Long live the seafood retailer

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 7th July 2008

The colour, vibrancy and range of choices of a good seafood retail display are a sight to behold. Thus, whilst there can be no doubt that the numbers of independent fishmongers are declining we are fortunate in Australia that they are still a key part of the seafood industry.

Reputedly, the oldest fishmonger operation in Australia is Canals Seafood, now in its 77th year of trading at the same address in Nicholson Street, North Carlton, Victoria. Michael and Delores Canals started their Melbourne business in 1917 after emigrating from Portugal and moved to their current premises in 1931. Four generations have continued to keep the company afloat throughout the proceeding years. How many specialist food stores, particularly those with links to Australia’s gastronomic development can boast that kind of longevity, let alone four generations of one family? Their story epitomizes the industry to an extent, as the fishmongers business has long been dominated by immigrants who came to find a ‘new life’ in Australia and is consequently a great example of the cultural diversity in Australia.

The Australian public still appears keen on purchasing their fresh seafood from markets mainly due to the perception that the quality and freshness of the seafood is better at market seafood retailers. This is most evident in Melbourne, where there are six main markets in close proximity to the city and anywhere between two and eight fishmongers plying their trade at each one. Saturday morning sees the greatest action at these places with the retailers often spruiking to entice customers to their store and each fishmonger is usually inundated with customers. At Christmas and Easter the markets really come alive and all fishmongers report a drastic increase in sales with customers often times 4 deep at the counter. Summer is also a prosperous time as it is estimated that 70% of Australians eat seafood at least once a week during the summer months as opposed to closer to 50% during the rest of the year. The fluctuating sales for fishmongers can prove problematic for the industry as it means that they are often required to have casual staff members due to the need to react to the altering number of customers.

Franchises have not proved popular within this industry, which is of some concern as it could indicate that owners find it very difficult to develop and maintain profits in one store and consequently consider the development of franchises to be a task that is too difficult.

The days of high street retail stores dedicated solely to the sale of fresh fish to the public appear limited. However, fishmongers at markets (and in shopping centres) should still be able to prosper for three main reasons: 1. Perceived quality, 2. Convenience of purchasing in an area where they can also buy other fresh produce, and 3. Increasing seafood consumption among Australians. The high number, and success, of independent fishmongers still operating at markets around the country provides support for this argument.

Meanwhile, high street retailers will probably need to rely on expanding their value offering in order to entice customers to continue to frequent their outlets. In most cases this will probably require the store providing both cooked and fresh alternatives. Besides being able to induce the consumers with two options it is also an excellent way of ensuring throughput of the fresh product. The increase in take-away outlets selling both cooked and fresh product has been noticeable over the past decade and has proven to be quite successful in the right locations.

Additionally, a brave new concept has been attempted by Seafood Secrets in Western Australia. They have been successful with their efforts to get consumers excited about frozen seafood due to their ability to use new packaging to ensure freezing the product did not have a negative impact on the taste of the seafood. Their success is good news for fishmongers as it offers them the potential to sell higher quality goods which will last for a longer time period.

Ultimately, the future of independent fishmongers is possibly not as strong as it once was primarily due to an increase in the consumer desire for convenience, which leads them to supermarkets (who have increased the range of seafood they offer). However, there is still definitely a place for independent fishmongers in the seafood retail landscape of Australia, particularly as seafood consumption increases and the quality of seafood on offer is maintained at a high level.

Like everything in life the cream floats to the top – the good operators survive while the poor and mediocre gradually disappear. The need to improve the offering above supermarkets is essential – the need for a disciplined specialized training program and working closer with the suppliers is obvious.