SCHENECTADY, N.Y. -- Mardi Gras ends. Lent begins. When the partying is over on Ash Wednesday, the serious Lenten business of selling seafood in supermarkets is just getting started in earnest.
Lent, the 40-day period during which Catholics traditionally consume lots of fish, is a time when supermarket seafood personnel are always excruciatingly busy, and the department logs some of the highest sales figures of the year. At some chains, like Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., however, seafood is treated like a year-round opportunity.
The retailer has made a major investment in its seafood departments, beginning some five months ago, when it launched "Be Seafood Smart," a multitiered consumer education and promotion program.
"The theme, of course, is that we want to sell more seafood this year," said Mike Kennally, Price Chopper's vice president for seafood. "But [ultimately] what we want to do is sell more seafood to more people."
To that end, this Ash Wednesday found him in a store in Glens Falls, N.Y., kicking off the grand opening of the chain's second separate fish and chips center adjacent to one of his seafood counters.
"It was $5.99, all you can eat, all day," said Kennally. He says the fish-fry unit, which replaced a meat locker in the 3-year-old store, represents just one part of the chain's commitment to successful seafood sales.
"We always say, we do very well selling seafood to people who eat seafood, but it's the ones who are uncomfortable with it that we have to sell," Kennally added.
As he points out, all the research and results of various marketing studies tell retailers that consumers love seafood. They love to eat it in restaurants. They don't love to cook it at home because they don't know how to handle it.
"We've heard it for years. We just finally put it on paper. We want to de-mystify seafood. Take all the mystery out of it," explained Kennally.
Price Chopper's management believes that sales of seafood will increase as more consumers grow familiar with the various items available in the department, he said. To implement this kind of attitude at store level requires that department managers and associates approach the sale from the point of view of the consumer.
In the stores, consumers receive brochures describing the products with handling and cooking techniques. They also get a "double-your-money-back" guarantee on their seafood. So far, only one or two people have returned anything since the "Be Seafood Smart" program began, he said.
"It's remarkable, the response we've gotten," Kennally said. "The problems we've had have been inconsequential."
During the week of Ash Wednesday, Kennally ran three pages of seafood ads in newspapers explaining what the stores would do for Lent. In comparison, during the rest of the year, seafood cover items are featured in only three ads each month.
"If people don't know how to prepare seafood, but they buy it, take it home, prepare it and have an unsatisfactory experience, the repercussions are great," he said.
To prevent these types of experiences, Price Chopper sponsored four seminars in the past four months to teach consumers everything they need to know to reach a comfort level with seafood preparation.
"People are so surprised at how easy it is," Kennally said. "We've had people travel an hour and a half to get to a seminar, so we know we're on the right track."
Price Chopper selects an area near one or more stores, advertises the seminar in newspapers and store fliers and signs up participants in advance. Nutritionists from its consumer services department bring "three or four simple recipes" to cook for the participants, who number between 150 and 200, depending on the size of the facility.
"At the last one, we had 175 participants with 150 more on the waiting list," said Kennally. "We rented a local Italian-American community center with a big hall for weddings and a kitchen. We set up closed-circuit TV so participants could see the recipes being prepared."
Kennally talks to participants for about an hour, telling them how fish is caught or farm-raised and how to spot quality. He fillets and cuts whole fish for them.
"The nutritionists tell them about the benefits of seafood and show them how to cook it in healthy, simple ways," he added. "They make all three or four recipes. The smell of the garlic and the fish cooking begins to tantalize the consumers. We hand the dishes around so everyone can see them and smell how good they are."
"Then the caterers come in and prepare enough of all these recipes and lay them out, buffet style, so all the participants can try each of them," said Kennally. Seminars take about two and a half hours, but Kennally usually stays around for another hour and a half on average, answering still more consumer questions. The chain's seafood specialist and department managers also attend the seminars.
"People just want this information," Kennally said. "It makes them so happy. We'd like to run more seminars. They're very expensive because we offer them free to consumers, but they're worth it."
"Be Seafood Smart" follows another successful Price Chopper program, "We Know Meat." Both will continue, Kennally said, because of the 97-store chain's commitment to consumers. "We won't have anything that's here today, gone tomorrow."
Kennally said another secret to Price Chopper's success is the chain's decision to keep the meat and seafood departments separate.
"We have to stand alone, on our merits," said Kennally. "It's just not the same if you have the deli or the meat guy trying to take care of both."
The chain's stores have 74 full-service seafood cases. The rest have a variety of different self-service formats, depending on the neighborhood, the volume and the demand for seafood.
While Kennally declined to reveal Price Chopper's specific seafood profit margins, he says they're "way, way, way above" the national average, which is usually cited at about 1.5% to 2%.
Although labor costs in the full-service departments are high, the volume and customer satisfaction make them cost-effective, he explained. Even the self-service cases are tended.
Full-service departments have 16-foot to 20-foot multideck frozen cases and five ice cases to keep cooked, raw and live product separate and eliminate cross contamination.
"First, it's necessary to prove your respectability in seafood and make your reputation stand up. We're very successful. And it's all of our stores, not just the high fliers," he added. "That's very important."