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Natural consumers flock to the dairy case for artisanal cheeses, personalized assistance and experiential shopping.

Jenna Blumenfeld, Freelancer

November 16, 2015

3 Min Read
The big cheese opportunity

Your dedicated shoppers won’t touch those orange Kraft Singles of their childhood. But a carefully crafted, sustainably made cheese? They’re in.

Despite the popularity of paleo and vegan eating—diets that prohibit all dairy products—cheese sales are still grate (sorry). According to SPINS, in the 52 weeks ending Aug. 9, 2015, cheese accounted for 85 percent of total cheese and cheese alternative sales, while nondairy cheese substitutes comprised just 11.5 percent of overall sales. Plus, while sales of packaged cheese in the conventional channel grew at a glacial 4.3 percent over the last 12 months, natural channel growth hit a solid 14.7 percent.

Why such growth for this staple grocery product? As shoppers seek to reduce their consumption of meat for health, environmental or animal welfare reasons, responsibly crafted cheese helps bridge the gap between vegan and omnivore diets. Cheese makes the goal of eating less meat easier.

But improved sales aren’t the only reason to have a robust cheese case or counter.

Thanks to cheese’s nuanced flavors, natural retailers have a unique opportunity to educate their shoppers about cheese terroir. “A robust cheese display is a significant point of differentiation for natural retailers,” says Tristan O’Neill, perishables buyer for Hawthorne Valley Farm Store, located in Ghent, New York. “It’s an important department for us to mature because many conventional grocers don’t have the infrastructure at the store level to do what we do.”

O’Neill adds that being able to curate a cheese selection based upon the producer, farming practices, region of origin, flavor profile and pairing suggestions allows him and his staff to meaningfully engage and educate their shoppers. “This responsibility leaves us well-informed to answer whatever questions customers might throw our way.” After a good experience at the cheese counter, shoppers leave the store with a sense of excitement and discovery.

Merchandise specific cheeses with pairing suggestions such as fruits, crackers, olives, nuts and wine, and customers will view cheese as something to savor, appreciate and discuss.

Cheese means more

Cheese can also serve as a conduit to expressing your store’s values and mission. Do you aim to support conscious businesses? Dairies spanning from Vermont to California help build small towns by providing jobs in areas that are typically rural and at risk for high unemployment rates.

The 1984-founded Vermont Creamery, for example, works with Evergreen Conservation Partners (ECP), a low-profit organization that provides on-site training to students interested in goat dairy farming to “foster jobs and agricultural economic development opportunities throughout the Northeast,” according to ECP. Vermont Creamery is dedicated to supporting communities by buying milk from dairy farmers who follow exemplary sustainable and environmentally sound practices. Likewise, the California-based Cypress Grove contributes a percentage of annual profits to nonprofits that support women, youth and education in Humboldt County.

And unlike produce, which in most regions is just available locally in the warmer months, cheese does not have a specific peak month—it’s a year-round product. Even if your store is based in New Hampshire, cheese allows your shoppers to still buy local even in winter.

About the Author(s)

Jenna Blumenfeld


Jenna Blumenfeld lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she reports on the natural products industry, sustainable agriculture, and all things plant based. 

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