your entire store,” Breuhl says. 

Rouses shoppers typically buy between 10 and 60 pounds of boiled crawfish each during Lent, and Rouses also provides boiled crawfish for several large catering events.

Fresh seafood promotions during Lent are similarly successful for Dorothy Lane Market, which sells large volumes of Alaska cod, farmed salmon, tilapia, haddock, sole, flounder and other seafood, according to Swing. “Our sales have been going up 7 percent to 8 percent every year for the last several years, especially on Fridays,” Swing says. 

During the season, the retailer gets many customers who are fairly new to buying fresh seafood. “So, you get people with a lot of questions. We serve a lot of baby boomers, and some think of seafood as fish sticks and salmon patties. We help people who are learning how to cook fish,” Swing says. 

Seafood distributors realize a similar lift during Lent. “We anticipate much higher sales for the Lenten period; it probably exceeds the selling seasonfrom Thanksgiving through Christmas. Retail sales for Lent have grown every year for us, around 10 to 15 percent,” says Harry Mahleres, director of purchasing for Denver distributor Seattle Fish Co.  

Retailers kick off Lent early with big Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day promotions that strengthen sales through April, Mahleres says. 

Supermarket chains that Seattle Fish Co. supplies — including King Soopers — primarily promote king crab, sockeye salmon, Alaska cod, catfish and tilapia throughout the season. 

Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.

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