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Product Spotlight: Soups, chowders, bisques

Retail push helps increase category sales

The retail segment is driving sales for the
    soup/chowder/bisque category. - Photo courtesy of Blount Fine Foods
By April Forristall
June 01, 2008

With fuel prices setting new records week after week, dining out is becoming a luxury many can't afford. More and more consumers are skipping restaurants in favor of recreating their favorite meals at home. However, seafood is one food people tend to shy away from because of its complexity and their inexperience preparing and cooking it. One way for retailers to comfort consumers and drive seafood sales is to dish it out with a ladle.

"Seafood is expensive, but soups are moderately priced," says Todd Blount, president of Blount Fine Foods in Fall River, Mass. "It's definitely a great place for seafood to be used. It's definitely easier than other seafood because it's pre-made - you don't have to cook anything."

Seafood soups' popularity has been steadily growing for more than four years. While restaurants have contributed to the category's expansion, it's the retail segment that's really driving the growth.

Data from The Nielsen Co., a New York market research firm, show that for the 52-week period ending April 19, sales of canned and frozen/refrigerated seafood bisques totaled more than $9 million, a $7 million increase from the same period in 2004.

Sales of Phillips Foods' seven retail soups increased 300 percent from 2003 to 2007, says Honey Konicoff, the Baltimore company's VP of marketing.

While fresh sales were up 4.3 percent from last year, Nielsen data shows sales of canned seafood dropped 3.4 percent.

Those numbers don't surprise Guy Simmons, VP of marketing and product development at SeaWatch International in Easton, Md. "It used to be condensed soups were the norm, and ready-to-serve soups are now," says Simmons, whose company produces eight soups under the Gorton's label and four under the SeaWatch name.

Years ago no one was interested in fresh soups, Blount agrees, but with people dining out less, that's changing. As a result, his company has seen significant growth for its 20-plus chowders and bisques.

"The fresh growth in retail has a lot to do with customers looking for restaurant-quality soups that they can pick up and eat at home," he says. "Providing retailers and club stores with these soups gets consumers excited because they can't make seafood soups at home, cannot buy them in the canned aisle and would normally have to have them in a restaurant."

Still, seafood-based products only account for about 5 percent of the $3.5 billion soup industry has raked in so far this year, but manufacturers say that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"Seafood soups in retail isn't a saturated market, so we've found great opportunity there," says Konicoff. "We're not in the same category as Campbell's; this is something maybe you're going to plan out a little more. It's an indulgence product, an entertaining product. It's a treat-yourself-right product."

Blount concurs, "[We] have a harder time competing against chicken or vegetable [soups] because it's more expensive, but that allows us to create a niche."

That niche market also allows seafood-based soups to avoid the seasonality challenges other soups face. Soups by nature are considered a cold-weather food, but most seafood soups, chowders and bisques remind consumers of summer.

"People come to the waterfront and expect to have seafood soups," Blount explains. "In New England, Maine, the Jersey Shore - there are more sales in summer than winter," which is largely driven by tourists' desire for New England clam chowder.

"Seafood soups have a little bit more staying power because of [holidays like] the Fourth of July, with people going down to the shore and going to the beach," 
he says.

Phillips' soups also perform well in the summer months. "A lot of our sales come from crab, and people think crab in the summer, so that keeps sales strong," says Konicoff. In fact, Phillips' Cream of Crab is one of the company's top-selling soups.

"It used to be more seasonal than it is [now]. It's leveled out more," says Simmons of Sea- Watch. "At most we get a little bump around October when the weather changes. It used to be business would almost double. Now it's more year-round."

Not even the seasonal catch-22 can prevent seafood-based soups from becoming one of the most popular ways for consumers to eat seafood at home. Seafood-based soups, chowders and bisques can help keep seafood in the spotlight at a time when customers are tightening their 
purse strings.


Editorial Assistant April Forristall can be e-mailed at aforristall@divcom.com


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