Canned tuna sales suffer amid waves of changing tastes
- During the last 30 years, consumption of tuna has declined 42%, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data reported by The Wall Street Journal. The decrease has continued in recent years, with sales of the fish dropping 4% in volume from 2013 to October 2018, according to data from market research firm IRI.
- The industry places blame on consumers, particularly millennials who are turning away from more processed options, but simultaneously are looking for more convenience. This apparently doesn't include canned products. "A lot of millennials don’t even own can openers," Andy Mecs, the vice president of marketing and innovation for StarKist, told The Wall Street Journal.
- The tuna industry, however, is fighting back with new packaging that don’t require a can opener, premium options that they market as sustainable, as well as flavors that appeal to millennials, like sriracha.
Millennials have once again victimized a 20th-century pantry staple. With sales down by almost half over the course of a generation, it’s clear that the traditional format of tuna in a can is no longer viable. That leaves the three tuna titans — StarKist, Bumble Bee Foods and Chicken of the Sea International — caught in the receding tide.
Although those big three companies dominate 80% of canned tuna sales, the whole industry has been hurt by decreased demand. But they shouldn't be surprised by these statistics, which seem unsurprising in the context of the greater push toward convenience. In 2016, USDA said half of consumers' food budgets went toward items that were easy to prepare and eat.
A 2017 study by the NPD Group found that snack foods eaten at main meals now represent 24% of all snack food eating, which is up from 21% five years ago. But tuna in a can is often left out of this growing category.
Recognizing this trend and the decreased interest in canned tuna, the industry has already changed course. Last year, StarKist introduced individual-sized pouches of tuna in flavors that are trending with millennials like Thai Chili Style, Jalapeno, Hot Buffalo Style, Sriracha and Tapatio. Since the pouches were introduced, the company said that sales have increased by about 10% each year.
At the same time that StarKist is experiencing a positive response to their new packaging, smaller, more nimble companies — such as Wild Planet Foods and Safe Catch — which come in both packets and cans, are eating into the market share of the big three tuna manufacturers by advertising their tuna as more sustainable and higher quality. According to Nielsen data reported by The Wall Street Journal, smaller brands, not including private labels, controlled 6.3% of the market, in October. This is a marked increase from 3.7% in 2014.
The downside to all of this convenience is the trash. Pouches are convenient, but they are not recyclable and can create more waste. Millennials seem to be more eco-conscious than generations before, but this packaging format forces the value of convenience to supersede sustainability, which could hurt companies in the long run. Perhaps StarKist could work toward developing eco-friendly or reusable packaging to mitigate the negative effects of this demand for convenience.
While the tuna category is trying to pivot its products to be more aligned with consumers’ demand for innovative flavor and no hassle meals, perhaps the fact that canned tuna could be viewed as retro is a silver lining. Tuna could find its home in restaurants and menu items looking to replicate the tastes of the America of yesteryear. But that could be difficult, given the fate of other products that millennials have turned away from, including American cheese.
While that is little comfort to a rapidly declining industry, another potentially viable route that the big tuna companies might take is to partner with meal kit companies that are looking for ingredients with wide appeal and that can also create an easy-to-prepare, perfectly proportioned meal. StarKist has partnered with Kroger’s Home Chef meal-kit company to put its yellowfin tuna pouches in kits beginning in 2019