ORLANDO, Fla. -- Supermarkets have to convince customers that the seafood case is home to some simple, reliable alternatives for the center of the plate -- and not unfamiliar territory.
That was one of the important messages to arise in a wide-ranging discussion of the seafood marketing challenge at retail, offered by a consultant and an analyst of the retail seafood trade at the Food Marketing Institute seafood conference here.
The two speakers -- Pat Shanahan, an industry consultant and principal of the firm Strategic Planning & Communications, Seattle, and Shirley Estes, executive director of the Virginia Marine Products Board in Newport News, Va. -- said the task that department merchandisers face is an arduous one, since seafood as a category currently cannot be found among consumers' most popular food preferences. The list of top food choices has remained virtually undisturbed for the last 10 years, Shanahan pointed out.
"In the top-10 foods eaten 1984 to 1994, very little has changed; and there is no seafood on the list at all," Shanahan said, referring to research data compiled by the consumer analysis firm NPD Group, based in Chicago.
For one thing, the speakers said, to get more customers to frequent the seafood department on a regular basis -- and even to lure some of them in for the first time -- retailers and the suppliers who are their partners must pay more attention to consumer demands.
Probably the most basic of those demands is for a good tasting meal solution, one that is convenient and healthy. Seafood can fit the bill, but retailers have to craft a simple, effective message backed up by a strong marketing plan that teaches consumers about the product and creates trust.
Right now, trust may not be uppermost in many consumers' minds when it comes to the seafood department.
"FMI's done a lot of consumer research, and we're finding that when they're looking at purchasing the best quality product, consumers will look at a specialty fish market, and second at a personal catch, and then finally at [supermarket] retailers," said seafood marketer Estes.
The question of trust brings up one hurdle that retailers must clear right away: to convince shoppers that they can find supermarket seafood that tastes as good as its price tag calls for.
"When they're looking for a meal, consumers want something that tastes good," said Shanahan. "This may seem really obvious, but it often gets lost in our promotions and our dealings with pricing strategies. It doesn't matter how low the price is or what the promotion is; if it doesn't taste good, they aren't going to eat it.
"It only takes one bad experience for consumers to write off a whole category." Products fail regularly at retail, Shanahan said, "because the taste isn't there."
Another way to wedge seafood into that important priority list of preferences is to make seafood as convenient as possible, both to buy in the store and to eat once it gets home, Shanahan continued.
"People eat the same things over and over because it's very efficient for them. They already know that they like it, they know where to find it in the store, they grab it and they go, and they're guaranteed a satisfying meal."
Cues from the meat department are useful when attempting to maximize convenience for customers, she advised.
"Sometimes it's a partially prepared item, sometimes it's a frozen item that's most convenient, sometimes it's a marinated product, or sometimes it's just having marinade or [similar product] near the case."
Shanahan also suggested retailers should keep service a priority in the department's environment. "Whether it's full-service or self-service, you still have to have service. Even in the self-service case, it's not just a matter of customers helping themselves, they're still going to need some level of service. We can't just leave them alone up there."
The two speakers emphasized the importance of service-oriented tactics such as staging product demonstrations, making recipes available at the point of sale and offering cooking instructions.
"We have to remember, the consumers are not in the business and they have not tasted all these products. It doesn't really matter what kind of demo or sampling you do; you've got to get the fish in their mouths," said Shanahan.
"There might be a hundred reasons for not cooking seafood, but we have to be sure that we're willing to provide a seafood meal. One way to do that is by helping consumers learn how to prepare seafood, and prepare it very easily," said Estes.
Department associates should all try the recipes that their departments are displaying, Estes suggested, so they can tell customers that they themselves had a particular seafood item for dinner.
Simply making recipes available, however, is not enough. "If you don't have the right recipes out there, you may as well not have them."
Among the most important criteria for recipes is an inherent simplicity of ingredients and cooking instructions, according to Estes. "No more than six ingredients, that's the absolute max. Have two to four steps. The preparation has to be easy, and the ingredients have to be easy to find."
Preparation time should be no more than 20 minutes, since, as Shanahan noted, the average American spends only 20 minutes preparing all the meals of the day.
Offering an example of a recipe that she said meets these criteria and provides the good taste factor as well, Estes suggested spreading dijon mustard on salmon and sprinkling it with bread crumbs and pecans.
"What we're finding out is, consumers might get tons of recipes but they use a basic 10 over and over. We want to come up with seafood recipes that make [it into] those top 10 over and over again."
The speakers did refer to some chains that are making progress with seafood marketing. Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., for example, is promoting seafood by regularly preparing three fresh main entrees made with seafood items, Estes said. The entrees include salmon in dill sauce, shrimp creole, and cod in mushroom and white sauce. They are all microwaveable within two to five minutes, packaged with nutrition information on the back, and priced from $4.15 to $5.30.