Put a freeze on the bite of Chinese New Year shopping

Fish for sale at a wet market in Singapore. (Photo: Getty Images)

By David Sun and Ben Nadarajan, Contributors

When Madam Liew Kwei Chin headed to the Giant supermarket at VivoCity mall for her Chinese New Year shopping, she skipped the crowd around the fresh fish counter and headed straight for the frozen section.

The 60-year-old retiree made the switch to frozen because it’s “cheaper and better”, she said. “I believe it’s fresher because of how they pack it immediately after it’s caught.”

As the price of fresh seafood continues to climb in the final countdown to Chinese New Year, retailers and seafood associations are encouraging cash-conscious consumers like Madam Liew to consider switching to frozen.

The price for fresh Chinese Pomfret, or dou chang, one of the most popular fish for reunion dinners and during Chinese New Year, has pushed past the $100/kg mark at several wet markets.

By last week, the price had already nearly doubled from $30 to $40/kg, to $60/kg.

Prices do vary from retailer to retailer, and day to day. Khor Chin Puang, who run’s Pan’s Fish at Tiong Bahru Market, was fetching $100/kg for the fish over the weekend, and $88/kg today (13 Feb). The Chinese New Year favourite goes for $48/500g on online retailer Marketfresh.sg, and $56 for a fish weighing between 700g and 800g from Ninja Food.

There are some deals to be found – at NTUC, the medium-sized Chinese Pomfret is going for $30.80/kg until Valentine’s Day, and on Redmart, Hai Sia Seafood is selling fresh Chinese Pomfret at 400g each for $25.10.

But there are also significant savings to be found in the frozen equivalent, said Belinda Lee, vice-chairman of Seafood Industries Association Singapore, which represents the seafood processing, manufacturing and trading companies in the country.

According to Lee, a frozen seafood supplier herself, frozen Chinese pomfret can cost 30 to 40 per cent less.

A price gulf also exists between the fresh and frozen variants of snappers, groupers and rabbitfish, all popular during Chinese New Year.

At Giant at VivoCity, fresh rabbitfish sells for $22.80/kg, while frozen rabbitfish currently goes for a fraction of that, at approximately $5/kg. At Sheng Siong, the price is $19.50/kg and about $6/kg respectively. The price difference at other supermarkets are comparable.

But getting consumers to make the switch is a battle, said Lee. Some still perceive frozen seafood as not as fresh or tasty.

However, frozen seafood is often processed within an hour or two of being caught while fresh seafood is out in the open longer, she pointed out. “It’s just a mindset that people need to change to be more accepting of frozen seafood.”

There are indications that consumers are starting to turn the corner. Frozen sales at Sheng Siong are on the up, said its spokesperson, adding that many food businesses “realise that with improvements in freezing and packaging, the quality of frozen seafood is assured.”

With the anticipated drop in supply as fishermen take a break for the holiday, and the corresponding rise in prices, RedMart, too, “is stocked to meet the demand for frozen fish which have always been as popular with our customers,” said Richard Ruddy, Head of Fresh Food.

The prices of numerous other favourites are also biting on pockets this Year of the Dog. Reports last week put the price of dried scallops up by up to 30 per cent, while premium canned abalone from countries like New Zealand and Australia by popular brands like New Moon currently retail at anywhere between $32 and $50. Mexican Calmex abalone commonly exceeds $150.

It has led some supermarkets to cast the net further, bringing in options from non-traditional countries. At Sheng Siong, for example, farmed baby abalone from Korea currently costs $28.80 a can, $3 less than the same product from Australia.

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