The beef category may be capturing most of the headlines in the ongoing case-ready debate. But the questions haven't stopped retailers from quietly testing or adding prewrapped products to their seafood departments, SN has learned.
Whatever a retailer's feelings regarding case-ready perishables in general, seafood seems to be emerging as a key location to develop such a program.
And here, it's driven by the same three factors that are compelling case-ready tests in other departments, according to retailers: labor, economics and safety.
At Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., at least 10% of wholesaler/retailer's perishables sales are in case-ready traypacks, according to Steve Hollenbeck, poultry and seafood buyer for Spartan, which owns 100 stores and supplies roughly 500 independents.
He sees case-ready programs as being nothing but advantageous for retailers.
"Everybody has [case-ready] chicken, of course, and we're now doing pork and seafood," said Hollenbeck, adding that the company is moving more in that direction, and sooner rather than later.
"Just in the last six months, our corporate stores are all self-serve, 100% tray pack," said Hollenbeck. "We see the trend moving now into the independents, too, because of labor and contamination issues. And we like brands. We want to be consistent. We're happy to have one supplier that our customers can count on."
Like other retailers, Russ Wolfe, senior vice president for perishables with Topco Associates, Skokie, Ill., agreed that the supermarket industry is under pressure to examine options like case-ready, because they've been increasingly experiencing a scarcity of qualified employees and looking to reduce or eliminate the high cost of wrapping, weighing and packing the meat and seafood.
"Within our membership, probably 20% have some kind of case-ready meat, beyond chickens -- grinds or pork basically," said Wolfe, whose company is a 3,000-store co-op owned by 22 retailers and two food-service groups.
Although Wolfe firmly believes "this is where the industry is heading," he says his company is not heading there quickly. Topco is taking it slow.
"A lot depends on where you are in the country. In some regions, it's virtually impossible to get help," Wolfe said. "If all of us wanted to get into a case-ready program tomorrow, we couldn't, because there are not enough suppliers doing it."
However, on the issue of food safety, "the more manufacturing I can get out of my store, the better off I'll be," Wolfe added.
Ukrop's, Richmond, Va., has a complete case-ready program for seafood, through Dickie's Seafood, also in Richmond. With Dickie Poh, Jim Ukrop helped set up the Dickie's operation to supply Ukrop's. Six years ago, the case-ready products were minimal -- overwrapped fillets and steaks to start.
"Now 95% of our products are overwrapped and priced," said Roger Kearton, who came to Dickie's after many years either working directly for England's Marks & Spencer or supplying them. The case-ready concept has been reality in Britain for many years and has taken a long time to catch on here, "but distances in the U.K. are very short and in the U.S. they're very long."
Dickie's doesn't do modified atmosphere packaging "because we're not looking for extended shelf life," said Kearton. The program has expanded into four distinct lines of prepackaged seafood, including their "recipe dish products," which include kebobs, tuna and vegetables, teriyaki tilapia, stuffed salmon and many more heat-and-eat entrees.
In addition to the recipe dishes and the basic fillets and steaks, Dickie's packages freshly steamed, ready-to-eat shrimp and a line of oven-crisp products -- heat-and-eat battered fish that cooks in the oven in seven to 11 minutes. They're branching out, too. Now Wegmans, Rochester, N.Y., buys "a couple" of Dickie's overwrapped and oven-ready seafood products.
Some items, however, are made in-store and presented as ready-to-cook entrees in the chain's Chef's Case section. For example, one recent choice, included as part of Wegmans' annual Venice Tonight promotion, was Venetian Salmon, a filet placed on a bed of asparagus stalks, and layered with fennel, red onion, Roma tomato and garlic butter. The finished item is wrapped in parchment paper.
"We have our own trays, microwavable/ovenable containers" for dinners such as shrimp Provencale, linguine with shrimp and scallops, blackened salmon and others, said Kearton.
Still, many are not easily convinced. Al Chiacchio, a former Stop & Shop seafood buyer, has been a merchandising specialist with Aslanis Seafood in Quincy, Mass., for 10 years. He thinks case-ready seafood could be a hard sell in some areas, particularly the New England area, with its long preference for ocean proteins. The problem with case-ready product, is that the consumer doesn't get to smell the fish, he said.
"They can't really look at the quality," said Chiacchio. "Twenty years ago at Stop & Shop we prepackaged seafood from a central location. It was very successful for quite a while."
Now, the customer wants to see, feel and smell the seafood, he noted.
"If you keep seafood in a package for a couple of days -- even high-quality seafood -- it builds up a little gas," said Chiacchio. "When the customer opens it, they get a whiff -- a smell of fish that's, well, packaged."
Indeed, some industry participants believe it's the packers, and not retail, who are stoking demand for case-ready products.
"There are vendors pushing case-ready because they want to brand the meat case," Topco's Wolfe said. "It's our real estate and they're salivating to get their hands on it."
Mergers and acquisitions on the supply side of the distribution chain is another factor that could accelerate the case-ready changeover, according to others.
"[Mergers could] force meat into more case-ready. And, once the meat people are gone, the seafood people won't be far behind," said Howard M. Johnson, president of H.M. Johnson and Associates, an industry consulting firm based in Jacksonville, Ore.
Certain retailers also have power to change the tide, noted Wolfe. For example, Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., announced nearly two years ago its intention to offer only case-ready meat in its food stores and supercenters. Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. is another that has actively sought partnerships with processors to develop case-ready programs in certain marketing areas like Atlanta, where the retailer has teamed up with Excel Corp., a division of Cargill, Minneapolis. The processor has built a plant strictly dedicated to handling Kroger's business in Atlanta, as well as Nashville, Tenn.
"In the last couple of years, people are moving toward case-ready pork and [ground beef]," said Wolfe. "The only place where there's strong penetration now is Wal-Mart, because it's a decision they made and they're big enough to make it happen."