In the lucrative world of holiday shrimp promotions, retailers are finding there are no longer any hard and fast rules.
Some customers want raw shrimp, some want it cooked, some want value-added items such as shrimp rings or platters. Others want their shrimp plain but they also plainly have preferences for particular varieties.
Some pick it up frozen, months in advance of seasonal parties; others wait until Christmas Eve. And the shrimp aren't just for Christmas parties anymore: The run on shrimp starts before Thanksgiving and stretches straight through the Super Bowl.
The only rule of thumb that seems to stand up across all regions and market profiles is that the more adventurous the merchandiser is, the more successful the season will be.
"There's no pattern to it anymore," said Gary Lorenz, merchandise development manager for seafood at Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y. "Shoppers are very diversified in their shopping patterns when it comes to shrimp, and they're more knowledgeable now than they've probably ever been before. That continues to be a trend and we try to educate the customers on the benefits of one way vs. the other, and to supply what's convenient for them."
Retailers stock a bit of everything, when it comes to shrimp. The only trick left is anticipating the often volatile shrimp market, and how it will affect their pricing and promoting strategies.
This autumn, many retailers have taken advantage of prices that are quite a bit lower than last year's, laying to rest some analysts' warnings that the shellfish is in danger of becoming a luxury item.
"Shrimp has always been high-priced compared to other seafood, but now the rest is catching up," said William Brim, vice president of seafood at Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla.
"I don't see that shrimp is going to be something that only rich people buy," he told SN. "I see the working class buying just as much as they always do."
Lower prices are the results of several conditions, said Larry Daerr, seafood buyer and merchandiser for the Pittsburgh division of Supervalu, New Stanton, Pa.
"The amount of Gulf shrimp caught this year in small sizes helped bring the price down," he said, adding that Japan also imported less of it this year.
"That gave us a real good price structure to work with, a dollar and a half below last year."
Daerr locked in supplies for his independents early: "I bought eight trailer-loads for the holidays, for at least $1.50 cheaper than last year."
Domestic shrimp provide the best deal for retailers right now, according to Alexis Pappas, corporate shrimp buyer at Ipswich Shellfish Co., a distributor based in Ipswich, Mass.
"The domestic season has been coming in strong and really leading the way in terms of price in the last three weeks," he told SN. "I think tigers are coming down to that level right now, and domestics might actually go up over tigers in another couple of weeks, but so far domestics have been the best value out there."
Retailers rarely go for more exotic varieties of shrimp, in Pappas' experience. "I don't think people want to fool around with brand new products."
Although he says most imported shrimp now comes from Thailand, in terms of quality he ranks Mexican graded shrimp as "the best in the world, but not too much production comes out of that." The next best sources are Ecuador, Colombia, Asian black tiger "and then maybe domestic."
He predicted that, as usual, in upscale areas, retailers will meet a demand for larger shrimp, whereas in some ethnic and low-income areas the size of the shrimp will be cost-consciously smaller.
While prepared shrimp rings are still catching on in some areas of the country, other retailers are saying that their customers have already come full circle and decided that it's worth the savings to prepare their own.
"Last year a lot of people bought and prepared their own shrimp rings," said Price Chopper's Lorenz. "A lot of times around the holidays what people will do is about a week ahead of time they'll come in and pick up their frozen [individually quick frozen] cooked shrimp. That way when they're ready to prepare their platter they don't have to come into the supermarket on Christmas Eve or the day before when it's fairly crowded and get involved in traffic and things like that, when they're probably busy doing their other shopping as well."
But at Easter Stores, a division of Nash Finch Co. in Altoona, Iowa, the convenience of prepared shrimp rings is still a boon for the seafood department.
"We're definitely starting to see a rise in demand for shrimp rings and platters," said the chain's meat supervisor, Stan Eller. And he didn't predict any fall-off in demand, even though shrimp rings cost 30% more than if consumers prepared them themselves.
For retailers, the savings achieved by preparing shrimp rings in-store, rather than purchasing them precooked from the importer, are much less significant. "It's cheaper for them to make their own -- I'd say 30 to 40 cents cheaper per ring," said supplier Pappas. "Basically, it's the labor that's involved."
At Price Chopper, the trend of consumers making their own shrimp rings at home was not connected with an increase in market price, Lorenz said. "Everything was up over the last year, our shrimp rings and shrimp platters, but also our shrimp sales, so even though we had a better year with shrimp platters, with the other cooked shrimp the increase was the same as just off the ice or just out of the freezer."
Shrimp rings and IQF shrimp are always in demand by people who plan ahead, while raw shrimp are more of an impulse purchase, according to Lorenz. "Raw shrimp are really bought by the last-minute shoppers who are ready to eat the product that particular night or the next day."
In any event, the chain ensures that a wide range of platters is also available: "We have everything, from the low end up to the Cadillac of shrimp platters," Lorenz said.
Shrimp faces a lot of competition during the holiday though, because Price Chopper expands its ethnic seafood selection. "We have staple items for the Italians. We advertise eel, calamari, scungilli, everything that we normally don't carry unless it's requested."
Most of Price Chopper's shrimp is farm-raised, he added. "We don't go after much wild product."
The holiday season is probably the only time that Winn-Dixie customers will find anything but imported shrimp in the seafood case, according to Brim. "Shrimp is one of our biggest growth areas," he told SN. For Christmas, which is the chain's biggest shrimp selling occasion, the chain will use brochures, recipes, newspaper ads and radio spots to bring shrimp rings and party platters to customers' attention.
"Raw shrimp sells well. We sell eight to 10 varieties," Brim told SN. "The most popular is white shrimp, and at this time of year it's local, from Georgia, Florida and the Gulf, but the rest of the year it's imported."
Another popular variety is pink "Key West" shrimp, Brim added.
Customers also demonstrate established preferences for particular varieties in the mid-Atlantic region, Supervalu's Daerr said.
"Through this region people are spoiled, they're used to pink or Gulf brown," he told SN. "It's very difficult to sell tiger or anything else." In the case of cooked shrimp, customers are less particular, he added. Supervalu's stores are buying a lot of 26/30 and 21/25 counts, Daerr said, and shrimp rings, which are made on-site in the stores, are also selling well.
"We have been doing a real nice job with 12-ounce shrimp rings and Peel & Eat shrimp for $5.99 and $6.99," he said.
"We also do a one- to two-person ring, like a snack ring, and have even had success putting surimi in there as well. We do real well with them in the football season."
For Superbowl, Christmas and New Year parties, Supervalu has developed a visual aid for merchandising.
"Each one of the stores has a picture book on the counter, and each time they make a tray, if it's something a little bit different, they take a Polaroid of it and put it in their book, and they have that to show the consumers. "The customer can come in and pick it up, and she can look at a price and the complete make-up of the different trays. It does work well."
Daerr said the stores can produce a wide range of party platters, all custom-made. "You have to go with the tray the customer wants. Of course we'll make suggestions, and we have it figured out to what they're going to use on each tray per person, and we price it accordingly."
Supervalu uses the slogan "let us be your occasion tray center," in holiday ads.
"We don't want to say 'party,' because some people order them for things like funerals as well," Daerr explained.
He added that their stores move a much greater quantity of raw shrimp than cooked shrimp during the holidays.
But cooked shrimp represents the majority of shrimp sales in this country during the holidays, according to Peter Gryska, retail manager for Coldwater Seafood, a supplier based in Rowayton, Conn.
"Cooked shrimp is popular among retailers because you just sell it and you stand back, it's one of the simplest things to sell, because what do you need to do with it? It's shrimp."
The upward trend for cooked shrimp is certainly in evidence in Roche Bros. stores, according to Paul McGillivray, director of deli and fish for the Wellesley Hills, Mass.-based independent.
"Almost all we sell is cooked shrimp," he told SN. He said that they do not play the market on shrimp, but have stayed with the same, mostly farm-raised, brand for more than 15 years.
Shrimp rings represent a strong business for the holidays, he added, and the only other variation is with size.
"A lot of our customers will pay extra money for a larger size at this time of year," McGillivray said.
Gryska added that often suppliers do not try to do a lot of value-added work with shrimp because it is just too costly.
"If you can do any value-adding to your shrimp for the retailer, you've got to outsource it. When you sit down and do the actual numbers, you have to charge an exorbitant amount. Most retailers just repackage it and sell it and that's it."