Center Store

Testing the Waters: Consumers Look to Frozen for Ordering Fish, Seafood Online

frozen food aisle
Photograph: Shutterstock

As with so much else, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed many U.S. consumers to get over their qualms about ordering groceries—and especially fresh foods—online. Trusting someone else to pick out their produce and pork chops may not have been consumers’ preference, but for those who cut down on or cut out in-store shopping trips at different points in 2020, it was the only real option.

As of April, nearly 3 in 5 U.S. shoppers (59%) had bought groceries online in the past year, a Coresight Research survey found. Moreover, one-third of online grocery shoppers said they expect to order groceries online just as often post-pandemic, and more than one-quarter said they expect to buy groceries online more frequently.

Omnichannel shoppers tend to be more loyal, higher-spending shoppers. Target Corp. Chief Financial Officer Michael Fiddelke noted in March that omnichannel shoppers spend four times more with the Minneapolis-based retailer than in-store-only shoppers and 10 times more than online-only shoppers. Helping digitally engaged grocery shoppers maintain their online-ordering enthusiasm heading out of the pandemic, then, is critical to maintaining these valuable omni customers’ brand affinity. And maintaining or growing online baskets may be a matter of convincing customers that they can satisfactorily take care of dinner and tackle their entire grocery list—center-plate proteins included—with an online order.

Meat and seafood have been two of the slowest grocery categories to win digital engagement, but they continue to see more consumers willing to test the waters with online orders. The share of online grocery buyers adding meat (beef, pork and chicken) to their grocery cart grew by more than 60% from 2019 to 2021, according to New York-based Chicory, maker of a shoppable-recipe platform for grocers and CPG companies.

“Historically, shoppers have resisted ordering these items online due to personal preference on size, shape, weight and other factors,” said Chicory co-founder and CEO Yuni Sameshima. “But across the board, we’re seeing an increasing level of comfort with online ordering.”

The fact that more consumers chose to add meat to their online order as more consumers did more extensive grocery shopping online isn’t necessarily a surprise, but it’s worthwhile to look more closely at what they were adding to identify opportunities for further growth. And especially as more consumers return to restaurants, head back to the office and resume semi-normal schedules and activities, it’s vital for retailers to continue evolving their offerings to ensure that they’re meeting consumers’ shifting needs.

Throwing Them a Line at Dinner

Whether they’re grocery shopping in-store or online, consumers don’t care about product categories, per se; they care about putting together a meal. “It is all about the meal,” said Sally Lyons Wyatt, EVP for industry analyst IRI, in a webinar on fresh-foods trends from IRI and FMI–The Food Industry Association in March. To deepen consumers’ loyalty and trust, grocery retailers need to "help consumers own that meal," she said.

On the hunt for meal solutions, many consumers have gotten around their wariness about ordering meat and seafood products online by turning to frozen options. If they can’t visually inspect their protein before buying it, frozen packaged proteins at least offer an assurance of product consistency and no surprises when it comes to the final weight and price of the product.

“Frozen seafood was the growth leader across all frozen food offerings month after month."

In-store and online, while sales of frozen meat, poultry and seafood were down in May vs. the tough-to-beat year-ago period, they were up 34% vs. May 2019, according to IRI. Frozen seafood was something of a breakout star in 2020; more consumers were willing to explore the category, whether prompted by stockouts of other proteins or a craving for the kinds of shellfish dishes they would have enjoyed at a restaurant , many of which were closed to indoor dining or operating at limited capacity for much of the year.

“Frozen seafood was the growth leader across all frozen food offerings month after month” in 2020, 210 Analytics President Anne-Marie Roerink wrote in a June analysis of IRI data.

And for online shoppers, beyond product consistency, there’s the convenience factor of frozen, too: Pre-portioned options such as frozen burger patties and heat-and-eat choices such as seafood-and-pasta skillets offer hassle-free, minimal-prep meal solutions. These likely are as attractive from a convenience standpoint now, with consumers’ calendars again beginning to fill, as they were six months ago, when consumers were merely weary of figuring out dinner at home night after night.

Roerink noted as much in offering a positive outlook for frozen foods through the rest of 2021. “Daily commutes and the return of evening and weekend activities may put more pressure on time, which is likely to prompt an increase in convenience-focused meals,” she wrote.

For increasingly time-crunched consumers, heat-and-eat protein options that they can order online for curbside pickup or home delivery may be a way not just to help make the meal but to win the day—assuming, of course, that consumers can readily discover or easily find these options from their go-to grocers online.

If they can’t find or confidently buy the meats and seafoods they’re looking for online from traditional retailers, shoppers can turn to a growing number of suppliers ready to step up with direct-to-consumer sales. In June, subscription-based ButcherBox announced the debut of an online storefront on Instacart through which Instacart users can order assortments of ButcherBox’s grass-fed beef, organic chicken and wild-caught seafood. Crowd Cow, another growing player in the meat delivery space, boasts that every one of its deliveries of premium Japanese Wagyu beef and other meat products is 100% carbon neutral. And Alaska Salmon, founded in 2016 as a salmon purveyor for high-end restaurants and fish markets, added direct-to-consumer salmon sales this spring for consumers willing to shell out $50 to $75 a pound for premium wild-caught salmon.

Especially for traditional retailers, winning consumers’ confidence in buying meat and seafood online isn’t about any one thing; it’s about meeting all of their needs: for convenient meal solutions, for high-quality (and, increasingly, responsibly sourced) products and for flexibility. Checking off all of these boxes can boost not just individual basket sizes but loyalty over time.



More from our partners