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Case Study: Retailers help consumers plan seafood purchases

Some chains turn to online circulars to replace the traditional newpaper inserts

In its direct-mail pieces and weekly e-mails to
    consumers, Wild Oats puts the focus on seafood quality and
    freshness rather than price. - Photo courtesy of Wild Oats
By Lisa Duchene
July 01, 2006

At the grocery seafood counter, a colorful display of fresh, beautiful whole fish, fillets and shellfish is essential for capturing the attention of passing shoppers. But marketing to consumers before they enter the store is just as important as the in-store display, since many consumers plan their purchases long before laying eyes on the seafood department.

Many shoppers want to buy and eat their fresh fish on the same day, and an out-of-store marketing vehicle like a newspaper insert helps them schedule seafood meals. Nearly two-thirds of seafood shoppers plan their purchases before they arrive at the store, more than for other perishables, according to The Perishables Group, a Chicago consumer research firm that interviewed 250 shoppers at an East Coast grocery chain one week in March.

"Out-of-store messages are potentially more important for seafood," says Steve Lutz, Perishables Group executive VP. "You could probably argue there is an inverse relationship: As you move up the scale on items that have lower penetration levels and lower consumer knowledge, the importance of that advance information really grows."

About half of all grocery shoppers make a shopping list before going to the store, according to the Food Marketing Institute's U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2006 report. Non-working women and older shoppers are more likely to make a list, while working women are less likely to, says Todd Hultquist, FMI spokesman.

Worried about high gas prices, American grocery shoppers are economizing. They spend more time planning their shopping, making fewer trips to the store and using coupons, reports FMI. Prior to the 2005-06 gasoline woes, coupon usage was declining, and more shoppers, particularly in two-income households, were planning dinners on the fly, says Hultquist.

The weekly circular of promoted or on-sale products remains retailers' primary vehicle for reaching consumers outside the store. One-third of consumers look for grocery specials in the newspaper circular, says FMI.

While 90 percent of supermarket chains use their Web sites to market their stores, only 6 percent of consumers say they look online for store specials, says FMI.

The Kroger-owned Quality Food Center in Seattle, like many grocery chains, posts its weekly flyer online at www.qfconline.com and tailors it to each store. During late April, visitors to the QFC Web site saw whole, cooked Dungeness crabs on sale at the Mercer Island store for $3.99 per pound. Alaska sockeye fillets were $9.99 per pound, and fresh red snapper fillets were $5.99 per pound. Consumers can click on a button to create a shopping list and add selected seafood items to it.

Wegmans, a 70-store Northeast chain, posts a weekly online flyer at www.wegmans.com for each of its stores and often includes a seafood recipe. The company also goes beyond the flyer and mails customers a monthly glossy magazine of meal ideas called "menu."

Haggen, in Bellingham, Wash., owner of 32 supermarkets in Wash­ington and Oregon, also posts an attractive online flyer. In late April, it promoted Alaska halibut for $9.98 per pound and ahi tuna steak for $7.99 per pound.

Haggen's site, www.haggen.com, allows the shopper to click on the halibut or tuna steak to add it to a shopping list.

Tom Sargent, Haggen's director of meat and seafood, estimates that 75 percent of his seafood business is planned purchases, while 25 percent is bought on impulse.

Shoppers armed with a list have an idea of how much fish they want to buy and how much they want to spend for it, says Sargent.

"The people who buy for health-conscious reasons say, 'I want to buy seafood. I'll see what's fresh,'" she adds.

When those customers reach the counter, impulse takes over and determines which product they will buy.

"That's when we win the battle with a display of, say, salmon fillets, tuna fillets or swordfish and a knowledgeable person behind the counter," notes Sargent.

An increasing percentage of seafood shoppers may buy on impulse, but most plan, says Sargent.

"My gut feeling is that, in today's business climate, with the cost of gas and everything, I believe [consumers] are making a list and trying to buy as close to it as possible, and making it one-stop shopping," says Sargent.

One seafood merchandiser at a Midwest supermarket chain sees the opposite: Most folks shop every few days, often arriving at the store in need of a dinner plan.

"The biggest thing people are after today is freshness," says the Midwest grocer, "so one way of getting at freshness is to shop every day."

When those frequent shoppers visit the seafood department, they often find out what seafood is in season, which helps them plan their seafood purchases for the weekend around a quality product like wild salmon.

"We create an event around this really good fish that's only here this weekend. That does bring people back. There's no doubt about it," says the Midwest grocer.

That's smart marketing, says Kevin Coupe, chief content editor for MorningNewsBeat.com, a daily grocery e-newsletter. By becoming a seafood resource for consumers, a store helps them plan seafood purchases, says Coupe.

Some grocery chains reach beyond the circular.

Eighteen months ago, Wild Oats, the 113-store natural-foods chain in Boulder, Colo., changed marketing strategies from a primary flyer 
to we ekly "wild mail" e-mails to 150,000 customers nationwide and a monthly direct-mail piece to 2 million households.

Circulars tend to be price-focused, while Wild Oats' message is more about quality, seasonality and wholesomeness, says Sonja Tuitele, company spokeswoman.

"We believe it's effective," she says.

Festival Foods, a six-store upscale chain in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., market with a seventh store opening in October, wants to be ahead of the technology curve, says spokeswoman Bonnie Harris.

The chain's e-mail newsletters include online coupons, often for fresh, in-season seafood.

"Festival Foods is able to alert shoppers when the seafood will be in the store. So shoppers can plan for their seafood meals ahead of time," says Harris.

Company President Lauri Young­quist is working on a monthly 
podcast and a blog for foodies and customers at www.festivalfoods.net, both of which will include information on seafood issues like mercury, says Harris.

Grocers increasingly harness technology to help consumers plan their seafood purchases, and online flyers are an opportunity worth developing.

SFlb Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


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