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Case Study: Suggestive selling key to sparking impulse buys

Shoppers' unplanned purchases drive business in the seafood department

By Lisa Duchene
August 01, 2006

A beautiful display of blue mussels caught the eye of John Stanton, a food-marketing expert in Phila­delphia, one spring weekend as he waited at his local supermarket seafood counter for the four salmon steaks on his shopping list. Anti­cipating the flavor of mussels steamed in white wine, Stanton bought 4 pounds.

Effective merchandising led to the add-on sale, in spite of the ineffective salesman behind the counter, says Stanton, professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University Haub School of Business.

"You've got [a customer] standing there. They're going to buy seafood. And what does the guy behind the counter do? He asks, dead-panned, like it's one word: 'Anythingelse?' "

Proper suggestive selling - cheerfully asking customers if they would like some of the fresh Alaska salmon or fresh New England haddock that just came in - and sharp merchandising, point-of-purchase materials and seafood-cooking demos are all key to capturing the unplanned purchases that drive the grocery business.

Only 2 percent of shoppers say they never buy anything unplanned, according to market research released in April from the Hartman Group, a Seattle firm that studied the relationship between unplanned purchases and the type of shopping trip.

The research found consumers make unplanned purchases in 47 percent of trips to buy ingredients for a special recipe, 52 percent of after-work supplemental shopping trips, and 67 percent of traditional, weekly shopping trips.

But suggestive selling is tough stuff.

"If every time a consumer bought flounder the person behind the counter said: 'Have you tried stuffing it with crabmeat? The crabmeat is right over there,' I know they'd sell a lot of crabmeat. You just can't get those people to do it. That's the problem," says Stanton.

Polished suggestive selling means having a team of experienced, qualified employees in place, and that's difficult to do, says Mohammed Jeddy, seafood buyer and merchandiser for the 50-store Fiesta Mart chain in Houston.

"As [customers] walk by the seafood department, the staff member says: 'Good morning! How are you today? We've got fresh Gulf shrimp today. We've got fresh snapper today. We've got fresh king salmon coming today.'"

At any time, the Fiesta seafood staff could be waiting on a "mystery" shopper, or someone posing as a shopper who will give the managers feedback on how well the staff suggested a purchase. The company rewards employees who do the best job of suggestive selling by giving them gift certificates, time off or manufacturers' samples, says Jeddy.

He estimates about 70 percent of his business is from customers who plan to buy seafood but don't know what they want.

"What they're going to buy, they decide in 10 to 15 seconds standing in front of the seafood counter," says Jeddy.

Once the display and staff have helped them decide, the goal is to ring up an add-on sale.

Merchandising is another way to do just that, says Jeddy. In early June, each Fiesta store had a big display and signs advertising frozen "Gulf of Mexico Super Jumbo Colossal" shrimp for $3.99 per pound.

Fiesta also runs up to 20 demos per month to help trigger unplanned purchases. If a bilingual cook can demonstrate a simple way to prepare seafood, the demo works well. Handing out samples is unproductive, says Jeddy, because you're feeding shoppers instead of teaching them something.

Unplanned, or impulse, purchases drive the grocery business.

"If the only things people bought are what they planned to buy, the stores would be going out of business," says Stanton, who prefers the term "unplanned," because "impulse" implies frivolous, random consumer behavior. Often, the store reminds the consumer about a product of value, he says.

Understanding why consumers make unplanned purchases, and then triggering them, is key to a successful seafood department, says Steve Lutz, executive VP of The Perishables Group, a Chicago market-research firm that in March studied seafood purchasing at a New England grocery chain.

"You can do a lot of other things well, but impulse seems to be where the true opportunity may lie," says Lutz. "All of your work in [helping customers] prepare to buy is lost if you fumble the ball at the goal line, at the store level."

Price is the biggest factor involved in a consumer's seafood purchase, says Lutz. Consumers with lower incomes reacted more to price-driven impulse offers, while higher-income people are more likely to plan, he says.

"Our belief is that, at lower incomes, people are responding to perceived value. If seafood is perceived as a good value, they will make the buy," says Lutz. The appearance and quality of the product are the second-most-important purchasing factor, he says.

The smartest retailers drive impulse purchases with an attractive, quality product and a value-conscious price, says Lutz.

"Look at what Costco is able to do with a fairly narrow segment of [seafood] products," he notes. "It's always presented in a way that's very appetizing and fresh but with a strong price-and-value message."

One tried-and-true technique is to run an "in-store special" on seafood "too fresh to advertise," like fresh Cape Cod bluefish that arrives in the store just before the weekend, says Jim Wallace, VP of perishables procurement for C&S Wholesale Grocers, a Hatfield, Mass., distributor to 1,500 stores from Maine to Alabama.

C&S also operates the 110-store Southern Family Markets chain in Alabama.

It's important to draw customers into the seafood department from other areas of the store. An outdoor seafood-grilling station at the storefront reminds people about cooking seafood before they even walk in the door, says Wallace.

Dan Love, director of meat and seafood for 18 Holiday Quality Foods grocery stores and four SaveMore Foods stores in northern California, estimates about 75 percent of his seafood sales are unplanned purchases.

To trigger those purchases, the stores have recipe cards on the counter and have been expanding value-added, ready-to-cook products like marinated catfish, stuffed sole and salmon for customers shopping for that night's meal. Four of the Holiday stores are service-seafood departments; the rest are self-service.

The company also sends its meat/seafood managers to seafood plants to learn about seafood, and to a winery to learn from a chef how to pair wine and seafood.

"Fewer and fewer people are actually showing up in the store with a shopping list," says Love. "You put your emphasis [on impulse buys] because that's where the action is."


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


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