Fish counters set the stage for seafood sales

EM6 20 TECH display equipmentMaintaining freshness and quality, stimulating purchases

This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 6 / 2020.

Fish and seafood are perishable foods and their presentation in retail outlets requires special counter concepts that have to meet a variety of requirements. The design of the refrigerated counters, display cases and other sales furniture at fishmongers and in supermarket fish departments contributes strongly to maintaining product quality and also influences customers’ buying behaviour.

Fish counters and other sales furniture are a decisive feature of the shops and departments where fish and seafood products are traded. Although the specific requirements for the furnishings can vary – a counter where fresh fish is sold will have different equipment from the display case in a sushi bar or a lobster tank in an upmarket restaurant – but there are still some similarities. The focus is almost always on an appealing and attractive presentation of the products, to arouse customers' curiosity, awaken interest and encourage purchases. In addition, the goods have to be presented in a clean and hygienic environment so as not to endanger food safety. Continuous refrigeration and well thought-out counter concepts help preserve the freshness and quality of the fish products in the display for as long as possible and prevent weight shrinkage due to moisture loss. For the sales staff who work there every day it is important that the fish counter meets ergonomic requirements, enabling easy positioning and removal of the products on display.

Fish and seafood by their very nature have characteristics and properties that appeal to many customers emotionally and whet their appetites. While a bag of flour is unlikely to stimulate spontaneous impulse buying the sight of delicious fish and seafood in a display counter is much more likely to tempt customers to buy something due to the variety of shapes and sizes, colours and textures the can appeal to all our senses. The main function of fish counters and other seafood displays is therefore to present the products attractively, to impress the customers, to whet their appetites and to arouse their desire to taste the food. In order to fulfil these tasks, the goods have to be arranged both according to aesthetic criteria and in compliance with applicable hygiene rules so that when customers see the array of products in the fresh fish and seafood counter they will immediately feel the desire to choose from the wealth of the offer.

The engineering and technology that go into the development of modern fish counters and seafood displays are designed to meet and balance the dualism of a high experience value for customers and the pragmatic requirements of the users, i.e. the sales staff. The resulting sales furniture and fittings enable an attractive presentation of the products while maintaining their quality and supporting a maximum shelf life. With regard to the sales staff’s needs the ideal counter should not make strenuous or tiring physical demands, thereby leaving time and energy for direct sales conversations with the customers.

In view of these numerous requirements it is hardly surprising that many companies have specialised in counter design and construction or even in the manufacture of complete shop fittings. While the customers primarily focus on the salesroom and the fish counter, the sales staff are also interested in the design of the peripheral features such as the cooling and storage facilities, the snack area or the service rooms for processing the raw materials. Good shop design should always be based on the intended work processes. It makes a big difference whether the fish is only to be handed over to the customers, or whether it is filleted in the shop, prepared ready for cooking or even more highly refined. Experienced shop fitters know what fishmongers actually need and can give them expert advice on all the details of selling fish. This can be very helpful and make decisions easier because the range of equipment and aids available, from light tables to ice machines and smoking systems, is just as extensive as the variety of available fish counters.

Suitable solutions for every application

Whether industrially produced off-the-shelf counters that only have to be set up and can be taken into operation immediately, or tailor-made solutions designed to the exact requirements of the individual fish seller there are suitable counter solutions for all premises, requirements and budgets. They are often modular in design, which allows flexible combinations and arrangement to achieve different lengths. As a rule, counters are permanent installations, but mobile versions on castors are also available, offering users more freedom, for example for alternative usage at events, for catering or for seafood presentations at trade fairs. When developing counter concepts there are virtually no limits to the designer’s creativity. Although counters with clear linear contours are still the usual standard there are also differently shaped models with a curved or circular design. Sometimes designers take up motifs from the maritime world and design the counters in the shape of a boat or market cart to create a particularly fitting appeal for the customers.

The huge selection of sales counters in all shapes and sizes leaves hardly any wish unfulfilled, no matter how much space is available for the furniture. Suitable solutions can be found for almost every situation, be it a shop-in-shop system, the area before the checkout, a separate fish department within a supermarket, specialist fishmonger or seafood restaurant. Even in the case of industrially produced standard counters there is a good variety of available materials and decorative elements offering countless possibilities for individual ideas. As is usual in the food sector, stainless steel dominates the range of fittings but glass and aluminium, powder-coated sheet steel, plastics and natural materials such as granite and marble or decorative wooden panels are also used, for example for counter fronts. LEDs are becoming increasingly significant as design elements: here light is used specifically to put customers in a shopping mood, to create eye-catchers or to highlight counter contours.

The current convergent developments in counter design and increasing similarity of technical features mean that it is often the little details that make the difference between good and better. For example, the glass fronts that ensure hygiene and prevent the displayed products from coming into direct contact with customers can be flat and smooth or differently shaped. Some can be lifted up or folded forward to make cleaning easier, while others are fixed upright. Whichever design the retailer prefers he should always make sure that the glass is anti-reflective to prevent disturbing reflections that later make it difficult for customers to see the fish products. It is equally important that the glass does not fog up, which can occur due to the difference in temperature between the cold ice bed inside and the warmer countertop outside and can cause a film of water to form, obstructing the view. This is why many fish suppliers with enclosed counters do without fogging systems which keep the fish moist, give it a fresh appearance and prevent weight loss due to shrinkage.

Sufficient cooling is a must in the counter

For appetizing presentation and durability of fish products an ice bed, if possible combined with an efficient cooling system, is indispensable. To prevent the ice from melting quickly the counter trays are usually well insulated today, for example with CFC-free polyurethane foam. Integrated refrigeration systems with powerful compressors and environmentally friendly refrigerants maintain the right temperature and their operation is usually user-friendly and self-explanatory. It is also important to have a reliable customer service that can take care of regular maintenance and, in the event of any defects, doesn’t keep one waiting too long. Modern counters are often already equipped with electronic monitoring systems that control the cooling capacity according to the ambient temperatures. This protects the products, reduces energy consumption, saves costs and also ensures a more favourable CO2-footprint. In addition to the temperature display at the counter the data can also be transmitted, stored and documented via an interface to the retailer's central computer, ensuring maximum food safety and allowing full traceability of errors in the event of complaints. A visual or acoustic alarm warns staff if the temperature in the counter deviates from the specified standard value.

In order to save time for setting up the ice bed and arranging the products all the display areas of the counter should be easily and directly accessible. In some counters the tray can be divided into several zones using partitions for the presentation of different goods, which makes it easier to arrange loose fish and other unpackaged food products that should not have direct contact. What is necessary during the setting up of the ice bed also applies to its dismantling: it should be possible to remove the remains of the ice completely and without much effort. For reasons of hygiene, melt water that accumulates during the course of a working day must be removed continuously in order to prevent the development of germ sources and any unpleasant odours. This is why many manufacturers equip their counters with drain valves at the lowest point of the bottom tray.

On the service side of a fish counter the focus is therefore on hygiene, product care and product safety as well as time-saving and ergonomic working conditions for the staff. On the customer side it is primarily a question of the attractive presentation of the product range, with freshness and quality being easily recognisable throughout the counter. Any information about the products on the accompanying tags which provide interested customers with important facts about the respective fish species and its origin, the production or fishing method and the price should also be easily recognisable. And counters must also be robust so that careless customers do not cause unsightly scratches and other damage with their shopping carts. Plastic bumper bars or shelf space for customers' bags and baskets offer protection and can be replaced quickly and cheaply if necessary.

Little “tricks” can generate sales

But even the best counter offers no guarantee of good sales if the displayed products don’t appeal to the customers. Every fish retailer develops his own style and follows his own ideas when it comes to the design and decoration of the fish counter. According to sales experts, paying attention to little tricks can generate attention and increase sales. Since people by nature tend to pay attention to contrasts, fillets should be arranged by colour, for example. Several white fillets next to each other look boring. This is why professionals recommend alternating white (e.g. cod), reddish (e.g. salmon) and bright red (e.g. tuna) fillets, which can create striking cascade effects with a strong visual impact. Darker fillets should be placed close to the customer at the front of the counter, lighter ones further back. It is also important to keep the counter filled. Nobody wants to feel they might be buying leftovers that others have overlooked or rejected. So if possible, it is good to always add more products if the stock is running low. It can also promote sales if special offers are sorted by price and always in the same place. This makes it easier for customers to find their way around and can lead to impulse buying.

Successful fish retailers are often individualists who have a fairly precise idea of the furnishings or what could be called the "personality" of their shop. These people often prefer tailor-made sales counters that suit their needs exactly rather than industrially produced standard fittings. Such special constructions are designed by the suppliers according to the fish seller’s wishes which ensures great variety in the sales area. Some retailers like traditional counters that stand between the customers and the sales staff, others prefer more open counters that are arranged in the background. High-quality products are often displayed in small glass towers or showcases. There are also combined counter solutions, with a counter at the top for full-service sales and a refrigerated display area for packaged products at the bottom for self-service for hurried shoppers.

Aquariums and tanks for keeping live fish and seafood species play a very important role in many Asian countries where they are to be found in local markets, restaurants and large supermarkets, i.e. wherever consumers have particularly strong preferences for live fresh seafood products. The locations are as varied as the construction methods, materials and technical equipment used. Whether glass or plastic tubs, the technical equipment of the basins rarely goes beyond simple fan pumps that continuously blow finely bubbled air into the water. That is why only particularly resistant species such as catfish, tilapia, or snakehead as well as some species of crabs and mussels survive such live exposure. The sale of live fish and seafood has never been widespread in European countries, however, and even the few suppliers there are now increasingly giving up this option. Keeping live fish and seafood for sale is technically complex, requires great care and maintenance, often involves animal losses and is therefore expensive. In addition, fish retailers and restaurateurs who still own lobster or trout tanks are today increasingly subject to protests and campaigns by animal welfare activists which is why this form of supply, which is actually particularly quality- and freshness oriented, is increasingly being abandoned.

Putting products in the right light

To achieve optimum presentation, fish and seafood suppliers often invest in elaborate lighting systems that show off their products effectively with colourful contrasts. Traditional meat counters are often fitted with lamps whose light radiation has high infrared and ultraviolet components that emphasise and highlight the bright red colour of the meat products. However, this principle doesn’t work with fish and seafood, or only works to a limited extent, because they are much more colourful and brighter. In theory, even simple incandescent lamps with normal white light are better suited to accentuate the variety of colour tones of these products appropriately. It can be a problem that such lamps radiate more heat than light, which has a negative impact on the freshness and integrity of fish and seafood. Intense light radiation from "normal" filament lamps can even lead to moisture, weight and thus sales losses and cause visible damage.

Current advances in LED lighting technology offer alternatives here for using product-specific lighting concepts to emphasise the special features of individual product groups. Damage caused by invisible UV and IR light is ruled out with LEDs. Modern LED luminaires can focus light and cast it exactly where it is needed, putting a shine in the eyes of fresh fish and making their moist skin glow. An advantage here is the enormous range of available colour temperatures which are now available with LEDs and which should be taken into account when aiming at optimum product presentation. Cold, neutral or warm – the colour temperature is specified in Kelvin. LEDs with low Kelvin values have a high red component, whereas higher Kelvin values stand for blue light. For red fish such as salmon or tuna it is best to choose light with a warm-white light colour (2,700 to 3,000 Kelvin). It emphasises the red colour and highlights the freshness of the products. White fillets, on the other hand, look more effective in cold white light with around 4,500 Kelvin. The colouring and brilliance of the light have high emotionalising potential and thus support the sale of fresh fish and seafood products.