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Case Study: Grocers sell convenience

Bars, chef stations, recipes and personal touch ease seafood purchases

 - Photo courtesy of Hy-Vee
By Lisa Duchene
April 01, 2007

Americans are increasingly seeking healthy, convenient foods. Yet for most American consumers seafood is anything but convenient. The protein presents an intimidating set of variables in selection, flavors and cooking complexity.

The best retailers are finding ways to make seafood easier to shop for and easier to cook. And when it comes to convenient foods, smaller may be better. At Fresh Acres in Chicopee, Mass. - a 25,000- to 30,000-square-foot concept store from Big Y Supermarkets in Springfield, Mass., which opened a few months ago - seafood, meat and deli are consolidated in the same counter. The concept's premise is to offer time-pressed shoppers fresh, natural and easily prepared foods all in a smaller space to ease their shopping.

The Food Marketing Institute's Grocery Shopper Trends 2006 report finds increasing demand for ease of shopping. Store features that showed the greatest gains in importance among consumers were related to convenience: self-checkouts (16 percent of consumers surveyed in 2006 called this very important versus 9 percent in 2005), an easy-to-shop store layout (58 percent in 2006 versus 48 percent the prior year), and fast checkout (60 percent of shoppers versus 50 percent in 2005).

Leading retailers like Whole Foods Market, H.E. Butt, Wegmans and Giant Eagle are investing millions of dollars to make grocery shopping a more pleasant, enjoyable experience for customers. Culinary stations and open-kitchen chef demonstration areas are also prominent features in many stores.

Seafood doesn't get any more convenient than pulling up a stool at a bar right in the seafood department. At the Whole Foods stores in Austin, Texas, and Fairfax, Va., customers can do just that: sit, order a crab cake or pan-seared fillet, watch the chef cook in an open kitchen and even talk to him or her about the product for sale just a few feet away. The Whole Foods seafood bars represent the latest in-store twist on "eatertainment," says Bob Sullivan, CEO of Plitt Seafood, a Chicago distributor.

Consumers demand convenience, but ironically many will make the time when it comes to "eatertainment." Many will also spend the time when it comes to health and buying perishables.

"Yes, we're all time-starved, but we're also more willing to invest our time giving serious thought to our [perishable] purchases," says Marian Salzman, whose book "Next New: Trends for the Future" was published in December. She is executive VP and chief marketing officer for advertising agency 
JWT Worldwide.

"We want to know exactly what we're introducing into our bodies, and particularly with fresh protein like fish we want to know when and where it was caught. Fresh, local and natural are growing priorities for all consumers," says Salzman.

Retailers would be wise to deliver convenience, but not at the expense of those attributes. The answer, suggests Salzman, lies in fresh versus frozen.

"There's a point when we get to the frozen center of yet another cookie-cutter fish steak that we say, 'Enough!'"

Freshness, quality and all-natural are paramount for seafood departments, says Michael Kennally, VP of seafood for Price Chopper Supermarkets in Schenectady, N.Y.

Price Chopper delivers convenience to its seafood consumers in two important ways, says Kennally. Customers can always get fish fried (in trans-fat-free oil) to order out of the seafood case, a popular item, especially when promoted for $3.99 a serving, drawing a "tremendous" amount of people, he says.

Then, there are old-fashioned, one-on-one conversations with shoppers at the chain's 116 stores. Price Chopper's seafood cases open in the front so that counter staff can talk with customers and point out the products inside while standing with them in front of the display.

"We get side by side with our customers and that's the only way you can help them," says Kennally. In this way, counter staff help customers pick out a fillet or steak, give them meal ideas, often handing out recipe cards. "We love doing that. When you can do that and get that customer real excited about what they're buying, that's great."

Town and Country Markets and Central Market, with six stores in greater Seattle, takes the same approach as Price Chopper. Often, the counter staff gets to know the customers by name and over time learns their lifestyle and preferences in order to suggest how much and what kind of fish they need, says Chris King, seafood specialist.

"Experience with the customer," says King. "That's ease of shopping. We know people. We know what they want. We know how much they eat."

Product assortment, particularly value-added products, is another way seafood retailers work to deliver convenience. Retailers are devoting more real estate in their fresh seafood cases to pre-portioned value-added products like crab cakes, stuffed fillets, pre-marinated and otherwise ready-to-cook fish, says Sullivan. At a Pennsylvania Wegmans in early February, about one-third of the fresh case was devoted to ready-to-cook items like pecan-crusted tilapia, stuffed salmon and crab-stuffed mushrooms.

Bob Hartman, assistant deli and seafood director at Demoulas Supermarkets, a 58-store chain in Tewksbury, Mass., says the chain is selling more frozen, value-added products like bourbon salmon and stuffed tilapia filets. The stores introduced the products about a year ago and they've had a slow start, but demand is increasing, says Hartman. "People want to cook fish, but they're afraid to," says Hartman. "Value-added definitely helps them out."

Helping out means providing the basics, like recipes and menu suggestions.

The newest stores in the 197-store Hy-Vee chain, based in West Des Moines, Iowa, added recipe displays to their seafood departments (25 new stores and nine remodels are scheduled to open in 2007).

Hy-Vee's seafood departments are adding recipe kiosks because the company has seen increased demand for seafood, says Chris Friesleben, Hy-Vee spokeswoman.

"We're just maybe coming into our own when it comes to seafood, recognizing that our customers, we hope, are starting to change their eating habits to include more seafood. We have to step up to 
the plate."

Clearly, the definition of convenience differs from one retail chain to another, and keeping in tune with your customers is paramount to discovering what is truly convenient for them.


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


Some of the recipes were developed in the store's test kitchen, which also develops menus for consumers,

A 12-ounce , two-serving package retails for $3.99 to $4.99 for tilapia, add a $1 for salmon products.



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