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Retail Survey: Knowledge is king

As sales rebound from the recession, retailers struggle to educate consumers

By Steven Hedlund
October 05, 2010

A lack of consumer knowledge - and finding the time and resources to properly train and educate seafood counter staff - is perhaps the No. 1 challenge facing retailers when it comes to seafood, especially in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster and the overwhelming amount of mainstream media coverage 
it garnered.

In fact, more than half (53 percent) of the retailers polled by SeaFood Business for its biennial retail survey cited consumer lack of knowledge among the three biggest challenges they face this year, compared to 40 percent of retailers surveyed in 2008. This hurdle outranked all other challenges, including rising wholesale prices and consumer price resistance.

There's no question that the amount of seafood-related information in the mainstream media and the environmental community is on the rise. And that's keeping seafood merchandisers and trainers like Cecil Smith on their toes.

"All the media coverage concerning the oil spill's impact on the Gulf fishing industry has caused consumers to seek out more information about where seafood comes from and [its safety]. Most consumers understand, in general terms, where beef, pork and poultry come from - the farm. But seafood is more of a mystery that is global in scope," says Smith, manager of seafood merchandising and training at Bloom, which operates about 65 supermarkets in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.

Smith says education is the foundation for building trust and loyalty among seafood consumers. But he admits that there's a communication gap between the corporate office and sales associates on the ground.

"Delivering what corporate knows to retail is our biggest challenge," explains Smith. "Ongoing training is a must that can be achieved through group meetings, store visits and weekly merchandising plans. Well-informed associates will share knowledge and teach consumers."

 

Grasping sustainability

Perhaps no concept is more complex than sustainability, which seafood retailers - let alone consumers - are still working to grasp. But it's certainly resonating with retailers. Sustainability-related issues checked in at No. 3 at 30 percent among the three biggest challenges retailers face this year, sandwiched between rising wholesale prices at 42 percent and consumer price resistance at 29 percent.

However, a mere 3 percent of retailers cited sustainability as their customers' No. 1 concern, compared to 4 percent in 2008. Is this a sign that consumer awareness of sustainable seafood is stagnant?

Not necessarily, says Smith. "Consumers are more aware that certain species may not have an unlimited supply and carefully managed fisheries are helping address this issue," he notes.

In April, Bloom partnered with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to launch a program complete with in-store POS materials on wild Alaska seafood. "Each week, we promote in ad one or more Alaska items with the ASMI logo. Our customers recognize these items as wild caught and sustainable," says Smith.

Freshness and quality is far and away retail customers' No. 1 concern at 56 percent this year, followed by price at 18 percent and how to cook at 13 percent. The answers rarely change from year to year.

"I could bring in inexpensive [product]," says Tim Caluya, owner of Tim's Seafood, a specialty-seafood store in Kirkland, Wash. "But people are willing to pay for freshness and quality. That will never change. For me to survive, I need to [ensure] freshness and quality. People in the Pacific Northwest are more sophisticated about seafood."

"Customers demand [freshness]," adds Smith. "If they purchase a chicken or beef item that does not meet their expectations, they are forgiving. This is not the case with seafood."

 

Sales bounce back

Though the U.S. economy appears to be turning the corner, consumers remain cautious about their food purchases, including seafood.

This year, when asked how the recession has affected their seafood sales, only 31 percent of retailers said their sales are down so far this year, compared to 47 percent of retailers in 2008, while another 31 percent said their sales are unaffected. Also, more than half (54 percent) said their customers are switching to less expensive species, compared to 45 percent in 2008.

"Some consumers have sought more price-attractive options in seafood like tilapia, swai, cod and medium raw shrimp," says Smith. "We try to balance our case sets and ads to appeal to all customer budgets."

 

Methodology

This is the 21st SeaFood Business retail survey. The survey was e-mailed and faxed to nearly 2,500 retail readers, with a response rate of 5.3 percent. Respondents consisted of a single store in a supermarket chain (50 percent), a specialty seafood-only store (37 percent) and a single-unit grocery store (13 percent). They were located throughout the country, including the Northeast (23 percent), Midwest (31 percent), South (29 percent) and West (17 percent). Look for results of the biennial foodservice survey in the December issue of SeaFood Business.

RAFFLE WINNER:SeaFood Business solicited our readers to complete the survey and they responded with enthusiasm. Our $100 winner is Robert Braun of The Fresh Market in Orlando, Fla. CONGRATULATIONS! And thank you to all who participated!

 

SeafoodSource Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at shedlund@divcom.com

 

Raffle Winner

SeaFood Business solicited 
our readers to complete 
the survey and they responded 
with enthusiasm.

Our $100 winner is Robert Braun of The Fresh Market in Orlando, Fla.

Congratulations! And thank you!

 

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