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Top Story: Meet the new boss — Marketing to millennials

Millennials represent a new frontier for seafood marketers

By Christine Blank
April 01, 2014

Millennials are an elusive lot. These 20- to 35-year-olds have varying tastes and preferences and have become one of the most powerful purchasing groups in America. Around 77 million consumers, almost 25 percent of the U.S. population, are classified as millennials. This is a massive demographic that rivals the other big generational group: baby boomers.

However, little is understood about millennials by seafood marketers, in part because this group is a walking contradiction. Most millennials are interested in buying products that they consider to be healthful and environmentally friendly, including local and sustainable foods, yet they are not always willing to pay for these premium items. Millennials are looking for value more than any other generation. They are newest to the workforce and are one of the groups “hit hardest by the economic downturn,” says Sherry Frey, executive VP of Nielsen Perishables Group. “They tend to buy lower-priced seafood items as well as more convenient/value-added options.”

Millennials are also more tech-savvy and convenience-minded than their Generation X and baby boomer predecessors. While this makes them open to marketing via social media and buying convenient foods at supermarkets, C-stores, restaurants and other outlets, they also are known for having short attention spans. 

Fortunately for seafood manufacturers and restaurants, millennials have adventurous taste buds. Seafood is already a more adventurous item for many shoppers to buy. Retailers and restaurants that accompany their seafood dishes with unique, worldly flavors will likely succeed. 

Baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964), meanwhile, are also looking for exciting new flavors and — with their desire to eat healthier foods than other groups — are the other most important demographic group for seafood marketers.

“Compared to total shoppers, both boomers and millennials are more engaged with the seafood department, with higher household penetration, more trips and a larger spend per trip,” Frey says. 

The numbers  

Both millennials and baby boomers spend more money on fresh seafood than other generational groups. 

The boomer generation made 218 per-capita restaurant visits in 2012, versus 199 restaurant visits for millennials, according to the NPD Group’s National Eating Trends study.

“Seafood tends to skew older; possibly it is as an acquired taste that consumers discover in their 20s and 30s and then it becomes more of a frequent eating occasion,” says Charles St. Clair, chief marketing officer for Long John Silver’s, the largest U.S. QSR seafood restaurant chain, based in Louisville, Ky. Baby boomers are a very important segment of LJS customer base, representing 40 percent of its customers and accounting for around 50 percent of its core users, those who eat in, carry out or order drive through at its restaurants at least twice a month. Millennials, on the other hand, comprise 30 percent of the restaurant chain’s customer base, but only account for 20 percent of its core users. 

Millennials and boomers are pretty evenly matched when it comes to buying fresh seafood at supermarkets. Seventy-four percent of millennial households shop in fresh seafood departments, compared to 73 percent of baby boomer households and 70 percent of all other generational groups, according to Nielsen’s FreshFacts Shopper Insights. 

Millennials spend on average $12.06 per shopping trip on fresh seafood, while boomers spend $11.86 per trip, according to Nielsen. The average shopper spends on average $11.68 per trip on fresh seafood. 

Because millennials are purchasing few meals away from home, the meals that retailers provide must be healthful, convenient and feature exciting and ethnic flavors, experts say. In 2007, millennials enjoyed around 22 percent of their meals away from home, compared to 18 percent in 2012, according to NPD. 

“Millennials are eating more at home. It is cheaper, they are trying to eat healthier and they want portion control,” said Warren Solocheck, VP of client services/development for NPD. Solocheck presented the data to attendees at the National Fisheries Institute’s Global Seafood Market Conference in Miami in January. 

Conversely, boomers purchased a similar number of meals — 17 percent — away from home in 2012 compared to 2007. However, boomers are more inclined to eat seafood at restaurants; a significant portion of this older demographic ordered seafood dishes at restaurants over the past year, 64 percent compared to 39 percent of millennials. 

Forty percent of boomers and 40 percent of millennials who did not order seafood said they just “have no taste for it,” according to NPD. Almost 30 percent of boomers and 25 percent of millennials also said they did not order seafood because it is “too expensive.” Notably — since millennials are driven by new, exciting and interesting products — 16 percent of millennials did not order seafood because there was “nothing appealing” on the menu.

“Restaurants need to make seafood more appealing. Millennials are very much a grab-and-go group. The traditional center-of-the-plate fish, served in a casual-dining environment, is not terribly appealing to them,” Solocheck said.

Convenience, preparation skills a challenge 

Millennials’ preference for convenient, quick and healthful foods opens the door for grocery stores and fish markets to develop more freshly prepared seafood items. Millennials are extremely important to the prepared-foods category, with 78 percent bringing home prepared foods in January, according to Acosta Sales and Marketing’s The Why? Behind the Buy study.   

At grocery stores, millennials tend to buy more seafood meals, appetizers, surimi seafood, shrimp, clams, crab, tilapia and seasonings/ spices/breadings for seafood, according to Nielsen.

Millennials were also the biggest users of restaurants’ pick-up/carry-out services in January: 78 percent of them picked up food from restaurants, versus 72 percent of Gen X customers and 58 percent of baby boomers.

Millennials are attracted to healthier foods such as seafood, but are unfamiliar with how to prepare seafood, says Steven Johnson, grocerant guru at foodservice and hospitality consulting firm Foodservice Solutions.

More supermarkets and fish markets should be offering convenient, healthful seafood meals that are customized to each family member, to appeal to both millennials and boomers, Johnson suggests. 

“You could stick two pieces of salmon in two different packages, using packaging such as the Q Bag (aluminum foil cooking bags that allow consumers to put the uncooked meal in the bag, in their ovens or grills). Let’s say the wife likes fresh dill and lemon flavor on her salmon, and the husband likes Cajun seasoning. Both could be cooked simultaneously,” Johnson says.

Because boomers are interested in healthful, premium and convenient foods, they tend to purchase more crabmeat, sauces/marinades, dips and spreads and prepared fish and shellfish.

“Both groups are looking to create restaurant-quality meals at home and are interested in unique, globally inspired flavor profiles. A simple lemon-pepper flavoring isn’t going to be exciting for these groups,” Nielsen’s Frey says.

But how do retailers and restaurants combine these key attributes into their seafood meals? Executives at grocery chains and restaurant chains are working overtime to figure out the right formula. 

Fast-food chains have improved offerings geared toward both millennials and boomers with items such as fish or shrimp wraps, fish or shrimp tacos, fish sticks and fish sandwiches. 

“We have developed some more affordable and portable offerings, such as Dippin’ Fish Strips. The Fish Strips are made from Alaska pollock and come in a cup that sits in cars’ cup holders,” LJS’s St. Clair says. “Those types of products have a strong appeal to those younger consumers, but are equally appealing to the vital Generation
X consumers.”

LJS’ boomer, millennial and Gen X customers are also seeking healthful items, leading the chain to feature more non-fried items, such as a baked cod meal on its 600 Calories and Under menu. In addition, the chain is developing lighter salads, sandwiches and soups for this summer.

Likewise, leading super-market chains and fish markets are offering more prepared seafood items that have unique flavors and, in some cases, that are portable. For example, Robert’s Seafood Market in Springfield, Ill., offers around 10 different prepared seafood items daily including crab cheese balls, smoked teriyaki salmon,
crab-stuffed mushrooms and seafood soups and chowders.

To complement its seafood grab-and-go options, Robert’s also recently added organic grains, rice and gluten-free products. “Anything that is more health conscious is what our customers were asking for,” says General Manager Brian Aiello.

Robert Clark, former executive chef with C Restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia, and a sustainable seafood advocate, also sees no end to the value-added meals trend. As a result, Clark built a professional kitchen in his Vancouver-based seafood market, The Fish Counter, which opened last November allowing home chefs to prepare unique, healthful seafood meals to go.

Approximately 10 or so daily prepared seafood items at the store include Niçoise salad (traditionally made with tomatoes, green beans, eggs and olives) with or without tuna, smoked salmon and seafood soups. In a takeout section of the store, The Fish Counter offers “fast food” with a healthy twist, such as fish tacos.

Education is paramount  

One of the best ways to encourage millennials to purchase more seafood at stores and restaurants is educating them about the health benefits affiliated with seafood consumption and how to prepare it, experts agree. Seafood department staff must be properly trained to talk with boomers and millennials about the health benefits as well as how it’s sourced and prepared, Frey says.

“The seafood industry needs to focus on getting more consumers to the case to try seafood, getting seafood consumers to buy more frequently and getting more seafood in their baskets each time they are at the case. This can be done by simply educating the consumer on the product, especially preparation recommendations,” Frey says.

Retailers don’t necessarily need to provide seafood recipes. “Often, it’s enough to showcase cooking method (broiling, grilling, etc.) to inspire consumers,” Frey says.

Notably, millennials also seek information on where their seafood was sourced and how it was farmed or harvested. Even though they are value-conscious, they are big buyers of organic, natural, sustainable, premium and high-quality foods. 

To appeal to millennials and educate all customers about the origin and sustainability of its seafood, LJS launched a Think Fish multimedia ad campaign in February that seeks to cut into beef and poultry sales. 

“The campaign centers around educating consumers about the benefits of eating more fish, the origins of fish … and lets them know that our fish are all from certified sustainable fisheries,” St. Clair says. “A few years ago, this wasn’t important to many in our customer base. Today, millennials and Generation X are curious and even concerned about these issues.”

Because of millennials’ dependence upon technology to gather information, successful seafood suppliers, restaurants and retailers are educating this demographic via social media. 

“We built a following at farmers markets, and found that social media is popular among customers 25 to 45 years old,” says Ryan Speckman, a partner in Locals Seafood, a retail and wholesale seafood operation in Raleigh, N.C. (See What’s in Store, page 36.)

But how do seafood marketers reach this tech-savvy, wants-everything-now demographic group? Keep messages authentic and personal, Frey suggests. 

“When interacting with companies via social media, they value authenticity — they want to feel like they have a personal, direct interaction with the brand — and in return, they’ll advocate and endorse that brand. Millenials want to feel good about what they buy.”

Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.

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