Thanks to innovation, convenience and variety, COVID-era consumers are adding more seafood to their baskets
Shutterstock/ Dmitrii Ivanov
It’s been a big year for fish and seafood, as consumers have dramatically changed their consumption and buying habits as a result of COVID-19, leading to higher seafood sales for grocers able to reel in consumers with an imaginative range of offerings.
“Fish and seafood consumption has been flat since 2016,” says Jo-Ann McArthur, president and chief strategist of Nourish Food Marketing. “But seafood is largely consumed in what I call finer dining, so with the shift in stomach from foodservice to at-home consumption, grocers are absolutely selling more seafood.” Nielsen data confirms it—in the 52 weeks ending Nov. 21, fresh seafood sales were up 9% to $787 million, while frozen seafood sales jumped by 20% to $1.07 billion.
Here, we take a closer look at four seafood categories—fresh, frozen, tinned and plant-based—and the opportunity for grocers:
Fresh is a major driver of the growth in seafood sales, says Amar Singh, principal analyst for Canada, Kantar Consulting. “Canadians are cooking at home, trying new recipes, and seafood is in high demand,” he says.
“We’ve seen seafood sales increase year-over-year since the pandemic began, and fresh with value-added items are showing some of the largest increases,” agrees Colin Johnston, director of meat, seafood and deli at B.C.’s Quality Foods. The chain’s seafood counters feature fresh seasonal fish such as halibut, groundfish and wild salmon, as well as value-added items such as coated, breaded and cream cheese-filled crab patties.
For supplier Lagoon Seafood, top-selling fresh products include salmon, cod, haddock, shrimp and scallops, says marketing director Tony Vartivarian, who notes the company is also seeing high demand for its value-added items such as seasoned salmon tartare, bacon scallops, and salmon and tuna sashimi slices.
In addition to variety, transparency is also a big demand, says Randell Neal, vice-president of retail sales for Export Packers. “ want to know where the seafood is coming from, how it was raised or caught, and what the nutritional benefits are for each product. Consumers are realizing the health benefits of seafood, and millennials and gen Zs seem to be more conscious of what foods they put in their bodies. So, there is still room to grow, to educate consumers on seafood, and make it easier for everyone to eat.”
Offering pre-portioned, semi-prepared products, signage with buying and cooking tips, and providing links to online recipes are some smart tips for merchandising fresh fish, says McArthur, especially since the fresh seafood counter can sometimes be intimidating to unfamiliar customers.
“Frozen food has had a phenomenal year since the COVID-19 outbreak,” says Singh, adding that even before the pandemic, Canadians were rediscovering the convenience and versatility of frozen seafood.
Toronto grocer The Sweet Potato has seen higher seafood sales this year overall, says founder and co-owner Digs Dorfman. He notes this is led by frozen formats such as battered fish portions and frozen raw shrimp. “Frozen sales have increased by over 55% from the same period, October to November, from last year," he says.
Glenn Grandy, senior director, seafood, Tree of Life Canada and president of Green Ocean Seafood, says consumers want “very good quality frozen fish that they can thaw and then season or marinate for an easy- to-prepare healthy meal.” The company’s Green Ocean’s Wild caught products, produced without preservatives or additives, are currently its most popular, appealing to a wide demographic.
Sofina Foods’ Janes brand of frozen fish has also seen strong growth this year, says Daniele Dufour, senior director, communications, public relations and consumer inquiries. Frozen seafood appeals to all age ranges, she says.
When merchandising frozen products, retailers can always look to producers for help. “Janes will work with grocers to merchandise with custom and generic point-of-sale —shelf blades located in the frozen food section, and wraps for frozen bunkers,” says Dufour. “And retailers can leverage their digital apps and loyalty programs to target consumers about seafood.”
Tinned fish and seafood experienced huge jumps in sales at the start of the pandemic, as Canadians loaded their pantries with shelf-stable cans. In fact, during the week ended Mar. 14, 2020, when lockdowns began, Statistics Canada says sales of canned fish, meat and seafood jumped 169% over average 2019 sales.
“Our canned seafood sales have been trending upward, definitely influenced by COVID,” says Dorfman. “Overall, we sell more canned tuna than canned salmon, and unsalted tuna as a whole outsells the salted SKUs by at least 20% or more. The top-selling item is Raincoast Global Skipjack Tuna. To me, this is related to the everyday price, as it is one of the lower-priced items in the tuna category, without sacrificing quality, as well as being sustainable. Sardines, as a whole, have also been trending up since COVID.”
While the early hoarding behaviour has stopped, tinned seafood is still see- ing strong sales as consumers rediscover its quality and convenience. “We’re also seeing a resurgence in artisan canned sea- food, and there’s definitely a new appreciation for the quality,” says McArthur.
Chef Charlotte Langley co-founded Scout Canning with the aim of reviving the tradition of premium-quality, locally made tinned cuisine. “There’s not much innovation in the process itself, it’s a very old and well-designed process, but regarding the ingredients, sourcing and packaging, a lot of innovation is happening,” she says. Scout’s canned products include Butter Poached Lobster, Ontario Trout with Dill, Wild Albacore Tuna with Garden Herb Pesto, and PEI Mussels in a Smoked Paprika & Fennel Tomato Sauce.
McArthur suggests mixing premium canned seafood in other departments, pairing it with complementary meal components to boost impulse buys. This could include putting it near the deli counter with cheeses and other high-end items.
There is “immense room for growth and innovation” in the plant-based seafood market, says Christine Mei, CEO of Gathered Foods, makers of Good Catch. While plant-based seafood is still fairly limited in Canadian grocery, it is growing. Quality Foods currently has a small range of plant-based seafood, says Johnston, but the chain is working with local artisan suppliers to add to its lineup. “We recently listed a company called Modern Meat from Vancouver, which makes fantastic plant-based crab cakes,” he adds.
Good Catch, which offers frozen “seafood” appetizers and entrees, launched in Canada in October 2020 through a distribution partnership with Loblaw. Its frozen lineup includes New England Style Plant-Based Crabless Cakes, Thai Style Plant-Based Fishless Cakes, and Classic Style Plant-Based Fishless Burgers.
“The frozen entrees and appetizers are crafted from Good Catch’s proprietary six-legume blend (peas, chickpeas, lentils, soy, fava beans and navy beans), which is high in protein and used as the base of Good Catch products to create the texture that mimics the flakiness of seafood,” says Mei. “Our plant-based products are geared towards the curious consumer who is looking to expand into plant-based alternatives and is, perhaps, experimenting with a vegan lifestyle,” she says, so they want "products that offer up a similar nutritional benefit as the real thing."
Kantar’s Singh believes plant-based seafood products are best merchandised next to other fish and seafood. “Beyond Burgers got retailers to place their products next to other meat products, to show it as a real taste alternative to biological meat. And that’s going to be the trend with plant-based seafood entering the market.”