BOSTON -- Although there was no dearth of retailers perusing booths on the floor of the annual International Seafood Show here, the accompanying conference sessions did not seem to address them.
Indeed, many of the seafood suppliers speaking, and in attendance, at the show, indicated that for them, supermarket seafood is not a serious business -- a sort of poor relation in comparison with food-service accounts.
SN asked a few key participants to elaborate on that attitude toward the trade, and whether it is justified.
"One statement that is made continually is that two-thirds of seafood sold in America is sold at food service," said Peter Gryska, a retail seafood specialist who was formerly a retail seafood merchandiser. "This is true at the consumer level, because the markup at food service is greater than retail; but at wholesale, it's 50-50 -- there's as much business going on at retail as at food service."
The potential for seafood sales at the retail level is grossly underestimated, according to Gryska. "One thing I think people forget is that a single retail buyer, let's assume one with 20 stores, is going to do half a million dollars of seafood a year," he said. "A 20-store chain is not a big chain, so there are a lot of $20 million to $30 million seafood buyers walking around the show as well. How many restaurant owners are going to buy that amount of product? Not many. It tends to be a different product. It tends not to be the newest tuna, or King Salmon and stuffed crawfish tails. Retailers don't sell that. They do sell truckloads of catfish and truckloads of whiting."
What should retailers be doing, meanwhile, to improve the image of their seafood departments and earn more respect? One seafood director from a Midwestern chain had some suggestions.
"What we do right, is that I don't report to the meat department," he told SN. "I report to the vice president of fresh foods, the same guy the meat director reports to. That's how you get away from being a stepchild.
"We're the fastest growing department in the chain. I'm showing 20% increases," the Midwest retailer added.
He attributed part of that success to his refusal to negotiate on one important point. "I tell my sources to give me quality first, and we'll talk about the price later. I never sacrifice quality."
And that's the way it should be at retail, according to Tim Hebert, president of Consulting Solutions, a new retail seafood consulting firm in Charlotte, N.C.
Formerly a seafood director at Harris Teeter and Hannaford Bros., Hebert said that all too often, seafood gets short shrift at the store level.
"We've positioned seafood as a specialty product, but we staff it primarily with part-time people, we don't pay them a lot, we don't train them and we don't give them career paths. We don't teach them about the product."
Smaller operators can be forgiven these oversights, but those who have the resources to do better and don't are wasting substantial sales potential, he said. "We've got some markets in Charlotte where price is not a major obstacle to purchasing anything, and in those stores there is no reason that we could not have [a superior] level of service. That means put expertise behind that counter, someone who can tell consumers about the product, how they cook it, how it tastes, who understands the consumer mindset of, 'I'm standing here in the supermarket now; how soon can I be sitting down eating dinner?' "
The dynamics of seafood selling are misunderstood at the upper management level, Hebert continued. "We don't prepare people [to comprehend] that, 'Look, it's going to cost you for four months, but after that it'll pay off.' "
"Retail seafood is where a lot of tomorrow's business will be if we figure out how to do it properly. For those of us who want to go after the opportunity there's still a lot of untapped potential."