February turned out to be an interesting month in terms of the retail market. Chilled salmon sales increased 7.8% year-on-year in terms of volume. Sales value also increased. Yet at the same time Tesco has announced the closure of more of its meat and fish and hot food counters as shoppers appear to have lost interest.
The store group has already closed nearly 100 fishmongers in 2019 and had planned to close more at the time, but was persuaded to keep many open. It must now close 317 more outlets, leaving 279 stores where local demand is sufficient to keep outlets open. However, Tesco does not say if all of these remaining stores will have a fish counter. They can be kept only for hot dishes. I already have a hard time finding shops with a fish counter so I imagine if there are any left they will be scarce.
While it may seem odd that salmon sales have surged at a time when Tesco has identified a lack of interest in its fish counters, the two are not actually linked. What these changes confirm is that the UK fish market is still undergoing transformation, but apart from the salmon industry, the wider fish and seafood sectors have sunk their heads in the sand.
Asda and Sainsbury’s have already closed their counters, leaving only Morrisons and Waitrose to answer any demand. I wouldn’t be surprised if Morrisons also considered the economic rationale for closing its counters, but is hesitant to do so. Waitrose tries to make its counters a unique selling point.
However, most buyers are no longer interested in buying fish from traditional fishmongers. As with other proteins, buyers want easy-to-use portions sold pre-packaged and, in terms of fish, salmon is the ideal product. This is because it provides the retail industry with a consistent supply, usually a consistent price and consistent quality. These cannot be matched from the wild catch sector.
For many years I have always maintained that the future of farmed salmon lies in the development of value-added products and this past perception is now today’s reality.
In addition to changing the way they buy fish, buyers are also changing their buying habits. The days of a weekly department store in a hypermarket are numbered. Buyers buy smaller quantities in addition to visits to small local supermarkets. The limitation of space means that the choice is restricted and this is particularly true in terms of fish. At most, the shops seem to only carry salmon, sea bass, and one white fish, along with the ever-popular prawns.
This leaves many other species, including those that might once have been considered popular, with very little consumer demand. For example, while salmon volumes increased by almost 8%, plaice sales fell by almost 22%. Even haddock sales fell 5%. The prospect of reversing these trends seems very dim.
The problem is that the fishing industry has remained relatively blind to market development. Occasionally, consumers are encouraged to try something different from the big five – salmon, cod, haddock, tuna and prawns – but that advice largely falls on deaf ears. Consumers need much more incentive to change species or even include fish in their diet.
The UK Government’s Seafood Innovation Fund is offering a total of £10 million to help improve the seafood sector. Unfortunately, the fund has not encouraged ‘outside the box’ thinking and to date, the only help to develop the market was a £25,000 project to change the name from ‘spider crab’ to ‘Cornish king crab’ and ‘megrim’. to “Cornish Sole”.
Needless to say, a simple name change did not entice consumers enough to purchase these products. It had been hoped that consumers would react in the same way as they did when sardines were rebranded as ‘Cornish sardines’. However, their apparent popularity can also be gauged by the fact that sardines do not even feature in the same measure of fish sales from which the salmon data is extracted.
Brexit has caused markets for many species to shrink, as overseas markets that previously took many species unwanted by UK consumers are now inaccessible. The wild fishing industry seems out of ideas.
I think it is easier to produce fish in the form that consumers want rather than trying to persuade them to eat fish in the form in which it is produced. The salmon industry has learned this lesson over the years and that is why it is so successful today,
Producers of other fish species must adapt the product to consumer needs. Failure to do so is why Tesco is now closing many more fish counters. The traditional counter setting is clearly not the number of consumers who now want to buy fish.