BOSTON -- A seafood contractor and former retailer blasted supermarket seafood departments for their quality problems during a meeting preceding the annual International Boston Seafood Show here.
Independent seafood contractor Phil Walsh said he hasn't seen much in the way of progress when it comes to the quality of seafood displayed at retail.
"I think there are some real bright spots, [but] I think the great bloom is off from the '80s, when there was concentration on [seafood] and dedication to retail programs from the very top, from the presidents of companies," said Walsh, who at one time was a seafood executive with Kings Super Markets, West Caldwell, N.J.
The problem is that the merchandising of fresh seafood is shunted far down the list of concerns in the executive suites at many chains these days.
"Right now, accounting has stepped in and said, 'You'd better charge more money, you'd better do this and that,' and the result's been that I have not seen a great leap forward in the past year in quality available at the retail level," Walsh said.
By way of example, Walsh recounted his dismay recently over the appearance of products during a visit to a major retail customer's stores. "I had to tell [the management], 'You know this fish just plain shouldn't be out there, it's hurting the entire industry.' I'm not going to say those stores are representative, but I am sorry to tell you that in those stores, as in many stores, seafood sales represent 1% of the total store sales."
Such a paltry contribution, Walsh said, may account for a less-than-conscientious attitude on the part of retailers toward the seafood department.
"What I saw was fish that was probably bought for less, and probably wasn't bought from someone who is a steady supplier on that item. So it was bought on price, it didn't have a lot of shelf life on it, and the people in the stores didn't have any training and didn't know how to handle it. I was very disappointed and very disturbed.
"I am absolutely sorry to say that, and I will also qualify again and say that there are some very bright spots. There are some great programs out there."
He would not say which retailers were responsible for either the troublesome programs or the more successful ones. However, he did say that he senses a lot of frustration among the store-level seafood department employees of many companies.
"One [seafood department manager] I talked to was really angry, too. He said, 'I can't buy [other] fish, I get stuck with my corporate warehouse, and I've [protested] but my store manager just says pipe down, this is the hand you're dealt.' So I'm not real happy with the way retail is."
Such situations create a strong need for suppliers who add value for retail customers, Walsh said. "Successful seafood companies today bring something of value to the table. There isn't any more schmoozing, there isn't any more, 'Well, I'll take care of you on the price' -- nothing like that. You've got to bring something of value to the table, whether it's because you've got a modified atmosphere package or you've got a signature salmon.
"Successful seafood companies today understand their role in the chain that leads from the water to the table, and they stay within their limits, unless there's a conscious decision to do otherwise. You cannot be all things to all people."
He added that seafood companies should also be scrupulous about reducing costs, and wherever possible remain flexible and adaptable to change in the market.
Larry Daerr, seafood buyer and merchandiser at the New Stanton, Pa.-based division of supermarket wholesaler Supervalu and an attendee at the preconvention meeting, offered some suggestions about improving quality both for retailers and their seafood suppliers.
"I have two distributors I work with now, where we have a cross-docking system. I have some stores where we get seven days' delivery of fresh product," Daerr said. "You might want to look into developing that with the people you work with. It comes into my warehouses from the truck on a daily basis, and that's how we ensure fresh product in my stores."
Daerr, too, recommended more attention to quality and care going into retail seafood. "The better the seafood industry is all the way around, the better we are altogether."
Meanwhile, Walsh still predicted a brighter future for supermarket seafood, provided that the industry is prepared to pick up what he sees as retailer slack.
"I think that it is going to get better, and I think we should do as much as we can to help it get better," Walsh said.
"We've got an image that we've probably earned over the years and that we have got to get out from under. There are two things that have increased our legitimacy in the past year: [one is] very rapid transfer of information so that landings, prices, etc. are available to everybody. I can speak to a supermarket buyer in Boise and he'll know the ex-vessel price of Albacore tuna.
"The other thing has been the increased participation on the part of distributors in fresh and frozen seafood. What that has done is begun to get the trust of the [retail] community."
However, the number of seafood suppliers and distributors penetrating the market has created other complications, and Walsh implied that retailers may soon see a cleanout among suppliers they work with.
"The other side is that margins have been depressed. Those of us that will make it need to learn to work with those," he said. Other changes include continued dependence on aquaculture and advances in distribution, which "continues to change at warp speed," according to Walsh. "Basically, we're becoming smarter and more focused."