by Kim S. Nash

How Portland Fish Exchange Won Back Customers Through Automation

Aug 24, 20093 mins
IT Leadership

An IT investment during better economic times connects fish buyers and sellers more efficiently in today's competitive marketn

The Portland Fish Exchange has spent $300,000 to $400,000 on IT in the past few years preparing for just these times. Demand for seafood is almost always high; who doesn’t like roasted monkfish tails or fresh grilled pollock? But the economy has, shall we say, eaten into consumers’ dining-out budgets. Plus, commercial fishing is a complex, expensive endeavor. Regulations to protect sea populations have made the market more competitive than ever. The pool of fish-buying wholesalers in any one region is limited, so losing even one customer can hurt. The exchange, owned by the city of Portland, Maine, had lost a handful as the economy soured.

But now the exchange has honed a bar-coding and online auction system that Bert Jongerden, the general manager, says has “saved administrative overhead and created the opportunity for buyers to source fish from us.” Bar codes and online auctions aren’t new, Jongerden admits, but he has been able to eliminate three jobs (saving up to $80,000 a year) and win back lost customers.

Creating more opportunity for customers to buy was key to Jongerden’s decision to invest in IT in good times, he says. The exchange anticipated fewer boat landings because of stricter fishing regulations; indeed, the exchange now handles about 9 million pounds of fish per year—up to half the average volume of a decade ago. Making life easier for customers keeps revenue up, he says.

To read more on this topic, see: Reinvention Time and Business Productivity will Trump IT Efficiency.

SeaTrak, a warehouse management system built with Progress Software’s application development tools and customized by developer DC Systems, lets exchange staff assign bar codes to totes of fresh-caught cod, pollock, monkfish and hake right on the docks. A PC on the dock prints labels with information about a fish’s species and weight, date landed and the boat that brought it in.

Before the exchange began testing the system in 2006, one employee was dedicated to writing paper tags to stick on boxes as others sorted and weighed the fish that arrived each morning. A second employee keyed in the data after the daily auction ended. Both those positions have been eliminated and so have most data entry mistakes. Computerized bar codes mean exchange staff are no longer dealing with “paper that’s soggy and covered with goo all the time,” Jongerden says. Gone, too, is the job of auctioneer.

Through a virtual private network, seafood processors, wholesalers and others on the Eastern seaboard log in to the exchange’s Web-based auction system to bid. That technology, too, is basic: lists of lots offered, grades and weights, prices asked and bidders. No video or images. “Everyone knows what a pollock looks like,” Jongerden says.

Additional revenue is coming in. When the exchange was doing only in-person auctions, some buyers in New York and even Boston eventually found it too costly to trek to Maine to buy fish, he says. That depressed prices. Since the Web auctions became available, three or four customers have returned and a number of customers have increased purchasing, he says, and prices are up.

Unlike shellfish, fish like those auctioned at the Portland Fish Exchange aren’t subject to many federal requirements for traceability data to use during a recall. But Jongerden figures that day will come and, because of the bar code data he already collects, the exchange will be ready. Bar codes and online auctions, he says, “equate to productivity on the pier.”

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