Shrimp are transported on ice to a plant where they are frozen and exported
As with other goods, fish and fishery products must pass through distribution channels in order to reach the end-user or consumer. What makes fish and fishery products so special is the vulnerability of the products, given their limited shelf life. This leads to important requirements in terms of handling, quality and temperature control, as well as timeliness.
Traditionally, the distribution channels in most import countries were characterized by a series of different levels such as importers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers as well as food brokers and agents, with each level performing a specific task. More recently, increased competition and improved logistics have shortened the chain in many markets with imported products often being bought directly from source by the wholesaler or by the retail chain operator.
While this is especially the case for frozen, preserved and canned seafood, the distribution patterns for fresh and chilled seafood are also changing. The absence of branded fresh seafood also leads to easy substitution of product and of supplier. In fact, increased international trade in fishery products and expansion of free-trade areas have led to a proliferation of smaller operators on the wholesale level.
In most countries, the larger wholesalers with national distribution have had to retrench to their core geographic areas. This trend, combined with the tendency of many large supermarket chains to buy directly from producers - especially aquaculture products - has led to an overall weakening of the seafood wholesaler and in many developed countries the category is on the defensive.
In most markets, the traditional role of the agent has also undergone a change. Improved logistics and means of communications have facilitated more direct contact between supplier and importer with a reduced role for the agent. On the other hand, the pressure of time and increased specialisation and outsourcing of services has also created a new role for agents specialising in search of new products and markets.
Success of retail chains
Numerous international studies document the increasing power exercised in food distribution by the retail chains. Despite the negative competitive impact on suppliers and smaller retailers and fish mongers, the overall positive effects of modern retail channels includes lower prices to the consumer, improved accessibility and added convenience. It is also obvious that supermarket chains present important opportunities for volume sales for low-cost producers. In the European and North American markets for example, the chains have played an important role in promotion and volume sales of aquaculture products such as salmon, bass, bream and catfish.
The successful formula of retail chains is a balanced mix of competitive pricing, large share of fresh produce and high quality standards obtained through narrow product specifications, modern logistics and stringent controls. In fact, one recurring result in consumer surveys is the trust placed by the consumer in the supermarket brand. That this phenomenon is not only confined to developed countries is evidenced by the proliferation of supermarket chains also in developing countries, not the least in urban areas in Asia and South America.
Modernization of distribution channels for food products in general and fish and fishery products in general has therefore become part of a global trend and a symbol of increasing globalisation also in the fishery sector.