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What's in Store: The demo does it

Retailers find success with in-store educational opportunities

PCC Natural Markets goes to great lengths to educate
    its customers about seafood. - Photo courtesy of PCC Natural Markets
By Christine Blank
September 01, 2009

Fall is a great time to think about seasonal cooking classes and events that not only educate shoppers but boost sales of a featured product. Back-to-school time is a great opportunity to offer culinary presentations, because many families return to a regular schedule of eating dinner together during the school year.

Many grocers have found that cooking demonstrations, truckload sales, seasonal seafood promotions and other events heighten their customers' understanding of the protein. These events also can get shoppers more excited about supermarkets' fresh seafood departments, which experienced only a 0.1 percent sales increase in 2008, according to research and consulting firm The Perishables Group.

This April, Heinen's Fine Foods, a 17-store chain based in Warrensville Heights, Ohio, brought back seafood-cooking demonstrations that had boosted sales in the past. For the past few months, all of its stores have been holding cooking demos two days a week from 4 to 7 p.m., as well as a six-hour demo during the weekend.

"At the corporate level, we pick a feature of the week, then we put the talking points about that particular seafood on a half sheet of paper, then put a recipe on the other half," says Marty Gaul, Heinen's seafood buyer and merchandiser.

The resulting flyer, which shoppers can take home, also lists the retail price of the seafood item, the portion size and the cost per portion. "People always think fish is so expensive, but when you have a 4-ounce or 6-ounce portion, it takes the retail down to $5 per portion [in some cases]," says Gaul.

Heinen's recipes are meant to be easy for shoppers to prepare at home, and have included Baked Bay Scallops, Baked Ruby Red Trout and Panko-Crusted Baked Alaskan Cod. As expected, the cooking and educational demos - held by that store's seafood department staff - have boosted sales of the featured items.

"We have seen a dramatic rise in our seafood sales. Scallops have done well, and the salmon is always a hit," says Gaul.

Heinen's seafood sales team has also benefited from the cooking demonstrations. "The seafood team gets an education by doing this, but customers and everybody can see how easy it is to prepare," says Gaul.

Educating shoppers about the characteristics and benefits of premium items such as crab and sustainable seafood have proven more effective than simply discounting prices, many retailers have found.

"We had a seafood truckload sale this summer, and we did it dramatically different [than normal]," says Boyd Oase, meat and seafood director for the nine-store Kowalski's Markets based in Woodbury, Minn. "We didn't focus on the price point of items, as much as we did on quality."

For its one-store, one-day, semi-truck sale in late June, Kowalski's worked with seafood supplier The Plitt Co. The Chicago company brought in a chef to cook fresh fish and crab, and talk to shoppers about preparing the mahimahi, wild salmon, farmed salmon, tilapia, king crab, snow crab and other seafood.

"It stayed in line with what we do with seafood. It is not just based on price point; rather, we provide an open exchange about pricing, how to cook it and where it comes from," says Oase.

The event was promoted via in-store posters and bag stuffers, and Oase had projected that the truckload sale would result in between $8,000 and $10,000 in fresh seafood sales. Because of inclement weather during the one-day sale, the truckload sale produced around $5,000 in total sales.

Kowalski's is focused on helping its shoppers cook seafood at home in other ways, too. The retailer sponsors a "Cooking for Dad" video series on its Web site, www.kowalskis.com, in which visitors can click to view instructional videos on preparing all types of meals.

For retailers touting sustainable seafood, shoppers tend to have a lot of questions about which species are sustainable and what makes them so. Expert speakers, cooking demonstrations and recipes are proving to be effective ways to answer customers' questions and get them to try new types of fish.

The nine-store certified-organic grocery co-op PCC Natural Markets, based in Seattle, promotes sustainable seafood through brochures, its Sustainable Seafood Guide, sampling events and cooking classes.

"Last May, at the height of halibut season, we sold out after a sampling event," says Russ Ruby, director of merchandising for PCC.

In addition, PCC stores will demonstrate several seafood recipes during its "PCC Cooks" in-store cooking classes this fall. "A variety of our seafood will be featured in several classes, including Taste of Australia (shrimp), Foods and Wines of Provence (mussels) and Food and Mood (black cod). Also, we offer a special class called 'Simply Seafood,' which gives shoppers tips on how to select, handle and cook many kinds of seafood," says Ruby.

Like other seafood retailers, PCC's in-store seafood events are advertised on its Web site, www.pccnaturalmarkets.com, and several seafood recipes are provided for shoppers.


Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.


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