Inflation continues to hamper overall grocery and fresh seafood sales, but the holiday season offers an opportunity for shoppers to splurge on items like crab, lobster, and shrimp.  

For the first time in three years, there are no federal government restrictions in place for public gatherings due to COVID-19, which is expected to boost the number of family and social gatherings throughout the season.  

"I believe families being able to freely gather this holiday season will help sales — even with the current economic inflation,” said Denise Englade, director of seafood for Rouses Markets in Shriver, La. Consumers typically splurge a little more for family gatherings, so Rouses plans to promote lobster, crab, and other luxury seafood “at the best retail we can,” Englade said.  

Moderately-priced items will likely see the greatest sales boost, she added.  

“While fish and seafood have had a challenging sales year due to price increases, some shellfish categories are setting up for a great Christmas and New Year’s season. Prices in lobster, crab and oysters have declined significantly and, with meat prices still high, I think consumers will be excited,” said Chris DuBois, executive vice president, Americans protein practice leader, IRI. "Holiday celebrations are expected to be strong and gatherings will be as large or larger than last year. Smart retailers will be looking to promote these and I expect a strong season for shellfish sales this year.”  

Overall fresh shellfish sales dropped 16% for the 13 weeks ending Oct. 2, according to IRI, with the biggest losses realized in crawfish (-74%), added value shellfish items (-47%), oysters (-36%), and scallops (-28.5%). 

Sales of other popular shellfish items also fell, but not as steeply as earlier this year. Crab sales dropped 14.3%, shrimp sales declined 17%, and lobster sales were down 10% for the quarter compared to the same quarter last year.  

The end-of-year holidays have been home-centric for the past two years “so we have a very high bar to meet,” acknowledged Anne-Marie Roerink, principal at 210 Analytics. “At the same time, I do think people are still very much focused on togetherness, relaxing and celebrating and certainly we still see decent engagement with both convenience-focused and premium items throughout the store.” 

 Inflation concerns mount 

While consumers may splurge for the holidays, they are increasingly concerned about rising grocery prices, surveys find. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index shows that the cost of food at home surged 13% in September versus last September, while fish and seafood prices jumped 8%.   

In its September Survey of Consumer Expectations Survey, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that respondents projected their spending will rise by 6% over the next year, a drop from the 7.8% rise predicted in its August survey, per Reuters. The decline in spending expectations was the biggest since the survey began in 2013.  

Overall fresh seafood sales will likely be lighter than 2021, Englade predicted, attributing that to “many factors including to but not limited to the unprecedented sales we saw in 2021 due to COVID and restaurants not operating.”  

“I think the economy is going to keep customers a little more conservative on purchases this holiday season. We will offer our customers these items at a fair retail as we always do,” Englade noted. 

“Everyone” is concerned about inflation, Roerink noted, including consumers, retailers, and producers. 

“Not only has inflation reached 40-year high levels, but it has been high for a sustained period of time and the increase in credit card debt combined with the decrease in savings is concerning as we look towards the holidays.”  

The rate of inflation when compared to a year ago has accelerated every month since 2021, according to Roerink. 

“In the early pandemic years, consumers’ savings rates were far higher than normal and credit card debt had declined. But come 2022, consumers are yet again subsidizing income with savings and credit cards to the point of seeing a much sharper pullback on volume in order to curb spending. That volume decrease  has been much sharper for seafood than other categories.”

Roerink suspects shoppers are moving to familiar patterns of saving. 

“When there is a lot of pressure on income, we always see items like ground meats do better because they are versatile and cost effective. Do new consumers know how to adapt seafood purchases like they know to switch from beef to pork, or do they just drop out of the category?”

 Plus, seafood’s premium reputation could stop people from even swinging by the fresh seafood area to see what’s available, Roerink said. 

How specific species will perform this holiday  

Shellfish items have struggled to keep up with prior year sales even though some areas actually saw some price relief, Roerink noted.   

Englade expects oyster products and some crab species to remain on the higher side; as a result, she is expecting sales to be softer than last holiday season.  

However, shrimp rings and other shrimp products “will continue to some of our top movers this holiday season,” Englade said.  

Sales of value-added seafood items typically increase during holidays, but it is unclear how they will perform this year due to consumer pricing concerns versus convenience benefits. Value-added seafood sales dropped 11% for the quarter ending Oct. 2, according to IRI. 

Rouses’ executives expect value-added seafood items to perform well. The retailer features a strong value-added program that includes boiled shrimp, crab, and crawfish year-round, along with platters of crawfish, shrimp, and snow crab and other similar platters. Bacon-wrapped shrimp, shrimp kabobs, and bacon-wrapped scallops are also offered at various times. 

“We have a good variety of value added items throughout the year. These should continue to be good items for us through the holidays,” Englade said. 

Meat and poultry have done well with holiday meal solutions, Roerink noted, so “bringing seafood into that set could be a way to drive engagement.”  

Experts also expect salmon — the only seafood item showing sales growth over the past few months — to show strong sales through the end of the year.   

“Salmon has been a sole powerhouse for a while. You don’t often see any one category represent 64% of sales. And even more rarely do you a seller that is that big still be among the growth leaders,” Roerink said.  

Salmon has helped consumers overcome cooking confidence barriers, and “importantly, salmon has somehow managed to position itself both as an everyday meal and still something premium and special,” she added.  

“Turkey and ham tend to still be the powerhouse protein options for the end-of-year holidays, but we’ve absolutely seen other meats and proteins make inroads. I very much expect salmon to continue to be a strong seller.”

Likewise, smoked salmon has been able to hold onto the gains achieved in 2020, unlike some species such as crab, according to Roerink.  

“In part, smoked salmon sales may benefit from the overall strong demand for salmon, but I think it’s related to the versatility and usage occasions as well. One important usage occasion for smoked salmon is entertaining/special occasions and those are still very home-centric. We see a very similar popularity for all things charcuterie, including specialty meats and cheeses.”