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Case Study: Yoke’s rehabs service seafood

Pier 39 helps define Fresh Market concept

 - Photo courtesy of Yoke's Fresh Market
By Lisa Duchene
June 01, 2007

Not long ago, the meat director at a small eastern Washington supermarket chain wanted to ditch its seafood department altogether and use the space to make money on something else.

That was seven years ago. Now, Yoke's, with 13 stores in Washington and Idaho, is making money on seafood. Winter holiday sales climbed 24 percent from 2005 to 2006, says Ken Chapin, meat and seafood director for Yoke's Fresh Market, with headquarters in Spokane, Wash.

"When I saw the numbers I was shocked," says Chapin. "We had such a good year in [2005], I was hoping to just maintain. I was tickled. It's great to see your payoff."

That payoff comes after several years of transforming Yoke's seafood business from a low-priced nuisance to a full-service department. The revamped department, branded as Pier 39, offers customers 30 varieties of seafood, promotions and seafood know-how.

"We've just come a long way on our seafood," says Chapin. "It's something I'm proud of when I walk in our stores. [Seafood] has become a real focus."

The turnaround coincided with the rise of Wal-Mart as a national supermarket force. As Wal-Mart gained ground throughout the country, Yoke's decided it didn't have the buying power to battle the retail giant on price.

So Yoke's Pac 'n Save - a low-price, big-box format where customers could literally save a few additional pennies by packing their own groceries - transformed into Yoke's Fresh Market, a format focused on better quality, more variety, improved service, competitive pricing - and an all-around better seafood department.

In 2000, when the company decided to change formats, many supermarkets in the Pacific Northwest seemed to be moving away from seafood, says Chapin, so it saw an opportunity to become the area's best seafood retailer.

Since then, the company has remodeled all 13 of its stores in the region and built four new Fresh Market stores.

Gauging the private company's overall performance is difficult since its stock is employee held. But Yoke's is in good shape, 
says Chapin.

"I think we're doing well," says Chapin. "I don't know where we would be [without the change], but we continue to grow. We've built a new store every year or remodeled one since [2000]."

The typical seafood department offers a 24-foot service case and 4-foot self-service case. About 80 percent of the seafood is fresh.

The department has an open-market, well-lit, upscale design featuring a 4-by-3-foot ice table tilted higher in the back and angling the seafood display toward the passing customers, says Matt Fitterer, branch manager for Pacific Seafood, a Clackamas, Ore., distributor that supplies Yoke's.

The ice table serves as an attention-getting focal point, often snagging customers as they walk by, giving the seafood staff a chance to engage the customers in conversation about seafood, says Fitterer.

Pacific Northwest favorites like Alaska salmon, king crab, Dungeness crab, Pacific rockfish, cod and sole are popular sellers among the eastern Washington customers. So is shrimp.

Yoke's has also expanded its fresh assortment by adding marlin, shark and tuna, when available. It carries basic value-added items like marinated and stuffed fillets, and is working to develop a broader assortment of value-added seafood products.

"I really think where it's going is that the consumer still wants the homemade look and that homemade taste without the homemade work, and that's what we're trying to provide," says Chapin.

Yoke's promotes a perishable product on Fridays. Every five to seven weeks, the store has a big seafood sale on "Fresh Friday" promoting eight or nine seafood items with in-store and radio advertising, says Fitterer.

To help take Yoke's seafood departments to the next level, Chapin is working on a customer education program to tell the story behind as many of the seafood products as possible. With help from distributors Pacific Seafood and Ocean Beauty in Seattle, which also supplies Yoke's, Chapin has asked each of the producers to develop a 30-second video segment showing the seafood as it is harvested. He plans to pull them all together by summer and run the footage on 13-inch televisions located in each store's seafood department.

It's a more technologically advanced way to tell the products' stories. Chapin currently publishes one-page product write-ups about how the fish was caught, its nutritional benefits and a recipe idea. In mid-March, Yoke's featured troll-caught Alaska king salmon as a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, and offered a recipe for lemon-garlic Alaska salmon.

Yoke's is also ensuring all of its safe handling and traceability practices are ship-shape and consistently followed.

The takeaway lesson, says Fitterer, is that investment in a knowledgeable seafood staff pays off because the more it knows about seafood, the better it is at selling it.

Distributors and suppliers are often eager to help a store train its salespeople, he notes.

"A lot of people realize with seafood that there's money there," says Fitterer. "You don't have to sell it cheap."

Just ask Chapin. Yoke's seafood prices are certainly competitive, but price is no longer the sole focus, says Chapin, the meat guy who no longer considers the real estate devoted to seafood as wasted space.

"One of my biggest challenges was to really believe that we could build a department that could do just what it's done," he says. Once he realized beefing up the seafood department was a way to stand out from the competition, Chapin never looked back.

"I really believe that when people think about seafood, they think about us now," he says.


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


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