Providing customers with palatable prices for holiday seafood will be a particular challenge this year, with supplies short and prices higher for several commodities, including, most notably, shrimp.
To meet the challenge of this important selling season, retailers interviewed by SN are trying to provide their customers with more options at different price points. They're still offering luxuries like lobster tails, but they're also whipping up more dips and spreads.
To provide lower price points, several seafood executives said they will offer substitutes.
"Because of some real high [price] markets on crab and shrimp items, we are looking at some new products to use," said Kent Hooker, seafood merchandiser at Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
For instance, he said, instead of fresh, shell-on shrimp, he's looking at cooked shrimp. The wholesaler-retailer also is adding a new cheese spread with imitation crab meat for the holidays.
Also this year, Spartan put together a "holiday marketing
booklet" to offer marketing and demo ideas for retail stores. The booklet includes recipes that can be made in-store.
"There will be a lot of full-page ads, bag stuffers, preholiday shrimp sales and one-day seafood sales," said Hooker.
Mohammed Jeddy, seafood buyer at Fiesta Mart, Houston, said the retailer is adding more smoked fish to its mix, including white fish, and smoked herring, along with herring in wine sauce and other items in sauces.
Space will be made for these new items in the service case by cutting back primarily on whole fresh fish, said Jeddy. Fiesta's typical case size ranges from 24 feet to 36 feet.
Shellfish, such as shrimp and mussels, also will be prominent, he said. Jeddy noted that shrimp prices are 50 cents to $1.50 per pound above last year's prices. The retail price, for example, of 51-count to 60-count cooked Tiger shrimp was $5 per pound last year, compared with $6 now.
"Price is our biggest concern," Jeddy said. "I'm passing most of that back to the customer, but not all of it. We can't pass everything to the customer, so we are lowering our margin.
"We have to watch our prices because they [customers] might go with a deluxe meat tray from the deli instead of the seafood tray," said Jeddy.
Fiesta offers shrimp party trays in different sizes and a variety of party trays with imitation products on them. Some have oysters on the half shell, snow crab or smoked fish, said Jeddy.
"We also will carry a lot of salted fish, such as cod, hake and pollock, for the Hispanic customers for the holidays," said Jeddy.
Supervalu's Pittsburgh division this year has created a new holiday program called Taste of the Seasons.
"It involves party trays in all departments," said Larry Daerr, seafood specialist.
"We're kicking it off and running it all the way through the holidays, which is Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's."
He said he had already brought in some shrimp for the holidays, "so that I can maintain a low price, even though the price now is going up in the wholesale sector. I can still be out there with a competitive price for my stores."
He purchased shrimp in August, just when the Texas season opened, so product was available. A week or so after that, the price escalated 50 cents.
"I pass the savings on to my stores, which enables us to put a party tray out there which is very competitive," he said.
Daerr said the company will make "any size tray the customer wants." Prices, he said, can range from under $5 to $67, depending on how many people are served.
Supervalu will also be offering $2 and $3 coupons toward party platters, said Daeer. "This is just an incentive to get that customer to come in and try the program. The idea is to sell them not one party try, but sell them several before the holidays are over."
At Price Chopper Combo, Independence, Mo., the holiday season is a time to whip up some special recipes, including two imitation crab spreads. One contains shrimp, crab meat, cream cheese and spices. The other has crab meat, ketchup, horseradish, lemon juice and honey, according to John Utz, seafood supervisor.
The dips are not only for holiday parties and dinners, but to serve during the numerous football parties held in the area, said Utz.
"This is a big football town," said Utz. For weekend games, Price Chopper molds the deluxe crab salad into the shape of a football and places it on a bed made from the lighter colored salad sprinkled with parsley to create a "turf" base.
"We get $3.99 per pound for that, and the footballs average one or one-and-a-quarter pounds," said Utz.
For the holidays, his biggest sellers are cocktail shrimp trays. "In terms of ready-to-eat, that is our biggest volume item, and we sell a lot of salads."
Utz said Price Chopper frequently features $1 per pound off on shrimp via a coupon valid for 10 days.
"We sell a ton of shrimp during that time," he said. "They save and we lose [money] but it brings a lot of people into the store," he said.
"We are selling the shrimp cheaper than anyplace else in town, on a lower margin," said Lutz. "I can offer medium shrimp for $4.99 per pound. But $5.99 per pound is going to be the rule."
Utz is concerned about the poor king crab market this season. "It's very probable that we will have to switch to snow crab legs," he said. "We've been selling it at $8.99 or $9.99 per pound, but when I replace my current stock it will have to go to $15.99 per pound, because my replacement cost is $11.10 per pound, and that is on the smallest size.
"I don't know what people are going to do when they see those prices. They are probably not going to want to buy."
Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, has reset its cases and is focusing on shrimp, party trays and specialty items such as caviar, herring and smoked salmon this season, according to company spokeswoman Dee Wetzel.
During this peak sales season, seafood items are highlighted both in print and electronic media ads, she said.
In Whole Foods Market's Chicago region, the "biggest emphasis will be on whole salmon, and anything else that the customer demands," said Maria Gentry, regional seafood coordinator for the Austin, Texas-based chain. The Chicago region includes two Chicago-area stores and one in Ann Arbor, Mich.
There also will be larger displays of smoked fish, she said.
"Our different stores have different varieties of smoked fish, and we make party trays on demand," she said. "We also have pates."
And, of course, shrimp is big, she added. "We always have a huge emphasis on the farm-raised shrimp in the winter because the supply is more stable."
But overall, she said, shrimp prices have risen because shrimp is just not as plentiful. "The product is in demand and it is hard to get good quality product, and the price has consistently gone up."
She doesn't expect to see sales slip due to price increases at her stores, which focus on natural and organically grown foods. "My customers are willing to pay the higher prices, and I have a chemical-free, farm-raised shrimp, which is priced even higher than the others."
Rick Cavanaugh, seafood director at Queene Ann Thriftway, Seattle, said during the holidays, "our shrimp sales go up.
"We also sell smoked salmon dip and spread and hot artichoke dip," said Cavanaugh. "But partly due to our limited space, we don't do a lot of value-added items.
"What we have focused on is being a fish market. We provide the recipes for customers to do it on their own." However, in a new store to open in Tacoma, Wash., more value-added items are planned, he said.
Specifically for the holidays, the retailer brings in oysters on the half shell, and caviar from Russia, which is available from two weeks before Thanksgiving through the season. "I'll probably sell 48 jars of it," said Cavanaugh.
He said sales will likely pick up of smoked products and cooked prawns. Less cod and flounder will be on offer, said Cavanaugh.
Richard Catanzaro, director, seafood merchandising, for Mayfair Super Markets, Elizabeth, N.J., expects shrimp and shrimp party platters to be a main focus given the fact that sales have grown "dramatically" every year.
"Years ago you had to order a platter 48 hours in advance. Now you find that impulse sales are by far outweighing the advance sales," said Catanzaro.
He said his company now prepares most of its platters ahead of time.
"Especially during the holidays, the consumer sees the platter and analyzes what's on it, likes it and takes it."