BOSTON -- Innovative new web sites and services for seafood on the Internet, offering everything from up-to-date international prices to in-depth industry information, were a hot topic on the floor and during a seminar at the International Boston Seafood Show.
While providers of a variety of Internet options excitedly expounded the virtues of what they called a seemingly limitless new medium, retailers' puzzled faces often showed their doubts as to what direct benefits the wilds of cyberspace might hold for them.
Many retailers told SN that they found the glut of new information about the Internet hard to decipher and sort out. "Sometimes the amount of information is overwhelming," said Dan Zawacki, the senior lobster consultant for Chicago-based Gourmet Gram, a mail-order company, interviewed on the show floor.
Other retailers said they were happy with some of its Internet's benefits. "I like to know what's happening today, and the Internet is good for that," said the seafood merchandising specialist of a 143-store East Coast chain.
A variety of different Internet services for retail seafood executives were presented at a seminar titled "Seafood Business on the Internet: A New Profit Source."
John Sackton, president of Seafood Datasearch, Lexington, Mass., the company that created the web site for the National Fisheries Institute, Arlington, Va., was the session's moderator.
He said the commercial section of NFI's web site is called Seafood Link, and was founded in February as an opportunity for individual companies to market their products and services on the Internet through a company web site and a permanent e-mail address.
The Seafood Link site gives buyers a chance to "get prices, product information and search for people's e-mail addresses," from a collection of seafood companies, according to Sackton. About 20 companies currently have full-featured web sites, he said.
Scott Karmozyn, president of the Seafood Exchange, Redondo Beach, Calif., introduced retailers to a different source for getting information on the Internet: the Seafood Exchange, founded a little over a year ago, which Karmozyn referred to as an on-line directory. He said it offers vendors a database in which they can list products, prices and availability.
"We currently have 500-plus companies that are registered sellers listing products in the database," said Karmozyn; about 10% to 15% of them also give prices and availability in addition to a product list, he added. He also said that the Seafood Exchange has 200 to 300 registered buyers and is averaging about 1,000 visitors a week, all of whom, he said, are buyers.
Although he has developed a few web sites, Karmozyn expressed his belief that a database form is better suited to retailers' needs. He said he has boiled much of the information on a web site down to literature and noted that buyers are usually after the bottom line: prices.
"Sellers have been at an advantage because they know more. The Internet can give buyers access to information that will give them a better picture of the market," Karmozyn concluded.
Another panelist was Jeanne LaPiana, president of Marinex, the North American agent for the FIS Sea-World web site, based in Newport, R.I. She said Sea-World offers detailed fishing and seafood industry information on prices and availability, transportation and shipping schedules, international market information and lists of trade shows and conferences.
Sea-World's Hot News section provides a summary of recent articles pertinent to the seafood industry and lets on-line browsers subscribe to the publications in which the articles are found.
The web site has been up and running for a year and is currently free to vendors -- who number between 20 and 25 -- who wish to list price information, according to LaPiana.
One of the new Internet providers who didn't take part in the seminar but had a computer-equipped booth on the floor was the Los Angeles-based Seafood On-Line. Much like Karmozyn's Seafood Exchange, Seafood On-Line is a database that lists products, prices and availability, and which was launched during this year's Seafood Show. Seafood On-Line currently hosts about 25 vendors, according to Robert Yudovin, the company's marketing director.
Some of the vendors "are updating their prices a couple of times a day + so retailers can see if the market is going up or down," he explained. Seafood On-Line is a locked site, and to gain access interested parties have to fill out a form. Participating sellers are given a monthly hit list of who has reviewed their product list.
Seafood Exchange's Karmozyn equated the variety of options offered by the Internet to "a virtual trade show where people from around the world gather to exchange information."
Despite the service providers' enthusiasm in the seminar, retailers interviewed by SN seemed doubtful of the Internet's potential to affect their business.
"I don't use the Internet and I'm not sure if it has an application for us," said Larry Morris, vice president of meat and seafood at Baltimore-based Metro Food Market, a chain of 13 stores in Maryland and Delaware.
"I don't even sit down in front of a computer," said Dave Swanson, the owner of Swanson's, a chain of five fish stores based in Monroe, Conn.
Brett Ashley, merchandise manager at Foodtown countdown, a supermarket operator in Auckland, New Zealand, was also skeptical, stating, "I don't even have a personal link [to the Internet]," adding that its use "isn't widespread in New Zealand."
The seafood merchandising specialist from the 143-store East Coast chain, in an interview with SN on the show floor, said, "I think for comparison's sake having that kind of access on the Internet would be a good thing [but] . . . I don't think my vendor understands my needs well enough on the Internet and we want our vendors to tailor their programs for us."
He went on to express concern about how the Internet might change retailers' relationships with vendors. "We like to partner. You can't do that over the Internet -- the relationship doesn't bear the same fruit."
Speaking on the show floor, Gourmet Gram's Zawacki seconded that concern. "We are pretty loyal to our vendors + It seems if you stay with a vendor when times are tough, then they'll be more loyal to you."
According to Seafood Exchange's Karmozyn, however, there is little cause for such concern. He said the "Internet is about doing old things in new ways. You are changing the way that information is exchanged + There won't be a breakdown of relationships, but a redefining of them."
The salesperson's role "will change from providing price and availability to focusing more on value added because [retailers] will be getting prices on line," he said.
And Seafood On-Line's Yudovin agreed that the Internet won't hurt old relationships, but help to foster new ones. "I think retailers are desperate for new providers. Their jobs are predicated on making sure they have the right products at the right prices."
"The Internet is ideal for international business," added Karmozyn. "How else can you find a supplier of lobster tails out of Australia?"
The Internet pioneers are also banking that their services will add up to big savings for retailers, by facilitating comparative shopping through direct access to vendors. "The Internet can be the middleman, reducing time, increasing speed and offering lower prices because you are buying direct," stated Karmozyn.
Added savings should also show up in reduced paperwork and less time spent on the phone. "Studies say that savings can be $50 to $150 per order if a company fully automates their order process," claimed Seafood Exchange's Karmozyn.
Beyond the details of how the Internet could transform the seafood industry lies the more immediate question of how retailers can choose the most suitable on-line services for their needs. "We have discussed a cooperative effort, so all companies could be represented on all sites," said Karmozyn.
Until such an idea becomes a reality, the best solution may just be to get ready, through research and surfing the net, for what Metro Food Market's Morris called "the wave of the future."