KANSAS CITY - We recently sat down (virtually) with Megan Rider, domestic marketing director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), to get the pulse of the retail grocery seafood market.

What we learned is that seafood — a foodservice-only option for many consumers before COVID — has been surging at retail, as homebound cooks look for new things to make.

And the best news for the seafood industry and its retail partners? That trend should continue even after the pandemic is behind us.

Supermarket Perimeter: Is seafood a growing category at grocery retail?  

Megan Rider: The seafood category at retail has been growing steadily over the past decade, and 2020 saw that growth jump even higher than anticipated. For the four weeks ending Dec. 27, 2020, frozen seafood sales in U.S. supermarkets were up 26% and fresh seafood was up 25% over the same period the year prior – a trend that had remained steady since March – according to market research company IRI. Certain species did exceptionally well for the year, with crab sales in retail up 87% and frozen finfish sales growing 33%, according to 2020 IRI and NPD market research. The seafood industry overall saw 7% growth in 2020, which is pretty incredible given challenges across the foodservice sector, which were tempered by strong retail performance.  

SP: What is driving that growth?  

Rider: Over the past year, more people than ever have been cooking at home, and they continue to look for new recipes and experiment with new ingredients as the pandemic continues, inspiring many to branch out and become more comfortable cooking seafood, especially wild, sustainable options like Alaska seafood. Pre-pandemic growth was driven primarily by the rise in interest for healthy, high-protein foods, with many Americans looking to limit consumption of other protein sources like red meat – 62% of consumers are trying to increase seafood consumption more than any other protein category, according to Datassential. The trend toward healthier eating has only gotten stronger in the past year, in addition to the drastic increase in home cooking.  

SP: What role, if any, has COVID played in seafood sales at retail? 

Rider: The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely impacted seafood sales at retail. With many restaurants around the country closed or offering limited service, consumers are craving seafood, which was historically seen as a go-to option when dining out. In fact, a July 2020 Datassential survey found that seafood was the second-most missed item from restaurants since the start of the pandemic, likely prompting the growth at retail. COVID-19 has also made consumers increasingly aware of the source of their food, which has boded well for wild, sustainable and domestically sourced varieties like Alaska seafood.  

SP: Is frozen growing faster than fresh, and if so, why? 

Rider: Prior to the pandemic, frozen foods including frozen seafood had begun experiencing a revival as consumer perception shifted toward viewing frozen foods as equally nutritious to their fresh counterparts. The fact that many consumers are opting for more frozen or shelf-stable foods in order to help limit trips to the grocery store continues to drive that growth. According to IRI and 210 Analytics market research, sales of frozen seafood from March-October 2020 grew 30 percent vs. the same period in 2019, and Nielsen data indicates that, for every 4-week period starting in March of 2020, frozen seafood continued to outsell even peak seasons during previous years. Alaska’s flash freezing processes have always been an integral part of preserving quality through the supply chain, and consumers have been able to consistently find frozen and shelf-stable (e.g. canned or smoked) wild Alaska seafood at retailers throughout the pandemic.  

SP: Do you expect seafood sales patterns to continue along the same lines after the pandemic? 

Rider: We expect retail growth to remain steady. Seafood is low in saturated fats and high in omega-3 fatty acids, making it a high-quality and nutritious protein option with extensive health benefits to the heart, brain and gut. Wild seafood is low in contaminants and, if sourced from regions like Alaska, protected from overfishing, which ads the value of sustainability that consumers are increasingly seeking from the food they eat. Additionally, retail sales indicate consumers have been branching out to new species of seafood they may not have otherwise tried – for example, species like wild Alaska halibut or omega-rich Alaska sablefish – and may likely find new favorites to continue cooking after the pandemic.  

SP: Will people continue to cook more seafood at home, or will they go back to viewing seafood as a "restaurant food"? 

Rider: While we hope for a strong rebound within the foodservice sector and would anticipate a spike in demand for seafood at restaurants once they are able to safely reopen at full capacity, we predict consumers will continue to cook more seafood at home. A long-standing hurdle for eating more seafood at home was simply comfort levels with preparing it, and the pandemic has prompted many people to get past that hurdle. The strong retail sales that began in March have remained persistent almost a year in, implying that people have integrated more seafood into their regular cooking routine.  

SP: What is new at ASMI, specifically as it relates to stimulating demand at grocery retail? 

Rider: Knowing consumers are continuously looking for new recipe ideas and inspiration as the pandemic continues, we are working with retailers to provide resources and highlight wild Alaska seafood in various promotions to ensure top-quality, wild seafood is available and accessible for shoppers. Many of our chef partners, as well, have joined forces with retailers, often partnering to lead cooking classes and demo seafood cooking techniques.  

SP: What more can you say about the importance of highlighting health and nutrition in marketing seafood?

Rider: Knowing that Alaska seafood is rich in various immune-boosting nutrients at a time when health is so important, we are dedicated to doing what’s necessary to ensure access and awareness of this valuable product while supporting the Alaska fishermen who dedicate their lives to the sea. As consumer demand for nutritious, sustainable and wild seafood continues to increase, we are excited to continue to support an industry made up of thousands of devoted fishermen, processors, scientists and more, who work together to bring nutritious food to consumers while protecting our marine ecosystems.