Seafood wasn't immune to the price pressures that contributed to a decline in volume sales for a variety of proteins in 2021: For full-year 2021, fresh seafood prices were up 6.8% over 2020 levels, and sales by volume slid 3%, according to data from market researcher IRI. A similar story played out in frozen and shelf-stable seafood, too: Dollar sales were up in 2021, while sales by volume and by unit were down.
But seafood continued to enjoy the "discovery" benefits it gained earlier in the pandemic, when consumers who found themselves making more dinners at home added finfish and shellfish to their meal rotation more often. Frozen and fresh seafood sales passed $7 billion in 2021, according to IRI—beating 2020's record highs—and frozen and fresh seafood sales by volume were up 28.3% and 19.9%, respectively, from 2019.
Just how much has seafood's popularity jumped? Consider two of the category's biggest gainers of the past two years: Frozen raw shrimp sales were up nearly 60% in dollars and nearly 51% by volume in 2021 vs. 2019, while dollar sales of fresh salmon—already fresh seafood's top seller by a wide margin—were up more than 39% in December vs. the same month in 2019.
Even shelf-stable seafood (canned and pouch tuna, primarily) saw dollar sales up 6.8% in 2021 over 2019's totals, and on a year-over-year basis, volume sales for shelf-stable tuna didn't slide by as much as volume sales of fresh seafood did in 2021.
That said, shelf-stable seafood still has a much smaller share of the fish pie, so to speak: Frozen seafood racked up $7.3 billion in sales last year and fresh seafood netted $7.1 billion to shelf-stable seafood's $2.5 billion.
Frozen seafood, the category leader, benefits from strong value perceptions with U.S. consumers: Because there's less pressure to use it quickly and because consumers can prepare only the portions they need at a given time, frozen seafood is less likely to yield food waste—and the visible, odiferous reminder of the money consumers are throwing away when food waste happens.
Frozen fish is the largest subcategory within frozen, reaching $3.3 billion in sales in 2021. Frozen raw shrimp ($2.2 billion) and frozen cooked shrimp ($1.8 billion) were second and third in 2021, respectively.
Within fresh, salmon, crab, shrimp, lobster and cod were 2021's top sellers. Only fresh salmon and smoked salmon saw sales higher at the end of 2021 than at the end of 2020, according to IRI. However, on a two-year basis, only tilapia and scallops saw sales down vs. 2019.
Looking farther ahead into 2022, supply-chain challenges are likely to persist in seafood as in other categories, suggested Anne-Marie Roerink, president of 210 Analytics, which analyzes IRI data. "Departments across the store are dealing with out-of-stocks and SKU reduction amid significant supply chain disruption and constraints," Roerink wrote in a December sales analysis. While finfish assortment remains consistent, shellfish assortment at the end of 2021 was down 7.9% from year-ago levels.
What's next for seafood? Value-added options—premarinated and ready-to-grill/broil/bake items—are positioned to retain strong appeal, especially headed into summer grilling season. Industry analysts have projected that eating at home will be one of the "stickier" trend to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, reflecting both an increase in consumers' cooking confidence and, especially in the past six months and likely through the first half of 2022, consumers' desire to save money and blunt inflation's blows by dining at home. Still, as consumers head back to the office (again) and fill spring/summer activity calendars (again), time-savers in the form of value-added and hybrid prepared/scratch-made meal solutions are likely to resonate strongly.
Farther down the line, cultured (lab-produced) seafood could emerge as a meaningful player in the market, Bloomberg Intelligence's Jennifer Bartashus suggested in an interview last summer with WGB.
"If you think about it, a whole piece of fish, a fillet, is a relatively easy molecular structure to replicate," Bartashus said. "And beyond the environmental concerns [of fishing], imagine if all of the pregnant women in the world no longer had to worry about mercury. That’s something that lab-grown fish can offer." With 77% of consumers polled in January by Retail Insight by Savanta saying they had tried to be more sustainable in their consumption habits in the past year, new options that promise the health benefits of seafood without being tied to overfishing or pollution risks could find a receptive audience.