Despite what many have heralded as the age of service seafood, in practice many retailers are choosing a middle-of-the-road approach that uses both service and self-service fixtures, yielding the best of both worlds.
During a recent roundup of interviews polling retail seafood-merchandising executives, SN discovered that while some upscale or specialty supermarkets are finding success with European-style display cases and ice tables, the majority of both chains and independents are apparently keeping to a delicate balance of small, traditional service cases and self-serve refrigerated or frozen shelves.
Rather than downsize their seafood operations, many retailers are "reconfiguring" the area to lower labor costs, according to the seafood specialist at one major Southwestern retail chain.
"The current trend in seafood merchandising is simplification," he told SN. "Reduced labor and the use of more case-ready items will increase in popularity within the industry."
The most logical solution, then, is for service and self-service cases to co-exist.
At Minneapolis-based Supervalu's division in Pittsburgh, a cautious combination of open cases and a selection of fresh and frozen self-serve has proven satisfactory, according to seafood buyer/merchandiser Larry Daerr.
"There's a fresh open-air ice case on top, and underneath it the customer can reach into the self-serve frozen case," he explained. "We have a 12-foot [open case] in a store that's opening up this week; we have two of [those cases] in operation now, and we do really well with them because we can merchandise the frozen product directly under fresh product, and it looks like double the product."
While the combination takes some of the pressure off clerks manning the seafood department, their presence is key for both sections of the case, he said.
"My service people are right there, they can show [customers] the fresh fish or answer questions about product in the frozen case. I think we're going to see more of the combination service/self-service -- you have the best of both worlds there. So when the top part [service] is closed down for the evening, you have the frozen case still open for the customer."
Having a combination service/self-serve allows even small stores to offer fresh product while not gambling with more square footage than the department can support, said Daerr. "We've got another store opening in May, and even though it's small, it's still going to have a 12-foot service case in it."
Despite the perceived popularity of service counters among customers, Daerr believes that chains who make across-the-board decisions on service cases are sometimes ill-advised.
"There's no formula for making the decision: I look closely at the situation in each neighborhood where we put a store, and make the evaluation about whether to be service or self-service based on the traffic flow, the economic background of area and whether the customers will be likely to support the use of service people behind the counter. You have a labor investment there, and if you're not going to get the sales in that department, you shouldn't do it."
Another reason retailers are continuing to devote attention to self-serve cases is the potential boon that the trend toward meal solutions presents for seafood departments, according to Kent Hooker, seafood merchandiser for Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich.
"Self-serve multideck cases will be the most significant in terms of increasing seafood sales," he told SN. "The reason is that the seafood industry is making significant advances toward quality prepackaged fresh and frozen products."
And the reason for that? "The most significant trend we see happening in seafood is the movement toward meal-solution merchandising. Even though this trend is affecting all food groups, seafood stands to benefit the most from it," he said.
Noting the often-cited lack of consumer knowledge when it comes to the preparation and cooking of seafood, he added that "meal solutions is our first attempt to give the customer what they want -- dinner -- and stop trying to sell them on something they don't want -- the virtues of a seafood education. In essence, meal solutions puts seafood on a level playing field with the other commodities for the first time."
To address this, seafood departments in Spartan stores and others in the region are covering all the bases.
"Currently we are embracing many of the new frozen-seafood meal solutions that are becoming more readily available. We now have enough quality frozen meal solutions to set an entire 8-foot frozen multideck case. Collectively these items leave the customer with a very positive perception in regard to ease of preparation, quality and brand-name confidence.
"In order to effectively compete with the food-service industry, we want to make sure we are fully utilizing our competitive advantage over restaurants, which is our ability to sell the consumer multiple meals in one visit. The fresh category competes for tonight's dinner while the frozen category competes for dinner the rest of the week. Sure, restaurants eliminate the cooking step, but they can't eliminate the time-consuming step of procuring dinner on an everyday basis, and we can."
In his region, new equipment purchases have less to do with the expansion of seafood departments than they do with optimization.
"We are seeing retailers re-evaluate their seafood programs in order to maintain growth. For some, that means changing from full-service departments and fixtures to self-service. To others, it means adding service cases to existing self-serve departments.
"However, one common thread seems to be a more positive attitude toward self-serve fixtures. Retailers are now taking the attributes of self-serve seafood as seriously, and with as much commitment, as they have approached service seafood in the past. One new fixture we are seeing a lot of is the three-deck low-profile self-serve case. We anticipate seeing many more of these installed in the next few years, especially as we move toward meal-solution merchandising."
The story is much the same on the West coast, according to meat and seafood director Darren Horton of Andronico's Market, Albany, Calif.
"In northern California and a large portion of the West Coast, the trend among the chains is to go with service and self-service combinations," he told SN.
"Typically the stores haven't increased overall display, it's more the case of taking existing space and splitting it to be 50/50 service/self-service. It's enabled them to reduce amount of labor in the department, and when I ask around, that's what they're telling me."
European ice tables, touted for their superior presentation possibilities, are not worthwhile for retailers who lack the time or manpower to devote to their upkeep. Those that do, however, told SN about the flexibility and ingenuity that results.
"At Clemens, we've gone 180 degrees to something I thought we would never do," said Al Kober, meat and seafood director for the Kulpsville, Pa.-based Clemens Markets. "We installed a refrigerated, open ice case with salespeople in front of the case instead of behind it. There's a border in front between them and the customers, there are wooden posts with a rope across made to look like a wharf or dock. The idea is to be right out there with the customer rather than behind the counter, kind of like they're buying it right off the wharf."
The three, 4-foot ice tables are actually part of the back room, and the rope separates the seafood from the meat department.
The concept, which Kober first saw at a Metro Basics store in Baltimore, has been such a success that two new Clemens stores opening in March and April will both have similar displays.
"We re-arrange them each day or sometimes each week to emphasize what we're merchandising at the time and try to keep the theatre-type atmosphere with a variety of colors."
Kober admits, however, that the challenge posed by temperature control requires a lot of effort.
"With proper handling, it can be successful, but it's not for everybody," he said. "If you're not willing to maintain a very stringent schedule of sanitation and redoing the display, don't do it.
"It's very labor intensive and needs to be monitored all the time -- it's not a display you can put up and walk away from. It takes a lot more time, the maintenance is extremely high. Every night we have to break it down and that's adding three hours a day of labor, but we're committed to it because that's the fresh approach we're looking for."
Every retailer has to experiment with ice tables to see what will work.
"We did some testing, tried putting fish in different places, ran internal temperatures in different ways to figure out how to maintain the appearance to the consumer that this is really fresh, and still maintain temperature and moisture control. We experimented with different heights of ice and how high the piles of ice around the fish have to go, how deep to keep the displays so that the temperature is acceptable," Kober said.
Figuring out how much to display becomes a much more delicate process than is involved with refrigerated cases, he added.
"You can't pile the fish four or five inches high -- the idea is to put as little out as possible and make it look like there's a lot out there. You can get it to two fillets thick and still maintain temperature control; if you put a lot out there and it doesn't sell in eight to ten hours, that's it, you lose it."
Some species of fish that naturally contain more oil have a lower shelf life, and these were given priority spots on the table, in areas where the temperature is slightly colder.
Employees in the seafood department were able to develop what Kober terms a unique draining system for the ice tables.
"Battery powered pumps inject sanitizer into the drains," he explained. "We're very concerned about containing the odor so it never smells like fish in the store or near it. By continually sanitizing as the ice melts and runs down the drains, it maintains just about zero odor. It's something my merchandiser designed -- if you're dealing with the whole fresh concept you absolutely cannot have odor."
One other improvement on the basic slanted tables had to do with air flow. "We put some extra fiberglass around the back so there's a better flow with the air coming off the ice, to make sure it doesn't blow the wrong way.
"We just tried to take this concept and maybe do a better job than other people have done with it in the past."
Even if the change had not resulted in increased sales, the chain wanted to do it to enhance its fresh image.
"People who have lived on either one of the coasts are used to fish that comes in off the shores, and a lot of people have the perception that fish that is wrapped or in a refrigerated case isn't fresh.
"So even if this was not a profit-maker, we wanted to do it because of what it adds to the customer's perception. But we've been very pleased with the type of sales we're getting out of that particular store. It's working well, our volume is good, we're on budget and the customers are pleased. Having fish on ice may not be our first choice of display methods, but the perception of the customer is always that it's fresher that way."
Even in more coastal areas where regular delivery of fresh fish means that seafood employees are old hands at the "ins and outs" of temperature control, the extra required effort of ice tables is duly noted.
At Andronico's stores, the typically 16-foot European-style tables are designed by the owner, and are all fitted with glare-free glass, according to Horton.
"They do require more labor and a better cleaning and sanitation standard," he said. "We have to be right on top of the sanitation, because without a top on the case, the fish is exposed to the open air, the fish odors can drift out into customer areas of store, so we're on a constant sanitation program, where every night we do a 4- to 6-foot portion of the counter.
"It's definitely been worth it -- where we have those cases, our percents of sales are sometimes more than double what they are in the stores with old cases. We have very high-end customers, and they like to see fish displayed on ice, so now that all our cases are open and we have all ice displays, our seafood sales continue to increase. In fact, percentage-wise, they are continuously the highest continuing sales increase in the company."
But even in Andronico's stores, where seafood departments are 100% full-service, there is a nod to the self-service advantage.
"We are using a little bit of freezer space for individually vacuum-packed orange roughy fillets, swordfish and tuna. As long as the quality's there, it works out well. We also have a couple of shrimp party platters in there, and on a game day a lot of people will just come in and grab one of those."
In Pittsburgh, Daerr said he is cautious about which Supervalu stores to outfit with European tables.
"We've got a couple of them in use and they're beautiful for displays, but the size factor of some of them makes it difficult to work, and they've got pros and cons.
"You have a little bit of a drying effect on the product, and if you've got even one fillet above the ice, you're almost at room temperature; maintaining the temperature is sometimes difficult. So they do take a lot of work, and in order to justify putting it in, you really have to have high-volume traffic flow."