There's nothing like a well-executed perishables presentation to set the image of a supermarket, and there's nothing like an excellent seafood department to set the tone for perishables. But, as perverse luck has it, it's also the seafood department that's under challenge from many directions, making execution an unrelenting and difficult task. It was with the challenges in mind -- together with the lure of reeling in ways to push them back -- that several SN editors went to Boston not long ago to sit down with six merchandising and packaging experts to see what gives with state-of-the-art seafood departments. Present at the resulting event -- the seafood roundtable -- were seafood experts representing H-E-B Grocery Co., San Antonio; Mayfair Super Markets, Elizabeth, N.J.; Fleming Cos., Oklahoma City; Roche Bros. Supermarkets, Wellesley Hills, Mass.; Queen Anne Thriftway, Seattle, and Cryovac, Duncan, S.C., the supplier of packaging materials. A transcript of the roundtable, as edited by Fresh Foods editor Louise Kramer, is presented in this issue of SN, with a mention on Page 1 and picking up on Page 31.
At the roundtable, participants lost little time in getting down to defining what a well-run seafood department can do for a supermarket: "I think seafood is one area . . . where the quality of the product is the differentiating point in terms of supermarket competition," said Mayfair's Rich Catanzaro. But, he went on to say, "treating the department as if it's a necessary evil is probably the worst scenario, [that is, to reason that] 'we have to have seafood because the guy down the block has seafood.' "
That statement really defines the discussion about seafood today: Seafood can set the image for a supermarket, but if quality and execution aren't there, the image won't be a good one.
Queen Anne's Rick Cavanaugh offered a simple definition of the quality that's needed to ensure a favorable image: "Everything's got to look good enough to eat. There are no exceptions." Then, as Rich Cantanzaro said, "One bad experience and you lose 10 customers." Or, put the other way by H-E-B's Jeff Franzblau, "As long as you give them a favorable shopping experience or fish purchase, they'll keep coming back."
Shoppers will also come back, and new business can be built, if supplies of seafood are sufficient and in predictable-enough quality to warrant promotional activity. And there's hope on that front: "There is vacuum-packaging for fresh fish, which is used by several folks up in New England," said Cryovac's Don Smith. "That can help stabilize the price when you're buying for next week."
Price, of course, becomes an important issue in discussions of increasingly tight supplies: "The biggest problem as far as availability isn't where you're going to get fish, but at what price. And at what pricing will we be able to sell it and still have the value for the customer," said Roche Bros.' Paul McGillivray. "What we're trying to do is actively promote some of the other available species."
Some operators at the roundtable have found the most effective means of promotion comes from a well-trained staff that can tell the saga of seafood to shoppers. It may also be the most difficult means of promotion to effectuate: "It's easy to train staff in terms of logistics of how to handle the product, but training them in how to communicate some of those aspects to the consumer so they can continue to drive sales is the biggest challenge in the department."
Finally, set in the midst of any discussion of seafood must be a mention of the seemingly nonstop fusillades of negative publicity fired from sources ranging from Consumer Reports magazine to the mainstream press to the many quasi-news broadcasts on television.
Underscoring again the importance of quality, roundtable participants said their experience failed to confirm the national decline in seafood consumption, a decline that may be attributable to negative publicity. To the contrary, some noticed upticks in consumption around periods of negative publicity. Apparently business drains from poor operators to the good in times like that. Given that, there's no doubt that all the effort a good seafood department demands will pay big dividends.