KANSAS CITY - With restaurants and other foodservice channels either closed or severely curtailed during COVID, many foods in the grocery fresh perimeter have seen their sales surge.

One of the categories with the biggest upswing has been seafood. For many consumers pre-pandemic, fresh seafood was something you ordered when you went out to eat — not what you cooked at home. Cooking seafood themselves was seen by a lot of consumers as an educational hurdle they were unwilling to jump.

COVID changed that, as consumers realize you can only have beef, pork or chicken so many times before you start looking for other protein alternatives.

Seafood department sales shot up 28.4% in percent, outpacing meat (up 18.7%), produce (up 11.3%), deli (up .9%) and bakery (down 2.3%), according to The Power of Seafood, a new report from Arlington, Va,-based FMI – The Food Industry Association that explores the many ways in which seafood has become a perimeter star during COVID — and projects ways to keep that growth going post-pandemic.

“During the pandemic, food retail sales of seafood benefited from a number of factors, including restaurants closing, consumers seeking healthier and nutritious foods, the desire for variety, cooking fatigue, and supply issues and higher prices for other proteins,” according to FMI. “The result is more seafood consumers and seafood consumers eating more seafood. These seafood consumers represent an affluent and lucrative segment of shoppers with robust spending on groceries in-store and online. The objective now is sustaining and even building on this growth as consumers have learned more about how to buy, prepare and cook seafood.”

The growth in seafood sales in 2020 was category-wide. All three of the “big three” species —  shrimp (+29.6%), salmon (+24.7%) and tuna (+20.4%) – saw gains. Notching the highest percentage gains were crabs (+60.2%) and lobsters (+59.9%).

The pandemic has also led to more experimentation with varieties. More than one-third of seafood consumers (38%) have bought new or different seafood during the pandemic.

From good growth to great

While the pandemic certainly turbo-charged seafood sales at retail, the category was already trending up before COVID.

In 2018, according to FMI, 21% of Americans were eating seafood the recommended two times a week. The proportion of frequent seafood consumers grew to 25% in 2019, then to 32% in 2020. Another 30% are occasional seafood consumers who report eating seafood at least once a month but not as much as two times a week.

That still leaves a sizable 38% (down from 43% last year) of adults who are non-seafood eaters, indicating there’s plenty of room for future category growth.

“Seafood consumers, particularly frequent seafood consumers, represent a valuable and lucrative segment of shoppers,” according to FMI. “Demographically they have higher incomes, are more educated, skew male and tend to be older, although millennials’ consumption of seafood is growing. When it comes to their grocery shopping behavior, seafood consumers spend more, shop more frequently in-store, and also shop heavily online.”

Channel surfing

In addition to buying more seafood during COVID, many US consumers are also changing how and where they buy it.

Thirty-one percent, for instance, got the majority of their seafood from a store other than their primary grocery store in 2020. And while the supermarket is still most likely to be the primary seafood store for seafood shoppers, only 42% said that was the case last year, down from 51% in 2019 and 60% in 2018.

When it comes to reasons for eating more seafood, consumers cite nutrition and quality among the factors that are growing in importance.

Some seafood consumers are price-conscious, according to FMI, but an important distinction for seafood is the focus on the total price as opposed to the price per pound. While many seafood consumers want to be more knowledgeable about how to know the quality of seafood, seafood consumers most frequently associate quality with freshness. Seafood consumers also frequently associate quality with the look, taste and smell of the seafood.

How the seafood was caught or where it’s from is also important to consumers. Thirty-six percent, for instance, prefer wild-caught, often citing the perception that it’s of higher quality or is healthier. Twenty-nine percent (up from 19% in 2019) prefer farm-raised seafood, citing sustainability and the perception that farm-raised is more nutritious.

Home chefs desperate to expand their repertoires account for much of the huge growth in seafood sales in 2020. More than half of seafood consumers (53%) and one-third of all Americans (36%) say they are cooking more meals with seafood during the pandemic. That’s especially true among frequent seafood consumers (66%).

FMI’s research shows that there is a huge role for grocery stores to play in educating consumers about seafood. Three out of four seafood buyers want to be more knowledgeable about how to cook, prepare and flavor it, and they’re looking for information from a variety of sources, including recipe websites and apps, friends and family, social media and their grocery store’s seafood department.

“Many have been seeking information during the pandemic, as most (72%) have experimented with new and different ways to prepare seafood,” according to FMI. “Many of these consumers have learned new seafood cooking skills that they will carry forward and will impact their future seafood consumption choices.”

Meal kits continue to grow in popularity during the pandemic and serve as a great opportunity to expose consumers to different ways to prepare seafood. Among seafood consumers, almost half (49%) bought a meal kit in 2020, up from 32% in 2019, and many of those kits have included seafood.

Health, variety, value

The biggest driver of greater seafood sales at retail during COVID has been the desire to eat healthier, with 59% of seafood eaters citing it as their top reason.

Other top reasons include the need for more variety in their diet (44%), eating more protein in general (40%) and “being bored and looking for different things to eat” (24%).

The sense of getting a good value has also led to more seafood sales. Some consumers noted the favorable price for seafood compared to other proteins (27%) or other proteins like meat and poultry have not been available or out-of-stock (17%).

Many shoppers are eating more seafood during the pandemic (30%) with the biggest driver of this increase being the desire to eat healthier (59%). The pandemic has impacted eating and cooking habits as some cite their reason for eating more seafood being the desire for more variety in their diet.

Another impact of the pandemic has been restaurants being closed and that has driven some of these seafood consumers to cook seafood at home they usually buy at a restaurant (30%). The pandemic has also impacted the value equation for seafood as some of these consumers also noted the favorable price for seafood compared to other proteins (27%) or other proteins like meat and poultry have not been available or out-of-stock (17%).

Some seafood shoppers (21%) have been shopping at different stores for seafood than those they shopped at before the pandemic, but 79% have maintained their same stores for their seafood purchases. Price, product and service are key drivers of seafood store choice. Seafood shoppers shop around at a wide variety of stores beyond their primary seafood store, including seafood-specific stores, other supermarkets, club stores, supercenters, farmers markets, online merchants, seafood markets, etc. As shoppers have flocked to online shopping, the movement has been even stronger with occasional and particularly frequent online shopping. The vast majority of online shoppers are shopping for groceries online and now many are also shopping for seafood online. Online has been an effective way to communicate with seafood shoppers, but online is growing in its effectiveness for selling seafood. Shoppers are also shopping around online and they are buying fresh and frozen seafood with a variety of species in their shopping baskets.