By Dec. 24, 2019 09:19 GMT

Alibaba Group’s Freshippo — known locally as Hema — is marketing some of the world’s most well-known seafood brands at its stores in China, with leading international firms set to benefit as the Chinese technology giant rolls out its ‘new retail’ concept across the country.

Since its inception in 2016, Freshippo has opened 170 of its trailblazing stores in wealthy districts of cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, providing more than ten different international seafood companies the opportunity to market fish, shrimp and molluscs to China’s urban middle-class.

Undercurrent News visited two Freshippo stores in Shanghai, where shoppers — smartphones in hand — wandered along aisles packed with imported meats, vegetables and beverages. At unmanned checkouts, seafood ranging from frozen toothfish, a species caught in the Southern Ocean, to imported red shrimp caught off the coast of Argentina, could be paid for with a scan of a QR code.

Alibaba — which was founded by Jack Ma — says the aim is to create a “seamless retail experience”, with an emphasis on convenience, while executives emphasize the “in-store experiences” and wow factor.

“Key is product appearance. What customers look for in seafood is freshness; seafood is most fresh [of animal protein groups],” Rachel Liu, merchandising senior purchaser, explained at the recent China Fisheries and Seafood Expo in Qingdao, China. Tanks of bubbling water stocked with live fish, crab, shrimp, and lobster, invite shoppers to become fishermen and scoop up the catch of the day with a swipe of a ladle.

Among brands vying for shoppers’ attention included Australis Fisheries’ Glacier brand of toothfish, as well as Sapmer’s brand of the same product. Their toothfish products came at a price; a 200-gram toothfish steak sold under Australis’ Glacier brand retailed for CNY 127 ($18.15), equivalent to $90.75/kg.

Enjoying a new lease of life is part of the appeal of being marketed in Freshippo and Alibaba says it can help international firms with marketing in China. Thai Union’s King Oscar brand, which originally hails from Norway, was founded in 1906 to boost sales of tinned sardines. At Freshippo, the firm’s 400-gram box of King Oscar-branded frozen, cooked head-on, shell-on farmed Thai shrimp retailed for CNY 99.00. Meanwhile, Canadian seafood giant Clearwater had its frozen brown crabs caught in UK waters in store, as well as sea clams caught off the coast of Canada (see photo).

Chinese consumers’ openness to novel products gives opportunities for lesser-known products and brands. New Zealand’s Kono brand, owned by the Kiwi firm Watuku Incorporation, has a 454g-pack of greenshell mussels in Freshippo, which retailed for CNY 49.80. Meanwhile, Thai agriculture conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Foods, a household name in Thailand, has its frozen, head-on, shell-on cooked Thai king shrimp retailing for CNY 96 for a 400g pack.

China imports huge quantities of frozen shell-on, head-on shrimp from Latin America. Pescanova, Grupo Solimeno, Altamare and Expalsa, firms with operations in the continent, all have products at Freshippo, including wild-caught Argentine red shrimp products or farmed white shrimp. A 1-kilogram box of Expalsa frozen head-on, shell-on farmed white shrimp retailed for CNY 116.

Domestic brands, Hema private label

Freshippo’s focus on presentation and appearance is evident from its own private-label range, which typifies Chinese firms’ increasingly sophisticated value-added products. Freshippo’s mid-range label comes in cleanly designed, simple and easily identifiable packaging; product information and branding in both English and Chinese language; and a Freshippo logo.

The mid-range label covers the most popular seafood product categories in China; frozen squid, octopus, cuttlefish, head-on, shell-on raw Argentine red shrimp, frozen pangasius fillets, toothfish, pearl shrimp, and scallops. Meanwhile, products sold under the DiFresco brand include frozen shelled Argentine red shrimp, salmon steaks/portions, sashimi, toothfish, and frozen, peeled black tiger shrimp.

(To view a photo gallery of seafood brands sold in Freshippo, click here.)

Domestic brands

Domestic companies with their own brands also have a strong presence at Freshippo. King Global Seafoods, Huamer’s Global Seafood brand, Ocean Gala, Ocean Diary, Zhangzidao (or Zoneco as it is known outside China) and Seamix, all are present, with some brands represented across several product categories.

This means domestic brands, private label and foreign brands often compete in the same product category. For instance, Undercurrent counted at least five different brands of toothfish products. When shoppers set foot in Freshippo, the global seafood industry’s rich diversity is within arms reach.