The canned meat and seafood category seems to be caught in a net. Now it's up to grocers to determine whether it's worth the effort to lift the net and perhaps reel in some increased sales.
Some are choosing to do just that, particularly now during Lent. Others seem willing to discard what's in the net and search for other treasures.
"We feature tuna almost every week during Lent," said Ralph Kluchar, director of grocery merchandising at Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, Ohio.
Kluchar said the category is an "enhancing" one. "You don't
just open up a can of tuna fish and eat it out of the can. You're adding other stuff to it, whether it be for tuna salad or for making a tuna casserole, or some of the meal supplements like tuna helper. So we look at it as a traffic builder [because] people purchase other things with it." Kluchar said Riser cross-merchandises tuna with noodles, meal supplements and mayonnaise.
Canned meats, he said, offer similar cross-merchandising opportunities. Spam, he added, has done a good job of marketing itself. "It has a niche. They've probably done the best job, if you look at seafood and meats, in trying to promote other uses for it with their advertising."
Smith & Woods Foodcenters, Maryville, Tenn., has made a "big" switch in its canned seafood merchandising this year, promoting larger sizes of tuna, said Jim Hayes, head buyer for the chain.
"We'll just stack out on display larger sizes of tuna as opposed to the traditional 6.25-ounce [size], which is your loss-leader size.
"We'll tie them in with other items from time to time on end or wing displays: mayonnaise, noodles, pickles and stuff like that," Hayes added. Other retailers did not share the same enthusiasm for the category. "We're not doing a thing different this year than we've done in past years," said Jimmy Jones, grocery buyer at Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C. "We have [merchandised tuna and tartar sauce together] in years past, but we're not planning on doing that this year," Jones told SN.
"Maybe it's important, but it's not as important as merchandising produce, soft drinks, snacks," said a grocery buyer at a large Midwestern retailer. "I think maybe [the canned products] are not as impulse-motivated as some other products in the store." The numbers back up some of the unenthusiastic comments about the category. An executive from a leading canned seafood manufacturer said dollar sales for the entire tuna category were down by 2.1% as of Feb. 21.
Statistics from A.C. Nielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., reveal similar results. Dollar sales of canned seafood have gone from $1.7 billion in 1990 to $1.5 billion for the 52 weeks ended Sept. 9.
Canned meats, on the other hand, are demonstrating healthier sales, with a 2.1% dollar volume increase for the 52 weeks ended Sept. 9, according to Nielsen.
Though the canned seafood category is down, grocers are not putting the blame on in-store fresh or frozen seafood offerings.
"Frozen seafood does not cannibalize canned seafood sales, because the only item that we conflict is tuna," said Cara Yokomizo, senior buyer at Trader Joe Co., South Pasadena, Calif.. "Our buyer in the frozen department actually has albacore tuna steaks frozen, where mine are in a can, prechunked, so its different usage. So that's the only thing that we have similar, but they do not conflict."
Retailers said new product introductions may help the canned seafood category. Several manufacturers have introduced items such as ready-to-eat tuna salad lunch kits.
"I think you'll find that a lot of the people that manufacture that product have done a lot of product innovations over the past few years to make their packaging microwavable, or smaller so they'll fit in lunch packs," said the buyer from the Midwestern chain. "There have been a few new items and the trend would be more ease of use."
"There are whole new industries out there, such as Lunchables, Cup of Noodles -- things that are dedicated mainly to convenience and the lunchtime meal occasion," said the vice president of marketing from a seafood company. "There's a bunch of other things out there for people to meet that lunchtime occasion. With all these other alternatives out there, that has had an affect on the category. That takes us back to the beginning where it's incumbent upon the industry to look to merchandise and advertise the category again as it used to in order to bring awareness back to the health benefits associated with tuna."
The source at the large Midwestern chain noticed a similar trend related to health. "Maybe 10 years ago the No. 1-selling tuna was packed in oil; today it's packed in water. So the trend is that people are more health-conscious."
"The oil products have gone down and continued to for several years. Water products are doing better. I kind of thought that was health-related," said a spokesman from a Southwestern chain.
An official at another leading canned tuna manufacturer said manufacturers have addressed the oil issue. "We've switched to canola oil. It's been very successful because it's saturated-fat-free now."
The tuna company vice president of marketing admits the category needs some revitalizing. "I think it's a case of 'doctor, heal thyself.' I think the industry has to return to marketing the product, which is something it has gotten away from over the years."