Marketing experts agree the best way to sell fresh seafood is at a service counter staffed with knowledgeable associates. It's a challenge selling fish any other way, they told SN.
Yet non-service operations can turn a profit. Self-serve cases sell fish for stores lacking service departments, fill in the gaps during off hours when service counters are closed, and attract shoppers who simply don't want to wait at the counter.
Convenient, easy-to-cook products are popular choices for self-serve cases, and seem to be a hot category; retailers report the value-added category in seafood is growing in popularity with consumers shopping for dinner.
Stuffed sole, stuffed salmon and other seafood entrees share space with stuffed pork chops, salads and other prepared foods in the Meals In Minutes section of the meat department at Yoke's Foods, Spokane, Wash. Meals In Minutes is found in the retailer's Fresh Market stores, a format Yoke's brought on board three years ago.
"We're getting more marinaded meats, and the same with seafood," said Ken Chapin, director of meat and seafood for Yoke's, an independent operating 11 stores, with another one scheduled to open this year. Chapin expects the prepared seafood product assortment to grow.
Self-serve cases are a sidelight to the retailer's expanding service seafood program. Officials at Yoke's take pride in running service departments. They expanded the Pier 39 seafood section, bringing in out-of-the-ordinary species like whole snapper and eel, "just to fascinate people," said Chapin, a strong advocate for service seafood departments. Nevertheless, the self-serve items are attractive to consumers who, as a rule, bypass service counters. Late in the afternoons, parents and other shoppers seeking something for dinner are inclined to take a look at the choices in the grab-and-go cases. "We have heavy after-work traffic in a few of our stores," Chapin said.
The same is true for Modesto, Calif.-based Save Mart Supermarkets. Most of stores in the sprawling chain have service counters in the seafood area. Yet the grab-and-go products fill a distinct niche.
"As consumers have less and less time to prepare family meals, they're looking for value-added easy meals," Tom Hedegard, Save Mart's seafood buyer, told SN. "We're selling marinaded salmon, and more quick-and-easy prawns completely peeled and deveined."
The products are pumped with a marinade solution that keeps the fish moist. Save Mart started carrying them in self-serve cases two years ago, and they're profitable, Hedegard said. To expand on the line, store associates are testing new stuffed and marinaded salmon items, packaged in two-serving, random-weight packages. The items are due out in stores this summer.
Save Mart operates service seafood departments at 54 of its 82 stores, and generally those stores are larger, ranging from 45,000 to 55,000 square feet. Stores with service seafood have the highest seafood sales volume. The other stores with strictly self-serve cases range in size from 28,000 to 30,000 square feet.
Save Mart recently tweaked its seafood department layout to include more space for frozen product. In 18 stores, the layout includes a self-serve case of frozen fish in line with a self-serve case of fresh fish. Sandwiched between the four-foot-long cases are shelves displaying cocktail sauces, breadings for fish and related products. The configuration has had an impact: Those stores snag more seafood customers and sell more fish, Hedegard said.
"They complement the service counters," he said. "During busy times when customers are in a hurry, they can pick up prepackaged product. We've seen growth in the frozen category by moving those products over to the seafood department."
No hard numbers exist to quantify the demand for prepackaged fish. The National Fisheries Institute had no statistics on sales at self-serve vs. service formats. However, some industry observers believe consumers are slowly warming up to buying fresh fish already packaged up.
"My sense is it's moving in that direction," said Howard Johnson, a Jacksonville, Ore.-based seafood consultant. "When I talk to people, they say it's happening. There's a subtle trend toward case-ready. All the evidence to me suggests the larger chains for a good many of their stores will move in that direction."
What may be fueling the trend is the more established case-ready movement in meat departments. As more supermarkets roll out case-ready beef programs, they may eliminate positions for meat cutters. Johnson thinks it's only a matter of time before the seafood department follows the meat department's lead, and stocks more prepackaged fish. Such a move could help supermarkets deal with chronic labor shortages, particularly acute in seafood departments.
"When supermarkets start getting all of their beef case-ready, they'll phase out butchers," Johnson said. At chains with combined meat-seafood departments, "once the meat guy is gone, I don't think they'll keep a seafood person."
Furthermore, prepackaged seafood potentially offers the advantage of enhanced safety, and Johnson thinks this factor, too, could make case-ready products alluring in the future. This is especially true if retailers are required to establish Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point procedures, he said. HACCP programs are voluntary for supermarkets now.
"If you look at seafood displays on ice, there's much potential for cross-contamination caused by handling," he said. "Fewer people handle [case-ready] products."
Johnson also thinks consumers are comfortable buying seafood without help from associates. He challenged the frequently invoked notion that consumers shy away from buying fish at stores lacking service departments because they're not confident about cooking fish and there's no one in the department to answer questions.
"By and large, people who buy seafood are familiar with it," Johnson said. "They know how to cook a catfish."
To make self-serve programs succeed, retailers cannot treat the cases like unloved stepchildren. They must keep them stocked with an assortment of appealing products. One Midwestern seafood buyer noted her chain's policy is to keep the product mix at the self-serve-only stores similar to what's out on the ice at full-service counters operated at other stores in the chain.
"We've had success at some of our self-serve departments," said Pam Malone, the buyer for Schnuck's, a 100-store, St. Louis-based chain. "We make sure we have the same or similar variety at the full-service departments. I know we're getting consumer acceptance. We make sure what's in the self-serve case is fresh. It's nothing inferior to what you'd offer in a full-service case. The challenge is making sure we keep a good product assortment and good quality out there."
Like other sources interviewed by SN, Malone said prepared seafood entrees are picking up steam. In May, the chain rolled out a line of "bowl" entrees at 75% of the stores. The popular line, sold in refrigerated cases, includes shrimp gumbo, shrimp Alfredo and Cajun Shrimp Alfredo dishes in 10-ounce packages designed to feed two. The retailer has not had to discount the entrees, Malone said. Another hot-selling line is a heat-and-serve selection that includes crabcakes, stuffed flounder and stuffed shrimp. Introduced in February, the products were previously frozen and are thawed at the time of purchase. "They're selling very well," Malone said. "They hold up better shipped frozen. It preserves the product quality."
Overall, the seafood departments make money for Schnuck's, Malone said, adding the 86 stores with service departments sell the most product.
The self-serve cases complement service counters by being available to consumers who are shopping after the service counter is closed, she said. The cases also appeal to shoppers who are in a hurry. Furthermore, prepackaged items also give consumers more product information -- in black and white -- than they might get buying fresh fish from a service counter.
"They have labels including all the ingredients," Malone said. "Some have cooking instructions. It allows you to give more detail on the labels vs. having to ask [associates] for specific information."