Premium seafood at the click of a mouse

iChef's senior executive Jayson Ang and business development executive Lorelle Ang. iChef is owned by the Suki Group, which runs several restaurant franchises.
iChef's senior executive Jayson Ang and business development executive Lorelle Ang. iChef is owned by the Suki Group, which runs several restaurant franchises.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

Online retailers serving up a veritable feast to satisfy growing appetite of seafood lovers

The mouse, not a supermarket trolley, is what foodies are increasingly using when they want to stock up on sashimi, lobster tails and other premium seafood delicacies.

Supermarket chains such as Cold Storage and NTUC FairPrice have long been selling fresh, ready-to-eat seafood, giving consumers a cheaper alternative to restaurant-style sushi and sashimi.

But online retail platforms like Qoo10 and Rakuten are changing the game by offering a wider selection of premium seafood choices, and at prices not available in stores.

Qoo10 and Rakuten have seen sales of premium seafood items increase several times in the past few years, as consumers eschew regular items such as prawns, fish and squid for more exotic items such as snow crabs, Argentina prawns, geoduck clams, ikura (salmon roe), Japanese oysters and even fugu, otherwise known as pufferfish.

  • SOME ONLINE BARGAINS

  • FUGU SASHIMI (25G)

    REGULAR PRICE: $25.50

    OFFER PRICE: $16.57

    SELLER: Kaiho Seafood (Rakuten)

    Fugu sashimi comes with a big reputation, but it is not because of how good it tastes. The pufferfish contains the deadly neurotoxin tetrodotoxin, which has to be removed from the fish without contaminating the meat.

    At the recent Oishi Japan food and beverage event at Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre, several Japanese food distributors were trying to find distribution partners for pre-packed fugu. But instead of searching high and low for a restaurant that serves it, adventurous foodies can easily get it from Rakuten.


    PREMIUM SNOW CRAB LEGS (3KG)

    REGULAR PRICE: $188

    OFFER PRICE: $138

    SELLER: iChef (Qoo10)

    A hot item for seafood buffets, fully cooked snow crabs are served cold on a bed of ice.

    They are cooked and frozen before they get packed off to hotels and restaurants. My 3kg order came with 14 crab halves and though the cardboard box was dripping wet from the thawed contents, the crab legs within were still rock hard.


    PREMIUM GRADE LOBSTER TAIL (12 PIECES)

    REGULAR PRICE: $199

    OFFER PRICE: $146

    SELLER: Causeway Pacific Seafood (Qoo10)

    Supermarkets sell these for about $40 per fresh lobster, which sounds like a bargain compared to this deal until you consider that the enormous head of a lobster has no flesh to speak of.

    I have sauteed these with butter and garlic, and also baked them in the oven. You can also chop them up to make your own lobster roll.


    DEEP SEA WILD RED ARGENTINA SHRIMPS (2KG)

    REGULAR PRICE: $88

    OFFER PRICE: $58

    SELLER: iChef (Qoo10)

    Most Asian home cooking calls for fresh market prawns or shrimp, but the majority of Western restaurants here use frozen prawns in salads and pastas.

    I had a few of these at the sashimi section of Sakura International Buffet and was told that they were the same ones sold by iChef.

    These prawns are huge, sweet and juicy, and perfect for steamboat sessions at home. Similar-sized prawns at wet markets will cost a lot more.


    HOKKAIDO SHOYU IKURA (SALMON ROE) 250G

    REGULAR PRICE: $58

    OFFER PRICE: $42.50

    SELLER: Kuriya Seafood (Rakuten)

    Ikura sushi is a must-have for me at any Japanese restaurant and there's nothing quite like having the rich flavour of the individual roe sacs exploding in your mouth.

    I have actually tried to pick some prepacked ikura from Japanese supermarkets here, only to discover that some of them have not fully thawed out yet.

    • Items listed here are highlights of seafood items available from local online retailers. Several of them may sell the same items but from different suppliers. Prices may also differ due to ongoing promotions and sales.

Online food retailer iChef has been selling frozen oysters, snow crabs, scallops and ikura on Qoo10 since 2012, and has seen sales grow by 30 times since then.

Rakuten, which started with one merchant selling 20 types of seafood in January last year, now has 10 merchants selling more than 300 types of seafood items.

It said some merchants have seen their online sales go up by more than 20 times in less than a year.

Premium items available on both local retail platforms include frozen lobster tails, geoduck clams, sashimi grade scallops and oysters.

Users make their selection online, and can either pick up the items from the warehouse locations of the sellers, or have them delivered to their homes.

While the seafood offerings from such online platforms are not as extensive as those from RedMart or FairPrice, many of the premium items sold on Qoo10 and Rakuten are not available from established online grocery stores and supermarkets either.

Such items tend to be available only at speciality stores such as Meidi-Ya and Emporium Shokuhin, but often at twice or three times the online price.

iChef senior executive Jayson Ang said some of its items are exclusive to the company. Its primary business is supplying food items to restaurants here.

iChef is owned by the Suki Group, which also runs several restaurant franchises, including Sakura International and Chabuton.

One of its hottest selling items is a 3kg box of frozen snow crab legs, which retails at $188 but can be sold for $88 during promotions.

It normally sells several dozens of such boxes each month, but sales can hit more than 100 boxes during festive periods such as Christmas and Chinese New Year.

As a 3kg box is meant for wholesale use, Mr Ang said it cannot be found in regular supermarkets.

Since 2012, iChef has added items such as Argentina red prawns, shelled snow crab legs, sashimi grade scallops and even ready-to- eat salmon sashimi.

On why the group started its online store, Suki Group chief procurement officer Wayne Wu explained: "We were selling the same products to the restaurants so we were confident about the quality of the food. We just needed to test the market."

BIG SPENDERS

One interesting observation about online seafood aficionados is their willingness to spend, compared to those who buy other food and beverage (F&B) items, noted Mr Masaya Ueno, general manager of Rakuten Singapore Online Shopping.

"Seafood customers tend to buy other food and beverage products at the same time, as if they were buying the products for a party or complete meal."

For instance, a customer recently bought wild Alaskan snow crab legs, red king crab legs and sea urchin roe, and also picked up Japanese rice, condiments and appetisers such as gyoza (Japanese dumplings) and breaded prawns, along with Japanese musk melon and green tea desserts.

"This type of purchase behaviour seems to be quite typical of seafood customers and is rarely observed with customers of other types of F&B that we sell online," Mr Ueno said.

The increase in demand for premium seafood items has led to some wholesalers opening up their warehouse space, allowing online customers to pick up purchases on site.

Others, like Kaiho Seafood, have started bringing in exotic items such as ready-to-eat fugu, the notorious Japanese delicacy known for the poison found in the fish.

But despite the spike in demand, it has no plans to open a physical store. "E-commerce has proven to be a more cost-effective channel than opening a retail store for a relatively new brand," explained Mr Chua Teck Leong, deputy chief executive officer of Toyo International Trading, which runs Kaiho Seafood on Rakuten.

Some companies have also started flying in fresh seafood to meet the increase in demand. On Rakuten, about 30 per cent of seafood items are imported from Japan, said Mr Ueno.

"We are not able to estimate the worth of the speciality seafood market in Singapore, but we can see that the demand is definitely growing," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2015, with the headline 'Premium seafood at the click of a mouse'. Print Edition | Subscribe