The unprecedented economic shock from the pandemic and the loss of major markets from widespread shutdowns of many restaurants continues to threaten the survival of many U.S. aquaculture businesses.
In response, researchers at Virginia Tech are conducting consumer market research that will provide information to guide U.S. aquaculture businesses as they attempt to adjust marketing efforts to respond to the abrupt changes in the food supply chain and consumer purchasing of prepared meals and groceries.
“This project seeks to answer critical questions that are essential for U.S. aquaculture producers to survive by adapting marketing and distribution systems to successfully navigate the uncertainties of the coming months and years,” said Jonathan van Senten, assistant director of the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center. “It is quite likely that market conditions will continue to change rapidly, and previous research shows that not all consumer groups react in the same way to such changes. Thus, it was vital to measure changes in consumer behavior and preferences in various geographic markets.”
Specifically, researchers are surveying consumers to measure evolving changes in preferences, attitudes and purchasing behaviors in 21 cities throughout the aftermath of COVID-19 and determine which food delivery, packaging and advertising options are most effective for various consumer segments in various geographic markets over time. They also are tracking consumer expectations of changes in price and demand for U.S. aquaculture products and working to identify consumers likeliest to prefer U.S. aquaculture products over time.
So far, van Senten and his team have found that there were significant differences in consumer shopping behaviors and consumption at-home and away-from-home for food generally and seafood specifically in 2020, as compared to 2019. As expected, consumers shifted towards a greater percentage of meals consumed at-home both overall and for seafood specifically. However, changes in seafood shopping behaviors were significantly different by age, education, income and gender, but not by ethnic group.
“We also learned that although frequency of shopping reduced over the course of the pandemic, the expenditure per shopping trip did not, resulting in less overall spending for groceries. Seafood was also purchased less frequently for takeout or for home delivery than other meals because of concerns over quality, freshness and safety,” van Senten said.
Despite other reports of increased seafood consumption in the aftermath of the pandemic, the Virginia Tech study results showed that half of respondents consumed the same amount of seafood as before the pandemic and almost a third of respondents reporting decreased seafood consumption. In addition, researchers were surprised to discover evidence of a pandemic-imposed shift to consuming greater proportions of seafood meals at home than away from home, but not an overall increase in seafood consumption as had been reported in some other studies.
This research is important because the effects of external economic shocks and economic downturns on consumer behaviors generally have not been well studied, according to van Senten. The magnitude of business closures and employee layoffs driven by the pandemic resulted in an unparalleled shock to the U.S. economy.
“The combined effect of business closures and reduced discretionary spending of consumers had severe negative economic effects,” he said. “Economic relief and stimulus packages likely ameliorated such effects to some degree, but how long of a recovery period would ensue was unknown.”
The final consumer survey was completed in 2022, and the research team is working to compile the data across all the periodic surveys to assess whether the changes in consumer behavior and preferences exhibit any potential longer-term trends for the U.S. aquaculture industry. Researchers will be informing industry members and industry associations about their findings to guide their decision making with regards to marketing and product development.
Additional information about this research will be presented at a NIFA education session at Aquaculture America 2023 Feb. 23-26 in New Orleans. NIFA national program leader Dr. Tim Sullivan, who provides leadership for programs in aquaculture, animal health and biotechnology, will moderate a session highlighting the breadth and impact of NIFA-funded aquaculture research and outreach.
Top image: Chesapeake Bay blue crabs at seafood market photo by Keri Rouse, Virginia Tech.