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US retail seafood departments are broken, and I've got the fix

Forget the SEA. It's time to put the FOOD back in seafood.

In our new podcast we talk about how the typical US supermarket seafood department just doesn’t work. The majority of them are money losers, require lots of labor, see lots of employee turnover and struggle to control shrink.

In Europe, supermarkets rely more on packaged chilled product than they do on elaborate “wet” fish counters.

So it is time for the dawn of a new US supermarket seafood department. Here is my blueprint.

The frozen seafood is in the freezer aisle, the canned stuff is in the canned aisle, the fresh (by which we mean raw fish – much of its previously frozen and slacked out --) is in the seafood case, the packaged chilled fish is God knows where. Enough!

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My new seafood department has all your fish in one place. First, we cut down the fresh (raw) case to a tiny portion of our department’s square footage, say 20 percent or less.

Next we roll in cases for chilled value-added product, which will be about 45 percent of the department’s space. Then we bring in a case for frozen product, about 20 percent of the space and the remainder for canned, shelf-stable product.

Everything in one place – taking up the same space that now is dominated by a case of fresh (raw) seafood that most consumers are scared of because they don’t know how to buy seafood. There is still enough raw fish for the purists, but more of the seafood offering needs to be geared toward the kitchen-lazy, on-the-go consumer.

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Now that the employee in the seafood department doesn’t have to spend most of his or her time setting up and taking down an elaborate fresh case and standing around waiting for a brave consumer to order something, their time can be better spent engaging consumers out in front of the counter, a seafood valet, as my colleague Drew Cherry calls it.

It annoys me that we must work so hard in the typical retail store to attract customers to the seafood department, but this is our own fault. Most retail seafood departments are completely focused on that fresh case, so if I, as a consumer, don’t want to -- for whatever reason -- buy fish out of a fresh case, then there is no reason to stop by the seafood department.

Think about that. We are basically telling consumers not to come by the seafood department unless they want the butcher to cut them a piece of fish. This is our fault and a perfect reason to do away with the retail seafood department as we know it. We’ve used the current model for decades, and where has that gotten us? Nowhere. Consumption is not growing.

And these valets need not spend time droning on and on about sustainability – most consumers don’t care. Nor do they need to spend a ton of time talking about the “story” of the fish. That human-interest element is nice and has its place, but the valet has a more important job: he or she must take the SEA out of seafood – and focus on selling FOOD.

This is food, folks -- as in dinner, lunch, breakfast, snacks --- food, food, food. You and I might think it is the best protein in the world, a gift from the sea, a paragon of sustainability, on and on. But for shoppers, it is a meal, food to put on the table and in their mouths. They don’t have time for all the seafood department fuss, which is why they pass on by.

My seafood counter removes many of the barriers. Instead of a case of fillets stacked atop each other and the mental gymnastics needed to order the right fish in the right amount from the ambivalent seafood counter staff, shoppers in my department can forego this challenge and grab some chilled portions with a sauce that they know they can handle in the kitchen (because it comes with directions!), or they can grab a bag of frozen shrimp to add to their stir fry. Maybe they want canned tuna or surimi for a salad they need to make for the PTA meeting. Do you have some grab-'n-go sushi and poke? No worries, it is all right here in my seafood department.

My seafood department offers those items that shoppers are already comfortable buying – frozen seafood, canned seafood, etc. – and puts them all in one spot, which ultimately will lead to more seafood department visits and the likelihood of increased sales of a wider variety of products over time.

Look, we've been doing retail seafood the same for decades. Let’s have the guts to disrupt this tired and deleterious model and go in a new direction, because, I believe, if you are only willing to do it the way you have been doing it – then quit doing seafood completely, please.

Comments: john.fiorillo@intrafish.com

Twitter: @john_fiorillo

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