BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. — Central Market here kicked off Alaskan halibut season with a whole-fish promotion that put sales over the top.
At $6.99 a pound for a whole fish, the chain sold 26,000 pounds of halibut from three stores in just six days. The price, of course, was the sales driver. Wild halibut filets regularly retail for $17.99 per pound and halibut steaks for $16.99 per pound.
But customer service, something the company's seafood counters are well known for, was also key to the promotion. Nobody walked out with a whole fish, intact, under his arm; instead, associates did a lot of cutting and wrapping — and talking to customers.
“We were ready. We were cutting halibut all day long,” said Chris King, seafood specialist for the six-unit independent.
The company had extra associates behind the counter for the sales days, and consequently the lines didn't become too long. Everybody was taken care of quickly, customers said.
“I was at the Ballard store on one of the Halibut Mania days, and I saw people walking out with bags and bags of halibut,” said Evie Hansen, president, National Seafood Educators, Richmond Beach, Wash.
“A lot of the people, I think, were big-time fish eaters. They knew what they wanted, how many steaks, how many fillets. I asked one woman who bought a 25-pound halibut how long it would last her and she said about two weeks.”
Seasonal merchandising is big at Central Market stores. In fact, King told SN that banners go up as early as January alerting customers that halibut season and Copper River salmon season will be coming up.
At all of Central Market's locations, the service seafood counter, running from 30 to 40 feet long, is the centerpiece of the store. Associates, psyched for the halibut sale last month, are already thinking about selling Copper River king and sockeye salmon, King said.
The six-unit independent has monthly cross-store meetings to plan strategies ahead, and the most recent focused on Alaskan Copper River salmon.
“The meetings are like roundtable discussions. We find out what our department heads want, what their plan is, and we work very hard at keeping our associates informed. They know the products and they know their customers,” said King, pointing out that the long service counters staffed by friendly associates are key to ringing up big sales.
“Service is the most important thing for seafood sales. We call it ‘the retail experience.’ It's like the old days. We know people by name. We know what a lot of people want before they walk up to the counter,” King said.
King emphasized that associates know how “to read” customers, like whether they want to talk about cooking the fish, or perhaps a wine to go with it, or whether they want to just get their products and get on their way fast.
“That's important. You don't want to hold them up if they're in a hurry, but knowing what to do comes with experience.”
Turnover in the retailer's seafood departments is low, with some 10- and 12-year veterans serving customers, and customers appreciate their level of product knowledge as well as their warm greetings.
“I think customer service is so good at Central Market because the associates so obviously like what they're doing, and they like, and use, the products. It just shows through,” Hansen told SN.
Another customer said she likes to go to Central Market stores often, several times a week, “just because everybody is so nice.”
Banners and signs and maps of Alaska's Copper River region will soon be posted in the seafood departments. The Copper River salmon season opens later this month.
King pointed out that things have changed from a few years ago, when the hoopla surrounding the opening of the Copper River season was at its height. At that time, retailers competed to see who would have the first Copper River king in their service case. Some even flew up to get those first fish directly from the fishery, and then made a big consumer press event out of their arrival back with early Copper River king. The hype has since cooled.
“The Copper River brand has been diluted a little, because people began marketing chum and pink and silver with the Copper River identification. Not that they're bad fish, but the king and sockeye [at the first of the season] are still the gems of that fishery,” King said.
“And that's what we focus on with our customers. We have high specs. We want kings to be at least 18 pounds and the sockeyes at least six pounds. They're still the gourmet product.”
Central Market's stores will all have maps of the Gulf of Alaska mounted in the seafood departments this week, along with photos of the Copper River Delta.
“We'll also have a description of Copper River king and sockeye and why they taste so good,” King said.
The Copper River season may start late this year, because there's so much ice in the river, King said. The price of the fish may be a little higher this year, mostly due to management of the species to maintain populations.
“Nobody makes a lot of money on Copper River king or sockeye. I saw king at $36 and $37 bucks a pound at one chain last year. We went out at $24.99. It's hard to tell what it [the cost to the retailer] will be this year, but we'll try to keep the same retail as last year, at least at the beginning. That's what everybody tries to do.”