IN a small space in Klang, Audrey Goo picks up two small pomfrets resting side by side in a tub filled with their fellow brethren. The fishes’ silvery skins shimmer and shine, but Goo points out a dark, almost black discolouration on the edge of one of the fishes.
“See that black bit on the fish? That shows that it was caught at night. The other fish doesn’t have it, which means it was caught in the daytime. And look – the eyes are clear too – this is very fresh, ” says Goo, who has been running online seafood delivery platform MyFishman (myfishman.com) for five years now.
In many ways, the manner in which Goo inspects and examines the seafood, peering at eyes and skin and noting elasticity is identical to the ways and means many Malaysians use to choose fresh seafood at local wet markets and supermarkets.
Selecting seafood has always been a deeply personal affair – the tactile act of touching a fish to check for firmness and turgidity, examining the pallor of the skin and the shine of the eyes, holding it up to see how large it is and even sniffing each slimy creature to gauge ultimate freshness.
But when the movement control order (MCO) took shape, that entire experience became less feasible. Many supermarkets were extremely crowded or often wiped clean of produce. Wet markets were shuttered and some closed after outbreaks of Covid-19, leading to widespread paranoia and an avoidance of markets in general.
According to a 2014 study by fishery products expert Infofish, Malaysians are one of the largest consumers of seafood in the world, eating an average of 56.5kg of fish a year, surpassing even the consumption rates of the sushi capital of the world – Japan.So it isn’t altogether surprising that once they were stuck at home with few physical shopping options and a persistent appetite for seafood, Malaysians turned to online seafood platforms with a vengeance.
Although some of this initial interest has tapered off slightly, the platforms have benefited tremendously from the unexpected exposure. These days, they are very realistic options for restaurants and households practising social distancing.
The advent of seafood delivery platforms
Online seafood delivery platforms have been around for the past five or six years in Malaysia, in tandem with the shift towards online shopping. Many were formed out of passion and with a strong commitment to providing the freshest seafood possible to city dwellers who traditionally have limited access to good seafood and urbanites with little knowledge of fish and even less time to shop and choose fresh seafood.
For Goo, getting into the online seafood business was basically about taking her family’s fishing enterprise into the digital age.
“My family is from Kuala Selangor and everyone is in the fishing industry – some go out to sea and some are fishmongers. But I studied information technology as my parents didn’t want me to get involved in the family business. They think it is a dirty job.
“But the thing is, every time I returned to my hometown, my friends would ask if I could bring back some seafood for them. So, I talked to my family members and suggested we do something new and sell seafood online. No one agreed with me. They all believed people wouldn’t buy seafood online, ” says Goo.
Determined, Goo pressed ahead anyway and started her online business as she realised that no other family member of her generation was willing to take up the mantle. Although business was slow at first, she now works with 20 fishermen (including one family member) in the Kuala Selangor area, covering fishing hubs like Sekinchan and Sungai Besar.
“We had a few missions when we started – one was to help local fishermen sell their fish at a better price and the second was to bring more seafood to more people.
“We realised that a lot of people from the city only know a few types of local fish like grouper or senangin, but other than that, they don’t recognise many other fish. And we wanted to reduce wastage as a lot of seafood is trashed, because people don’t know enough about it, so they don’t buy it, ” she says.
Benny Tan meanwhile started his online seafood delivery platform MySeafoodMart (www.myseafoodmart.com) six years ago. The e-commerce major had been helping to launch a local supermarket’s online delivery portal but soon became upset by the way the seafood was handled, especially as he grew up eating the freshest seafood from Pulau Ketam, courtesy of his uncle, who owned a few fisheries there.
“Supermarkets have a higher mark-up so they charge a premium price but I would see them handle the seafood very poorly. They would keep it for three or four days, so it was not very fresh. And my family always had access to fresh seafood through my uncle because every month or so he would send us a box of seafood. So at that time, I was thinking ‘Why can’t everyone else get that access?’” says Tan.
Deciding to act on that impulse, Tan partnered with his uncle (who has five fishing boats in Pulau Ketam and a team of 10 fishermen) and diverted his fresh catch to urbanites in KL actively looking for high-quality local seafood.
For David Lei, the founder of online seafood delivery portal Fish For It (www.fishforit.com.my), the scarcity of fresh seafood in urban cities troubled him no end and spurred his desire to provide it for discerning Malaysians angling after the best local catch.
“Whenever I see seafood at the wet market or supermarket, they look fresh but to me, they don’t taste fresh. From the time the fish is caught and then displayed at the market, normally a few days have lapsed and most consumers have no idea how many days it has been sitting out there for, ” he says.
Lei was also acutely aware that some of the best local fish were being shipped out to countries like Singapore, where they fetched a higher price. Malaysians on the other hand, were largely consuming fish from neighbouring countries like Indonesia and Thailand, which were not very fresh when they arrived here.
“In general, I found that it was quite difficult to get good quality seafood in our city. And I’ve always gotten my seafood from my childhood friend in Sungai Besar, who is a fisherman. So one day, I thought why not bring this to the Klang Valley? So I proposed this idea to him and his family and they said ‘Why not?’ and so we started this online platform, ” says Lei.
Freshness is paramount
The challenges of setting up an online seafood delivery business are plentiful – from convincing people to buy fresh fish sight unseen to ironing out logistical issues. But perhaps the thing that all online seafood purveyors aim to get right from the outset is freshness. Because if the seafood doesn’t taste fresh upon delivery, customers immediately lose faith in the business.
In Goo’s case, the catch collected from the various fishermen that she enlists are immediately sorted and placed in coolers on the boats itself. Once brought back to the jetty in Kuala Selangor, the fish are scaled, gutted and cut and are either sent to a warehouse in Kuala Selangor or another facility in Klang. The fish that have not been processed by the fishermen are attended to immediately, before being vacuum packed and deposited in a large freezer and then packed into delivery boxes.
Goo was also one of the first few in the industry to introduce subscription-based seafood boxes, which feature a selection of different kinds of fish and shellfish for customers to try.
“Once customers get used to it, they will order the fresh box, because they just have to pick 10 different kinds of fish and they can tell us their specifications like they want fish for steaming or to make a curry and we will help pick the right fish for them, ” says Goo, who adds that most of her business now consists of seafood boxes.
Lei meanwhile works with his childhood buddy Joe Heng in Sungai Besar to get fresh fish from the Straits of Melaka. He has also expanded the business to include seafood from Sabah. To make sure the seafood stays completely fresh, once the fish is off the boat and cleaned and tagged, Lei flash freezes it immediately.
“By flash freezing the produce, we actually stop the clock and make sure the freshness is totally retained. And once that is complete, we send it to KL the next day itself, ” he says.
Tan’s model is slightly different because he works directly with his uncle in Pulau Ketam and is devoted to the concept of complete freshness. As a result, once the seafood is off his uncle’s boats in the morning, it is cleaned and cut to order, then immediately packed in ice and sent out the same day in its original state (i.e. no freezing). By Tan’s estimate, most KL-ites receive their fresh seafood within eight hours of it being caught!
“Our source is different because I know how my uncle handles the seafood, and it’s very fresh – we only sell what we catch in the morning and we don’t add any preservatives, which is a common practice in the fishery industry in Malaysia to make the fish last longer, ” says Tan.
Catching on quickly
Most of the Malaysian online seafood delivery platforms focus on wild-caught local seafood like grouper, snapper, pomfret, threadfin, sting ray, squid and prawns. And evidently these local aquatic creatures are exactly what young Malaysian women are looking for. And yes, you read that right because all the business owners I spoke to agree that women are the driving force behind online seafood purchases.
By their estimates, between 70% to 90% of the people buying seafood online are women, predominantly young mothers between the ages of 25 to 50, looking for fish to feed their families.
“Our customers mostly are young mothers who don’t want to go to the wet market because they find it too smelly or chaotic. And for busy working mothers, they are looking for quick solutions, so when the fish is vacuum packed and cut to specification, they just need to take it out after work and cook it. Also, most mothers want to make sure their children are eating enough fresh fish, so this is the category of people who seem to buy seafood online, ” explains Goo.
While women have long been the demographic responsible for the steady growth of seafood platforms, the MCO has been a game-changer for these homegrown businesses, expanding their customer base beyond imagination.
Goo says when the MCO first started, business was so crazy, they had to hire more delivery partners just to cope with demand, while Tan says his sales volume increased by 100% at the height of the MCO. Lei’s went up three-fold. All three say things have quietened down a little since some sense of normalcy has returned, but they have been able to retain between 30% to 60% of the customers who flocked to them during the MCO. And rather surprisingly, many of their newfound fans are older people aged 60 onwards.
“Yes, I guess older people are actually trying to purchase online as well. There are quite a few older men that go onto my site and still buy until today, ” says Lei.
Lei has also had a huge number of restaurants turn to him for fresh local catch.
“People started to know us more – not only households but restaurants and hotels too, so from there, we started getting enquiries from restaurants.
“Also, I feel the MCO caused an impact on imported goods. A lot of restaurants are turning to local seafood. Before, they might have served salmon imported from Japan or Norway but now they are actually changing their menus to use more local wild-caught fish as we can guarantee freshness, ” says Lei, who supplies fresh seafood to top-end eateries like Dewakan, Nadodi and Ember.
Because demand has been so phenomenal, expansion plans are already in the works for many of these platforms. Both Tan and Lei are looking at branching their delivery network beyond the Klang Valley – Tan to the whole of west Malaysia and Lei to Johor and Penang, as they have received overwhelming requests to set up business elsewhere.
Goo, on the other hand, has decided to go in a completely different direction, expansion-wise, and will be focusing on gifting packages, something she sees huge potential in. She has fish packages for pregnant and post-partum mums.
“For these next few years, we want to focus on changing the image of seafood, and getting people to think of sending fresh fish as gifts to their family, friends or business partners.
“We see a high demand for this at the moment, because during the MCO, we had so many people saying, ‘I want to send fish to my mother/father/friend’ and we are still getting quite a lot of this demand, so we thought ‘Why not make fish a gift for people?’ So this is something we want to focus on, ” affirms Goo.
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