Forget the burgers and dogs for the Fourth of July cookout; lobster prices look very appetizing at the moment.
Two area supermarket chains are advertising live lobsters for less than $6 a pound, and lobster plates are less pricey than usual on several local restaurant menus.
The crustacean’s cost has been in a downward trend since 2008, but right now prices are notably low, said Dierdre Gilbert, director of state marine policy for Maine’s Department of Marine Resources.
Last year, Maine lobstermen hauled in a record 100 million-plus pounds of lobster, and this year the haul is shaping up to be slightly larger, she said.
The abundant supply, coupled with less than robust demand, is driving prices down, said Cathy Billings, associate director for communications and development at the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine.
Locally, ShopRite is advertising 1- to 11⁄4-pound soft-shell lobsters for $5.99 a pound, but Wednesday a clerk in the seafood department at the Niskayuna store said that 11⁄4-pound soft shells were selling for $4.99 a pound because they had so many in stock.
Hard-shell lobsters weighing 3 to 4 pounds or less than 11⁄4 pounds were $5.88 a pound in the most recent Price Chopper circular.
Hannaford’s price is much higher locally, ringing in at $8.99 a pound for hard-shell lobsters weighing between 1 and 11⁄4 pounds. (Ironically, Hannaford is the only one of the three based in Maine.)
Supply and demand could be a driving factor in the low lobster prices at Price Chopper and ShopRite, but there’s likely more to it than that, said Jim Hertel, managing partner at Willard Bishop in Barrington, Ill., a firm that analyzes retail markets.
ShopRite stores are very promotion-oriented, he said.
“They get very aggressive with their promotions, from a pricing standpoint,” he explained, adding that their low lobster price could be a research technique.
“They may just be probing, to see what the competitive reactions will be,” he said.
ShopRite, which recently opened stores in Niskayuna, Albany and Slingerlands, has broken ground in Colonie for its fourth Capital Region location.
Tom Urtz, vice president of human resources and community affairs at ShopRite, said by email that an early molt in the lobster population contributed to the current low price at ShopRite supermarkets.
Lobsters shed their shells early this spring in the warmer-than-usual waters off the coast of southern Maine, so less-expensive soft shell lobsters made it to market earlier than they usually do, Billings confirmed.
Undercutting ShopRite’s advertised lobster price could be a way for Price Chopper to defend its turf, Hertel said.
The dueling lobster prices could be just “the tip of the Newburg, as opposed to the tip of the iceberg,” he said with a chuckle.
Now that ShopRite has been added to the local supermarket mix, customers should expect to see more competitive activity and more aggressive pricing, he said.
Mona Golub, spokeswoman for Golub Corp., parent of Price Chopper, said Price Chopper and ShopRite have similar business models.
“We, like ShopRite, are what’s called promotional merchants, meaning that every week we feature a fresh selection of products at deep-discounted feature prices, as opposed to the Hannafords and the Walmarts that tend to feature everyday low prices, as they call it, which is usually an intermediary price between our everyday prices and our deep-discounted weekly feature prices, so it’s common for ShopRite and Price Chopper to operate on the same type of promotional program, if you will,” she said.
She denied that there was any sort of lobster price war going on between Price Chopper and ShopRite but said: “We work week to week to entice customers and put attractive offers in our ads and in our stores, featuring the items that they’re looking for most when they’re looking for them, at the prices that they would like to pay for them, and that’s the nature of the way we run our business.”
Spokesman Eric Blom confirmed that Hannaford tries to keep prices down consistently throughout the store.
“When a company runs a promotional special, there can be substantial differences in price during that promotional period, but we’re confident that our prices are low across the store, the whole market basket of products, over time,” he said.
Seafood lovers also can take advantage of low lobster prices at a number of local restaurants.
The price of a lobster dinner at Reel Seafood Co. in Colonie will be $7 less starting Sunday, to reflect the drop in the market price for lobster, said executive chef James Simmons.
Until then, the lobster plate, which includes a 11⁄4-pound lobster, a side dish and bread and butter, is $34.95. Starting Sunday, a lobster bake that includes the same size lobster, plus mussels, clams, sausage and corn on the cob, will cost $27.95.
The lower price of live lobster has also inspired a surf and turf special that will appear on the menu at Angelo’s 677 Prime in Albany during July and August, said Jaime Ortiz, corporate executive chef for Mazzone Hospitality. The special, which is $45, will include a choice of three of the following courses: an appetizer, a 4-ounce lobster tail, a 6-ounce fillet, and dessert.
The cost of a lobster dinner at Jack’s Oyster House in Albany has also come down, said operations manager Carl Swinyer. The lobsters served there are 21⁄2 pounds in size, and the prices don’t fluctuate for lobsters of that size as much as they do for smaller ones, he noted. Nonetheless, the price of the lobster plate at Jack’s has been known to fluctuate by as much as $10. Right now, at $49.99, it’s a little less expensive than usual, he said.
Holly Schramek, manager of Matt’s Cape House in Halfmoon, said the price her restaurant pays for lobster isn’t a bargain at the moment.
“In the very beginning of the lobster season this summer they were down low. We were getting lobsters for like $4.95 to $5.50 a pound and now they’re back up to $6.95,” she said. Prices are better in the grocery stores because they buy in bulk, she said.
“They get a better deal than us little Joe Schmos who are only buying for our restaurant, so it’s a little bit harder,” she said.