Its 2007 added-value initiative with Ian Wright initially boosted sales but then fell by the wayside. Will take two deliver for good?

With sales on Asda fish counters down by 3.5% by value [Kantar Worldpanel 52 w/e 19 February 2012], it needed to pull something out of the bag. Its answer, unveiled last week, is to “revolutionise” its fresh fish counters with the bolt-on of a new three-step service.

Shoppers at 302 Asda fish counters can now choose a portion of fish, pair it with a sauce, crumb, butter or marinade and have it served to them in a microwaveable or ovenable bag or a barbecue tray.

But shoppers would be forgiven for a sense of déjà vu about Asda’s fish revamp, given that the retailer launched a similar initiative, backed by a TV campaign starring the former footballer Ian Wright, in 2007.

Asda claimed the 2007 launch lead to a 30% increase in sales, so why wasn’t growth sustained? And why does Asda believe it can breathe new life into what is essentially the same concept it tried before?

Asda’s 2007 effort allowed shoppers to combine a portion of fish with a knob of flavoured butter, all served up in an oven-ready bag.

It was a simple concept, but perhaps a little too simple, according to Asda. It admits that the reason why the Ian Wright advert did not make a long-term difference to sales was partly because, although the fish in the bag concept meant that shoppers did not have to handle the fish, they still didn’t feel like they had been given enough choice. “It was a moment in time and when the campaign ended so did their desire to try,” says fish counter buyer, Jill Skipsey.

If it was choice that shoppers wanted, it’s choice they’ve now got. Asda claims the new service provides shoppers with 924 new ways to enjoy fish. And it’s sourced ideas from far and wide. “The team took inspiration for the new three-step process from all over the world - in particular from Iceland and the independent fish shops there,” Skipsey adds. “They tend to sell a lot of value-added fish,” she says.

Indeed, the list of fish combinations, including sea bass in sun-blushed tomato and basil butter, cod loin with a crispy Cajun crumb and monkfish fillets in fragrant Thai sauce, reads like a restaurant menu.

Asda must also be hoping that similar schemes such as Waitrose’s Garnish & Go fish counter concept, as well as the success of Birds Eye’s Bake To Perfection and Seachill’s The Saucy Fish Co products will give it the confidence to continue what it arguably started.

One frozen supplier says: “The trouble with Asda is it always loses its nerve. Like many of its customers, it’s outside its comfort zone on fish. So it didn’t really follow through on what was essentially a good idea. Certainly rivals learned a thing or two.”

This time around, says Skipsey, Asda is backing the launch with a longer-term commitment. It includes an extensive training programme for colleagues so they will be more knowledgeable, and from May, they will offer shoppers cooking advice and recipes of the month.

And the chain claims that initial signs are positive. “Trials of the new fish counters in four stores across the country have had really positive results, with sales up 15% in one store compared to sales pre new format counters,” says Skipsey.