Cheese is an easy sell. In 2008, dairy products (excluding milk) were the second-best sellers at grocery stores, just below milk. Private-label dairy products sold more than $7 billion, which was a 16 percent increase over 2007, according to Chicago-based market research firm Mintel. But for foodies looking to go beyond standard mozzarella, thoughtful product selection and merchandising can make a difference. Building a profitable cheese section—one that entices customers, fulfills their needs and satisfies their palates—takes dedication and time. Consider the following tips to ensure your cheese set is set.
Tantalize with textures and types
Your cheese assortment needs to please all of your gourmet customers’ palates. First step: Make a strong showing with best-selling cheeses, such as cheddars, blues, Goudas, fresh mozzarellas, hard cheese and soft-ripened cheeses. Build on this foundation by adding regional favorites, such as fresh cheeses, washed rinds, fetas, cream cheeses and flavored spreads. Because flavor profiles vary within cheese types (e.g., blues range from creamy and mild to dry and piquant), offer a selection of profiles. And go for all ages—young Goudas are buttery, while the aged types are sharp with a flavor that keeps on coming. Make room for flavored cheddars and jacks too.
Mix up the milks
Cow, sheep, goat and mixed-milk cheeses all deserve a home in your cheese set. Due to high demand, cow’s milk cheeses will make up the bulk of your selections. However, many customers now look specifically for goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses. Mixed-milk cheeses can introduce your customers to new selections and ease the transition. Consider all of the milk types for your cheddars, jacks, Goudas, blues and hard and soft-ripened varieties. Clearly marking milk type on labels and signs is key to providing great customer service. Consumers will tend to shop the “Goat Cheese” section, given the growing popularity of this type.
To pique customers’ interest, showcase staff favorites each week. Use an eye-catching display and include a well-written, brief description of your “Pick of the Week.” Make sure to give your staff talking points on different cheeses so they can answer questions. Also, rotate in new and specialty cheeses so you have the opportunity to educate customers, who will love seeing something new each time they visit your department. Be the cheese specialist for your customers.
Price by piece
A wide assortment of sizes and price points appeals to customers and can increase both first-time sales and repeat sales. Often, customers are interested in trying a cheese, but are wary of making a pricey commitment. Smaller pieces coupled with informative signs will attract an adventuresome first-time customer. Always stock a few larger pieces for repeat sales and for those shopping for entertaining. When larger pieces remain, they are easily cut down into smaller ones, keeping your stock rotated and fresh. Many customers focus more on the price per piece than the price per pound—they know how much is in their budget that day for specialty cheeses. Experiment to determine the amount your customers are willing to spend per piece and cut accordingly.
Know what’s hot and stock it. Farmstead, grassfed and closed-herd cheeses are popular. Keep on top of what’s going on in the industry and in your community. Are your shoppers asking for certain cheese varieties? Be sure to offer customers their standard go-tos while you continue to educate and romance them with new products for increased sales. Building a great cheese set is challenging, but can be financially rewarding when you make it a destination for both the everyday shopper and the adventuresome.
Nancy Kelly Weimer lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., where she is a food writer and the food service director for New Leaf Community Markets.