Being so blown away with how Stop & Shop Supermarkets bought, distributed and merchandised fresh and frozen seafood, I figured the easiest way to increase sales was to tell customers everything we could about how we ran our business.
Although new to the position of manager of seafood sales and merchandising back in 1999, I recognized that our customers were knowledgeable, and that they’d want to hear what we had to tell them. We could tell them we promoted swordfish in the fall because summer feed made the steaks flavorful and juicy. And that as a retailer, we never committed to more than 80 percent of projected tonnage, knowing we needed room for opportunity buys. The fact that the operating standards we held our suppliers to far exceeded those of any government agency had to be of interest to our customers and wouldn’t they want to know that not only did we share their concerns about overfishing, but that we were actually doing something about it?
We got all the information on spreadsheets that spoke to each species we carried. This included the method and impact of harvest, management of the fishery, processing standards, going right through to social aspects, including wages and working conditions.
The final document was so impressive that we knew it would be worthless without third-party affirmation, so we turned to our neighbors, the New England Aquarium in Boston, considered by many to be America’s aquarium and global leaders in ocean exploration and marine conservation. With more than 1.3 million annual visitors, it is not without influence.
“The fact that the operating standards we held our suppliers to far exceeded those of any government agency had to be of interest to our customers and wouldn’t they want to know that not only did we share their concerns about overfishing, but that we were actually doing something about it?
We told them that in exchange for promoting the aquarium in our seafood departments we wanted an expert assessment of the farmed and wild fisheries we used. We said we would welcome any recommendations that would improve our processes and that we considered sustainability, environmental impact and stewardship to be as important as any other aspect of our business.
What better place to deliver our message of integrity, transparency and trust than in the stores? Supermarkets earn the trust of their customers every day of the week, and whether by making good on a problem, supporting local teams or furnishing the ingredients for memorable holiday meals, the bond they establish with their customers borders on sacred. Each store provided us with the perfect forum to tell them all about their favorite brand of seafood.
That was 10 years ago, and the aquarium and Stop & Shop are still working together. They’ve travelled to Thailand to ensure that shrimp suppliers are continuing to enact practices in accordance with their Ten Point Policy, which encompasses social, ecological and economic considerations in the purchasing and sales of seafood, and which led to the discontinuation of Chilean sea bass, orange roughy and shark. The past decade has seen the two outfits continue to collaborate in their common goal — the development of a sustainable seafood policy designed to provide customers with healthy and affordable seafood options that offer good value.
During the same time period more than 30 entities that seek to certify seafood have formed. There are four kinds: The first are resource certifiers, or organizations that use experts to evaluate fisheries’ impact on biomass and the surrounding environment; the second validates the supply chain to determine its source; while the third has two goals: establishing any potential environmental harm and determining if a fishery is overexploited; the fourth creates standards for aquaculture, the industry that produced 9 percent of the global seafood supply in 1980 and 48 percent in 2008, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.
Recent surveys indicate that sustainability certification has little meaning to consumers, leading some to question its value. While the certification industry’s growth appears to have plateaued, the desire to dominate in the individual fields remains fierce, as all seek to become The Brand, the long-sought Holy Grail of fresh seafood.
But fresh seafood is branded — the brand is the name on the front of the store. And when that brand is successful, as in, “Actually, we get our fish at the supermarket – and not just because it’s convenient, because it’s always good,” everything a good brand is supposed to deliver — increased sales, greater profit margins and customer loyalty that casts a halo across the store — takes place. Retailers who seek value over price and who source seafood directly from responsible producers enjoy these benefits of branding, but only when they tell the story, over and over and over again.
Should a retail seafood program enlist the aid of a certifier? If there’s a need, yes, but only to meet specific needs, never out of fear, and understanding that there is no third party in the world that can compete with the name of your store when it comes to assuring your customers that your seafood is safe, wholesome and drawn from a farm or fishery that is sustainable and harvested correctly and responsibly.
Phil Walsh is VP of business development for Alfa Gamma Seafood, a Miami-based fishing company