Fresh Food

Seafood Demand Rises as Retailers Aim for a Splash

Driven by health consciousness, Americans are eating more seafood than in nearly a decade
Photograph: Shutterstock

After years of sluggish growth, per capita seafood consumption in the U.S. is up more than it has been in nearly a decade. Key drivers include consumers’ increasing focus on healthful eating and grocers’ swimmingly successful merchandising, promotions and sampling, frequently in partnership with industry organizations and suppliers.

When it comes to fresh seafood, today’s shoppers’ sights are set on quality and sustainability, recipes and preparation tips, nutritional information and value-added convenience. Demos that provide a taste of the freshest catch are also a proven lure for drawing customers to the retail seafood case, be it self-service or full-service.

“We know that Americans are eating more fish. That’s why ShopRite is continually making it easier, healthier and more affordable for customers to include seafood options in their weekly meal plans,” said Ted Mariolis, a seafood merchandising manager for ShopRite, based in Keasbey, N.J. “Knowing that consumers have more choices than ever before, we want to ensure our program has everything even the biggest seafood lover could possibly want. Seafood is one of the healthiest options, and is highly recommended by our store’s registered dietitians.”

ShopRite at the Helm

ShopRite’s retail dietitians have an all-hands-on-deck mindset when it comes to touting seafood as part of a healthy diet. “In general, our dietitians recommend shoppers consume seafood twice per week, equaling 8 ounces total, based on the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” said Stephanie Perez, retail dietitian supervisor for ShopRite.

Because more seafood is consumed away from home than at home, ShopRite finds that recipes and tastings are crucial to increasing customers’ comfort level with preparing fish. “Recipes absolutely help to showcase how the seafood can be prepared, but also it helps when we do in-store demonstrations for customers to see how the recipe is prepared and how good it tastes,” Perez said. “A recipe is a good starting point, but talking to the customer to show how they can customize a meal to their taste is essential.”

ShopRite further promotes its high-quality fresh fish through its Catch of the Week signage featured in its circular. Some stores offer informative handouts with a recipe at the seafood counter. The regional retailer also creates meals including seafood as part of its signature Meals Made Well program. This weekly recipe program includes a wide variety of seafood to inspire customers to try something new. In addition, dietitians provide weekly tips on social media that often incorporate the importance of seafood. ShopRite’s team of dietitians also share recipes and talk about the health benefits of seafood while conducting free classes, cooking workshops and store tours.

“ShopRite has been at the forefront of offering premium seafood to its customers, with an on-site seafood inspector,” Mariolis said. “ShopRite is also dedicated to keeping seafood plentiful and safe and is committed to working with suppliers who ensure that our wild-caught and farm-raised seafood is sourced from certified, sustainable fisheries and farms.”

Wild About Seafood

The quest for better health is driving seafood consumption like never before, according to Juneau, Alaska-based Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). According to proprietary ASMI research conducted with WGB sister market research firm Technomic, 64% of seafood eaters making a food purchase within the past month were driven by health.

“Consumers are becoming more aware of how food can have a positive impact on health,” said Emily Gisler, ASMI domestic marketing coordinator. “They also look for simple, whole food in its natural form.”

Chicago-based Technomic also found that seafood consumers are composed of two primary segments: the Originator and the Optimizer. “Collectively, these two groups account for over half of annual consumer seafood spend and are poised for growth in category spend and purchasing power in years to come,” Gisler said.

Adventurous, the Originator is trend-savvy and quality-conscious. The Optimizer is more value-driven and responds to messaging around variety, convenience and value. “This [latter] group is brand-sticky, relying on familiar labels to minimize time and effort in the purchasing decision,” she said.

ASMI, which offers a variety of merchandising tools for retailers, as well as custom promotions to help drive seafood trial and purchase through in-store demos, signage and digital coupon programs, has helped Bellevue, Wash.-based Quality Food Centers (QFC) conduct wildly successful sockeye promotions.

quality food centers promotion
Photograph courtesy of Quality Food Centers

“Our recent Wild-Caught Alaska Bristol Bay Sockeye promotion was a benchmark for us to repeat in coming years,” said Joshua Dooley, meat and seafood sales manager for QFC in Seattle. “Print ads, radio, in-store point-of-sale [provided by Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Authority], case clings and picks, a motivating sales contest and in-store buy-in, were all crucial pieces to its success.” 

QFC shoppers are wild about Wild Alaska Sockeye and Shrimp. “Wild-caught is the most important selling attribute for our customer base. Sustainability has been proven to be more of an accepted norm in our fresh business than a promoted attribute,” said Dooley, adding that QFC is also exploring Fair Trade sources of high-quality, flavorful and sustainable seafood.

“Customers want to feel that their purchase not only does no harm to the ecosystem but that their food dollar is actually being used to benefit fishing communities and promoting human welfare,” he said.

In addition to seeking high-quality, flavorful and sustainably sourced seafood, QFC customers are also looking for convenience and simple meal ideas. “Our Easy for You program is by far our most popular value-added program,” he said. With any seafood purchased from QFC’s fresh counters, customers can choose from an a la carte menu of seasonings, fresh herbs, fresh lemon, garlic and butter— all free of charge.

“Customers love it, as it is delivered in a bag that can be easily grilled, baked or microwaved, depending on their bag of choice,” Dooley said. “Cooking instructions with times and appropriate temperatures are on the bags, so it makes cooking easy.”

Dive Into Diversification

Posting the highest consumption in almost a decade, Americans ate 16 pounds of seafood per capita in 2017, an increase of 1.1 pounds from the 14.9 pounds consumed in 2016, according to the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) in Washington, D.C. “More than a pound increase is substantial,” NFI President John Connelly said when explaining the most recent seafood consumption trends. But what is perhaps more significant is that a review of the top 10 most consumed fish reveals that consumers are eating a more diverse diet of seafood.

“Last year, just those 10 species made up more than 90% of all the seafood Americans ate,” Connelly said. “This year, the list makes up only 84%. That’s quite a bit of diversification in just one year. While we see solid increases in some traditional staples, that growth outside the top 10 is certainly something to watch.”

Shrimp led the increase, jumping three-tenths of a pound, followed by salmon, up by more than two-tenths of a pound. Canned tuna, tilapia, Alaska pollock, pangasius, cod, crab, catfish and clams also made the list.

It’s this diversified diet of seafood that has consumers considering other varieties. “We’re seeing several trends, including growth in other categories beyond the top 10,” said Jessica Henry, director of marketing for Clear Springs Foods in Buhl, Idaho. “Overall, consumer demand for a healthier lifestyle and mindful eating has driven awareness of other species, and as a result, we’re seeing an increase in consumer demand and awareness around rainbow trout.”

While old-school rainbow trout caught on family fishing trips tended to be “fishy” in flavor, Henry finds that today’s Clear Springs Rainbow Trout is milder in flavor. It’s also high in omega-3’s and vitamin D, and it fits into all the hottest diet trends, from keto to paleo.

Clear Springs Rainbow Trout is a lean protein source, sustainable, low-mercury fish produced using responsible aquaculture and fishing practices. “It’s important to have the sustainable certification labeled in the seafood case," said Henry, who finds that the most successful retailers also host in-store demos to “get the flavor of this lesser-known fish in the consumer’s mouth.”

While Lent is traditionally fish season, Henry says rainbow trout is available year-round and thus lends itself to promotions from summer grilling to seafood month in October and beyond. 

Bristol Bay Makes a Splash

As consumers increasingly care about the source of their food, retailers representing more than 1,000 stores around the country have partnered with Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon of Sitka, Alaska, to tell the story of where their fish comes from.

Developed by the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA) in Sitka, the marketing program capitalizes on the theme of “wild taste from an amazing place” and offers an array of digital assets, point-of-sale materials and promotional support.

Pavilions, a Southern California grocery banner for Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons, promoted Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon during National Seafood Month in October as part of an innovative tie-in with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Its Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon sales posted an 81% increase over refreshed sockeye sales for the same period in 2017.

Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon transaction counts (within the service seafood category) represented 3% of the overall service seafood transaction for the month. This percentage is significant, given that fresh salmon was still an available option to the consumer.

“Adding store excitement while educating consumers is a win-win situation,” said Mark Angulo, Pavilions’ meat and seafood sales manager. “We received support in preparing and executing associate training, point-of-sale materials and consumer handouts. We could not ask for a better partnership.”

Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon, a brand managed by the BBRSDA, has many retail promotions planned for 2019. Interested retail and foodservice partners can contact BBRSDA at

Salmon Consumption on the Rise

U.S. seafood consumers are eating salmon more often, according to the Norwegian Seafood Council’s 2018 survey of the U.S. seafood consumer, which finds 27% of panelists eating salmon at least once a week, up from 20% in 2017.

“The main reason for consuming salmon is for health and nutrition (51%), and more consumers are pointing at this as important for their decision (up 5 percentage points),” said Egil Ove Sundheim, U.S. director for the Norwegian Seafood Council in Tromso, Norway. “We also see more consumers are finding it inspiring to prepare, increasing the responses for indulgence by 2 percentage points to 36%.”

Salmon specifically, and seafood in general, are becoming more important to U.S. consumers. In 2017, 47% reported that the seafood category was very important or extremely important, and in 2018, this number increased to 55%, said Sundheim. “The country of origin has also increased in importance,” he said. In 2017, 37% found it to be very or extremely important and, in 2018, this number had risen to 42%.

Norwegian exports to the U.S. have increased by a whopping 140% since 2014, making the U.S. the fourth-largest country for Norwegian seafood exports, according to the Norwegian Seafood Council. “For salmon, Norway’s ability to match the requirements for non-GMO, no added hormones and no antibiotics in the proteins has been an important factor for some retailers in their purchasing decisions,” said Sundheim.

The Norwegian Seafood Council offers merchandising and information kits for retailers, along with handling tips and tips for guiding customers at the seafood counter. The council also offers training sessions for seafood counter personnel.

Recipe for Success

“The biggest barriers for consumers to eat more seafood are a lack of knowledge of how to buy seafood and how to cook it,” said Linda Cornish, president and founder of Arlington, Va.-based Seafood Nutrition Partnership (SNP), a nonprofit dedicated to building awareness of the health and nutritional benefits of seafood. 

SNP, which has worked with scores of retailers—including Food Lion, Hy-Vee, Ingles, Kroger, Meijer and Publix—to support in-store seafood promotions, encourages grocers to offer cooking classes, demos, sampling, store tours, recipes and fact sheets at the seafood counter or with the supermarket dietitian.

“We’re excited to see retailers responding with innovative solutions such as preseasoned seafood packs at the fresh counter that consumers can take from store to oven for a great seafood meal,” Cornish said.

While SNP offers grocers a wealth of seafood-related resources, the No. 1 request the organization receives is for recipes. “Since one of the biggest barriers to seafood consumption is not knowing how to cook it, providing easy, approachable recipes for a variety of species is a helpful resource for consumers and SNP’s partners and stakeholders,” she said.

The key to a good recipe, Cornish continued, is to describe how the fish should feel and how to know when to take it from the oven. “A good recipe should provide that boost of confidence a consumer may need to try something new,” she said.

Knowing that in-store dietitians are a front line for consumers, SNP also offers an RDN Communications Toolkit. “Our resources help the dietitians with articles for their websites, in-store magazines, in-store demos, podcasts, webinars and much more,” Cornish said.


Get today’s need-to-know grocery industry intelligence. Sign up to receive texts from Winsight Grocery Business.


More from our partners