BOSTON -- Retail seafood managers caught in the store-level tide of consolidation have a number of options to boost sales and protect margins, according to panelists speaking at the International Boston Seafood Show.
"The labor problem remains the biggest one faced by stores" especially in this time of increasing consolidation, said moderator Howard M. Johnson, president of H.M. Johnson & Associates.
Describing what he calls "the new retail paradigm," Johnson said retailers are developing a hybrid fresh/frozen seafood destination area. This new department -- a combination of full- and self-serve -- has a manager and staffing only during high-traffic hours. Tray-packed, fresh seafood is displayed near frozen cases holding a variety of branded, value-added specialty seafoods.
"Case readiness is an area where retailers can save money," added Mark Jones, Florida marketing representative with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
Panelists recommended having a planogram that any associate could follow to fill the case in the morning, which eliminates cross contamination and guesswork. Some stores have a plan permanently drawn on the floor of the case, noted panelist Alan Greenfield, vice president of engineering and design with Stark Products, a case manufacturer in College Point, N.Y.
One retailer uses a system with numbered pans so anyone can follow the design, allowing for weekly changes, added Greenfield. Others use a diagonal, staggered layout to create a more interesting pattern.
Using more refrigeration and less ice can also protect product as well as lower costs, Greenfield said.
"Some retailers use an iceless case, but put a row of ice along behind or in front of the product for show," he added.
Retail cases filled with mounds and mounds of ice are expensive to fill, hard to clean, not always sanitary and if not properly set up, will not keep the product fresh. Often product sits on top of the ice, where the top of the seafood reaches ambient room temperature and spoils. Product displayed on ice should be packed in tins or plastic tubs and buried up to the rim of the container, panelists said.
"Try to design the department so there's no smell, for example; and don't put drains under cases so they are hard to reach. Put them outside," said Greenfield. "Try to design the case so it is easy to clean. Fish departments are tough environments to maintain because they are so wet."
Food demos in stores are decreasing, agreed panelists and audience members, as suppliers working on tighter margins become less willing to supply free product.
Jones said while demos are "very expensive" and constraints of consolidation might squeeze demos out of the chain's distribution budget, managers should work with marketing groups and suppliers to find a way to do them.
Besides the cost, demos represent "a big food-safety issue," said Johnson, since kids stick their fingers in samples and even adults can be caught taking a bite and putting something back on the tray.
Larry Daerr, regional seafood manager for Supervalu of Pittsburgh, suggested from the audience that demos are most safely done from behind the seafood counter.
"To avoid double-dipping and other problems, have an associate reach over the counter with a clean tray and ask the customer to try one. It's the most efficient way," said Daerr.
And find a way to fund demos "because though they're expensive, it's more expensive not to do. Ninety percent of the time the only way to introduce new products and get people to try them is by demos."
Other recommendations made by panelists for enhancing the retail seafood case, and increasing department efficiency and profitability, included having "lots of point-of-sales materials. There are many promotion councils with good materials. Always have recipes," said Johnson.
"Promote the department with banners, and do tie-ins with spice companies or grill manufacturers, or the local wine company -- that's a natural," he said.