The most avid seafood shoppers in the U.S. skew more affluent, more educated and more likely to have larger households than the general U.S. population, according to fresh data from FMI–The Food Industry Association.
All of that makes them a lucrative customer cohort: Seafood customers spend more and make more in-store visits, FMI states in its 2022 Power of Seafood report. In addition, according to FMI, "When seafood is in the basket, the sale is about three times higher."
But increasingly, seafood shoppers aren't a cohort that's loyal exclusively to supermarkets when making seafood purchases. Just 37% of consumers polled for FMI's latest Power of Seafood report said supermarkets are their primary destination for seafood—down from 51% who said the same in 2019 and 60% who said supermarkets were their seafood go-to in 2018.
Where are they going instead? Among their new seafood sources are specialty brick-and-mortar shops and online, direct-to-consumer businesses. "Shoppers are spreading their seafood purchases around to a variety of merchants, with online sales seeing a big increase," FMI stated.
The surge in online sales comes as frozen seafood has been a driver of growth in the category. Sales of frozen seafood were up 2.7% in 2021, according to FMI, even over 2020's record-breaking tally.
As consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic became more comfortable cooking seafood at home—with their favorite restaurant destinations for seafood closed or operating at limited capacity, many had no other choice—they also became more confident about buying frozen fish to use at some point down the line. Nearly half of seafood customers (49%) told FMI that they have been cooking more meals with seafood during the pandemic.
In 2021, most shoppers said they buy seafood at least somewhat consistently: Fifty-nine percent of customers polled said they consume seafood frequently (two or more times a week) or occasionally (monthly to weekly). More than 4 in 10 said they're buying more value-added options: Forty-four percent said they're buying more heat-and-eat or grab-and-go seafood meals; 43% said they're buying more sushi; and 41% said they're buying fresh seafood that is marinated or seasoned.
Notably, according to FMI, seafood's biggest fans—not on-again, off-again seafood shoppers—are driving the category's sales growth. For grocers, that suggests an imperative to continue to evolve the seafood counter to meet avid seafood customers' evolving expectations in areas like assortment and sustainability.
The share of seafood customers saying they're sustainability-focused rose to 50% in 2021 from 29% in 2019, with sustainability-attuned shoppers representing a "young, affluent and progressive segment of seafood consumers," according to FMI. More than one-quarter (26%) said they prefer farm-raised seafood, in large part out of perceptions that farm-raised options are more sustainable and healthful.
Overall seafood sales hit $16.9 billion in 2021, a 0.9% increase over the previous year, according to FMI. The category's continued growth, said Rick Stein, FMI's VP of fresh foods, represents an "opportunity for grocers to continue to support shoppers’ seafood desires with information about cooking, preparation and sustainability."