By Picture, if you will, a supermarket seafood department that rivals meat or deli in sales and importance to the store. It is an operation tailored to convenience, offering everything from fresh fillets with cooking lessons to complete ready-to-heat seafood meals, from a movable kiosk on the selling floor to a web site in cyberspace.
Picture an assortment in which inexpensive farmed product is the norm, with wild-caught fish an exotic specialty for a gourmet price; an assortment where frozen is just as prominent, and considered just as desirable, as "fresh"; an assortment that even includes "seafood" that is not really seafood at all.
This is not the Twilight Zone, but it could be the way seafood is sold in year 2005, according to a panel of visionary retailers who spoke at the International Boston Seafood Show here.
The seers were: Wayne Cobb, seafood merchandiser at the Orlando division of Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla.; Charles Nuara, director of the seafood division of Pathmark Stores, Woodbridge, N.J.; Paul Gingerich, seafood manager for Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo.; and Richard Catanzaro, director of seafood marketing and procurement for H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio.
In a wide-ranging and lively discussion moderated by John Fiorillo, editor of Seafood Business, Portland, Maine, the retailers forecast increased demand and rising sophistication both in department operations and consumer preferences. They also predicted pressures will rise from the food-safety issue.
"We all need to work toward safer standards for the seafood business," said Wayne Cobb of Winn-Dixie. He foretold that soothing consumers' concerns about the safety of seafood will be a top priority for supermarket seafood shops.
"The concern with mad cow [disease] and Oprah highlights how one situation can bring calamity on the whole industry," he said. It won't help that the seafood industry is likely to continue to be a target of environmentalists' campaigns.
"A war is coming and seafood is going to be under attack," he warned. Environmentalists, he said, will try to restrict the seafood industry's activities and make its effects on the environment seem worse than they are. "This is going to be a political football, and we are going to have to be playing the ball.
"The seafood industry needs to step out and join hands [with the environmentalists]. We are not going to fight them and win. We need to join them," he advised. "The flag they are waving is going to be picked up by a lot of people. We are not a united front and sooner or later we are going to have to face that," he said, eliciting a round of applause.
Seafood retailers in the 21st century will also have to address "a need for speed" in a world where time will be more valuable than money. Cobb told retailers they will "have to focus on easy-to-fix recipes and home-meal replacement."
Meanwhile, intense competition for the ocean's products will only increase, bringing seafood farming to the fore. "The only hope for the future is aquaculture," Cobb said. "Aquaculture works, and it's an industry still in its infancy. The day is approaching when the majority of seafood will be farm-produced."
If the industry can marshal itself to meet such challenges, its future will be bright, he suggested, wagering that the seafood department will "take on the importance of [a contributor] somewhere between a deli and a meat department."
Seafood sales will continue to grow as interest in a wider selection of shopping options increases, he said, advising supermarket executives that, instead of only adding up seafood department sales figures, they would do well to begin to consider "what it's adding to the customer mix."
Cobb also cited the Internet as a future outlet of importance for seafood sales, calling it the "best tool for seafood since the hook and line." Using the Internet will be one of the least expensive and most efficient methods for shoppers to buy seafood. He noted that it even offers shoppers the opportunity to make purchases from the office. "It's the perfect way to get product out to an unlimited audience."
One thing won't change: the need for talented associates in the seafood department. "America's most wanted will still be great seafood sales people," Cobb predicted. Calling sales "the toughest job," he said that "when you find a sales achiever, it's like winning the lottery." In an effort to attract the best employees, the "pay scale will need to be tied to performance," he suggested.
The future will also be an ideal time for supermarket seafood departments to get one up on supercenters, according to Cobb. "Supercenters' biggest weak point is in perishables, and we need to hit them where they are weakest. They rarely have good seafood departments."
Pathmark's seafood expert Nuara predicted that the power of the seafood department as a sales contributor will climb even as meat sales wane, leading to major changes by the year 2005. At Pathmark, meat currently accounts for an 87% share of meat-seafood business, according to Nuara. However, he wagered, "By 2005, seafood sales will double, and meat sales will go down to 70%."
In 2005, he predicted, "Supermarkets will be carrying a full line of fresh and frozen seafood," and "when you put everything together, sales will increase."
One reason is that frozen seafood will be more dominant. "Excluding farm-raised, 90% of seafood sold in supermarkets will be frozen or previously frozen," he said. "In the area of frozen we'll see an increase in line extensions and brand identities."
While brand proliferation in frozens will be likely to increase the level of comfort some shoppers feel buying seafood, he added, "We'll need to re-educate the consumers because we taught them that fresh is best."
Nuara also said future department will increase their focus on demonstrations. "We'll do demos every single week." And increased returns on the bottom line would be sufficient to cover the added cost of the demos, he said.
"[To] build your customer base you need to teach them how to prepare the item. Once they know how to cook it, they'll come back and buy it."
Nuara also emphasized that retailers should solicit "support from your suppliers, if you really want to build the business. You have to take the investment upon yourself, if you want to get the return."
In the future posited by Wild Oats' Gingerich, some popular seafood is likely to be seafood in name only. "We are now able to take a soy product and modify proteins so it tastes like seafood," he noted. "In 2005, we are going to solve all the environmental problems by having seafood made of soy."
What's more, virtually all the real "fresh seafood is going to be farm-raised," he said, and everything in the department will also have been irradiated.
Gingerich said that although he believes wild seafood is "a renewable resource," the campaigns of environmentalists against the commercial industry stand a good chance of making wild-caught product a specialty business in the future. "The media has gone so far in convincing sensitive consumers that we are destroying the ocean," he said.
Indeed, he wagered that all fresh, never frozen seafood might become a specialty product in less than 10 years. "Almost all seafood will be previously frozen," and what little fresh seafood will be available will be sold with a price tag "that is going to go up. There is going to be a larger disparity in price."
Catanzaro, the seafood expert at H-E-B, added that demand for many high-priced species may evaporate in the future, leaving affordable seafood to account for the bulk of retail sales.
He went so far as to suggest that by the next millennium, the retail seafood department as we know it would no longer exist. "Retailers will have to create a format to entice customers, to make them feel like they are part of the seafood purchase," said Catanzaro.
"People will have to get involved intimately. Customers may buy fish through a simulated fishing trip," he suggested, or place orders through the TV. "Technology is our friend. We just have to know how to manage it," he remarked.
However, he also warned that too much reliance on technology could cause a backlash, and "the technology overload will cause the customer to demand personal service."
To keep chasing the business, the supermarket seafood operation of the future will feature fully mobile displays, he envisioned. "The [permanent] seafood department will no longer exist. Seafood will be brought in on an as-needed basis."
The department might also metamorphosize into a takeout kiosk, similar to the portable serving carts currently in use for hamburgers and pizza.
"Food outlets will target the center of the plate and meal replacements," Catanzaro said. "Meal specialists will roam the floor," and that's good for seafood, because shoppers will still be looking for guidance. "Customers want you to tell them what to eat." Indeed, the seafood specialists of the future may "be certified by the state as nutritionists."
Catanzaro offered a scenario for the future in which seafood consumption doubles, spurred by strong support from a medical community convinced of the segment's health benefits. He wondered, however, how such explosive growth would affect the relationship between supply and demand. "Today, the supply is more consistent than ever. If we double consumption, how would we be able to supply the industry?"