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What's in Store: Prepared interest peaks

Retailers, suppliers develop new RTC seafood items

Prepared seafood products are flying off the shelves
    at some retail markets. - Photo by Laura Lee Dobson
By Christine Blank
June 01, 2009

While customers at chain supermarkets seem to be avoiding the higher-priced protein during the recession [see Top Story, page 16], some upscale independent retailers are finding their customers are cooking seafood more at home rather than eating out in restaurants. This change in behavior bodes well for sales of prepared, ready-to-cook seafood items.

Prepared seafood recipes by retailers and seafood suppliers are also fueling this trend. Crabmeat-stuffed fish, salmon burgers, new flavors of crusted fish, fish with unique Asian marinades, crab cakes and seafood kabobs are some of the popular items being offered.

"With the lag in the restaurant business, we find that people are coming to us for their gourmet meals. They are looking for restaurant-quality fish or even fresh fish to take home," says Marty Gaul, seafood buyer and merchandiser for Heinen's Fine Foods, a 17-store chain based in Warrensville Heights, Ohio. Heinen's prepared salmon burgers are selling very well, and the retailer recently introduced five varieties of ready-to-cook tilapia burgers, including Tropical Mango, Ginger Soy, Thai and Santa Fe.

Heinen's Stuffed Salmon Mignon Pinwheels are also popular, along with its Pecan-Crusted Tilapia and Potato-Crusted Orange Roughy. "It seems that people are in such a hurry that they want to take it home and bake it," says Gaul.

"Anything prepared is doing well," agrees Joe Lane, store manager and seafood director at the one-store Casey's Market in Western Springs, Ill. "All we have to do is put a marinade on it, and we can sell anything."

In addition to offering two or three varieties of marinated fish a week, Casey's is also realizing sales success with prepared items added this year; breaded and battered perch, breaded cod and halibut, salmon burgers, lobster and crab ravioli, lobster bisque and clam chowder. Casey's salmon burgers retail for $5.98 for two burgers, and its breaded cod and halibut items are priced at $6.98 per 12-ounce package.

"All the new stuff has been flying out of here, especially the battered and breaded perches. In the Midwest, we love perch," says Lane. Adding the new prepared items and maintaining good prices on fresh seafood contributed to a 4 to 5 percent increase in seafood department sales at Casey's Market in the first quarter of 2009, compared to the same time last year, says Lane.

Nationwide, seafood department sales declined by 1.7 percent for the 52 weeks ending Feb. 28, according to the Perishables Group, a Chicago-based market research firm. However, prepared seafood sales rose 1.4 percent during the same time period. Prepared seafood products also represented a higher average retail growth - 6.7 percent, compared to 4.3 percent average retail growth for fresh seafood during the same time period.

Prepared seafood now represents 15.4 percent of all seafood department sales, according to the Perishables Group.

United Supermarkets, a chain of nearly 50 stores with headquarters in Lubbock, Texas, finds that breaded items are selling especially well in its United stores and upscale Market Street locations.

"We cut down on the number of fresh fillets and put in more grab-and-go items. We're doing well with crusted items, such as Potato-Crusted Cod, Tortilla-Crusted Tilapia and Mediterranean-Crusted Salmon," says Scott Nettles, director of meat and seafood for United Supermarkets. Instead of selling the prepared items by the pound, United has boosted profits by selling 5.5-ounce portions for $2.50 to $3 each.

United also provides more prepared seafood items and lowers its fresh volume during the middle of the week, when shoppers seem to be more in a rush than on the weekends, says Nettles. "[Prepared items] are quick, easy and fast, when shoppers don't have time to fire up the grill or prepare a big meal," says Nettles.

At Casey's Market, seafood staff repackages some prepared items from The Plitt Co. of Chicago and Fortune Fish Co. of Bensenville, Ill., and sells them in the freezer cases. While it also offers several varieties of prepared seafood items in the refrigerated case, frozen items have helped the retailer reduce shrink in the fresh department, says Lane.

Prepared items developed by Casey's chefs that are selling well include marinated salmon, crab cakes and crab-stuffed mushroom caps, adds Lane.

Even though consumers are more interested in restaurant-quality prepared foods, seafood merchandisers are not ignoring their fresh departments. In fact, some retailers have expanded their fresh seafood selection and are teaching consumers how to prepare gourmet meals at home.

Heinen's, for example, plans to offer more seafood cooking classes by knowledgeable chefs. "We did it about a year ago in three stores, and it was a huge success. We're going to start it up again…in all our stores," says Gaul.


Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.


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