BJ’s Scott Williams Promotes Partnerships, Consumer Education

Editor’s note: The following column is the second in a series of columns written by GAA Communications Manager Steven Hedlund. Titled “Communicator’s Corner,” the column profiles aquaculture and seafood professionals whose leadership, sense of innovation and emphasis on education and communication set them apart. The column will also appear in the May-June issue of the Global Aquaculture Advocate.

As associate VP of quality assurance and environmental stewardship for BJ’s Wholesale Club, the United States’ third largest club-store chain with 200 stores in 15 East Coast states and Ohio, Scott Williams constantly puts himself in the mind of the consumer.

On the front end, Williams caters to value-conscious, time-pressed consumers who plan out meal solutions days, if not weeks, in advance, with no seafood counter staff to guide consumers’ purchasing decisions. On the back end, Williams ensures that the seafood BJ’s sources is safe and produced in an environmentally and socially responsible manner, which may not influence consumers’ purchasing decisions but are critical to any retailer’s sustainable seafood sourcing policy.

The 35-year-old Williams is not a seafood veteran, but he brings a fresh perspective to an industry full of lifers with decades of seafood experience. He’s responsible for 8,000 SKUs, ranging from clothing to electronics to food. Though seafood represents a fraction of BJ’s total sales, as with any club-store chain, the protein occupies 5% to 10% of William’s time and energy. The complexity of the seafood supply chain, the industry’s fragmented nature and the array of sustainability-related issues involving aquaculture and wild fisheries make seafood a more challenging product to manage.

20140317_134949Pictured at right is Williams, speaking at GAA’s Mini-GOAL seminar at Seafood Expo North America in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, on March 17.

But Williams knows what it takes. He emphasizes the importance of partnering with reliable, transparent suppliers who are upfront about potential problems. One such problem is early mortality syndrome (EMS), which BJ’s has successfully navigating without any significant reductions in shrimp supplies or increases in shrimp prices, thanks to its strong relationships with its suppliers.

“If our suppliers hadn’t come to us in the beginning and let us know about EMS, we may not have been able to make adjustments until it was too late,” Williams says.

“The importance of transparency can’t be overstressed,” he adds. “We can’t be experts in every type of seafood in every region. We are more apt to do business with suppliers who are transparent and honest, especially around potential problems. If there is a problem, we would prefer to make decisions with our suppliers upfront, instead of in the middle of a crisis when everyone is chasing the problem.”

Williams points to the motto of BJ’s environmental stewardship program — fix, not avoid. “We don’t walk away from problems,” he says. “We’re in this for the long term. If a problem comes up, we want to know what the industry is going to do about it and how we can help find a solution.”

Much of the discussion at GAA’s Mini-GOAL seminar at Seafood Expo North America and at GAA’s GOAL 2013 conference in Paris, France, both of which Williams participated in as a panelist, centered on biosecurity and disease risk management, especially in light of EMS.

“Retailers have to be proactive,” says Williams. “On the supplier end, if retailers aren’t proactive and partnering with the industry, companies will go out of business. EMS and the like cause real stress on the industry, and retailers have to be aware of this and proactively work with suppliers on sourcing strategies.”

As far as consumer awareness, problems often surface quickly without any warning. Issues considered common practice in an industry can attract negative publicity and drive change, whether it’s warranted or not. Williams points to last year’s pink slime controversy, when the U.S. ground beef industry was forced to change a common practice — the use of processed meat byproduct in ground beef — even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture deems it safe.

“I think that we in the food business have to remember the average person is getting further and further removed from the actual process of food. That divide can lead to problems,” says Williams. “Those problems can be customers not understanding the reason for escalating costs or industry practices that are common but they feel need to be stopped. I think the retailer’s role is to serve as an advocate for consumers and at the same time not push the suppliers so far that they no longer have a sustainable model, either financially or environmentally.”

In fact, BJ’s is getting more customer inquiries about farmed seafood, especially its origin and the good vs. the bad. But educating customers who know little to nothing about aquaculture can be challenging, Williams admits, especially since BJ’s has no full-service seafood counter staff and tries to avoid “sign pollution,” or too much point-of-sale signage.

“We use full-page stories in our quarterly ‘BJ’s Journal’ mailer as well as in our in-club radio program to help explain the program to our members. We also use our website and social media to tell the same story — that everything we source meets our sustainable seafood policy and that the benefit of membership is that we do the work for them,” Williams explains.

Williams is also trying to look differently at how BJ’s markets seafood to its customers, who pay U.S. $50 or more a year to be members. Williams has shifted his focus away from “the next big species” and toward educating consumers on preparation methods and the flavor and texture profiles of the different categories of seafood, whether it’s whitefish, oily fish like salmon or shellfish.

“I think it is very hard to develop new species because people are generally hesitant to try them. I think the future holds easier preparation methods and more versions of many of the species we already have,” Williams says. “When you look at chicken they didn’t introduce new birds, they introduced ways to make it more consistent and easier to prepare. So seafood may see more value add, more individual packaging and more ready to eat, I think that is how you make it easier consumers to substitute seafood for other proteins.”