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Changing cheeses: The same old American loaves don't cut it anymore for supermarket operators who want to sell more cheese through their service delis. (Supermarket Fresh Food Business).

Although consumers seem to have developed an almost insatiable demand for cheese, many retailers are failing to capitalize on the opportunity because they're still hung up -- that a on the American cheese loaves account for the majority of cheese sales in the service deli.

Observers say retailers that better leverage the might of muenster, the pull of ripened provolone, and the allure of aged cheddar have excellent opportunities to make their in-store delis stand out. Increasing variety and sharpening merchandising and promotional efforts are effective ways to boost returns from a department where a high percentage of sales are based on impulse, they point out.

David Leonhardi, director of marketing services for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, says variety is the hallmark of a high volume cheese operation. "But a lot of the variety in the average supermarket has been driven by the cut-and-wrap case rather than the service case," he says. "And the amazing part of that is the deli department exists to help the retailer compete in the foodservice arena, yet most retailers really haven't captured the total potential that cheese offers behind the counter.

Noting American consumers' affection for sandwiches, Leonhardi says, "Retailers do a great job bundling things, particularly around the holidays. But most don't bundle high quality meats and deli cheeses on an everyday basis. Further, they're not bundling meat, cheese, and artisan breads. Why nor?"

While most operators "have covered the basics very well by doing a wonderful job of selling white or yellow American cheese, Swiss, and mild cheddars from the loaf, they seem to avoid adding and/or promoting the more unique varieties," says Leonhardi. He attributes that to the higher risk of shrink.

"Obviously," he says, "shrink is a huge concern in the deli. But what costs more, sampling a pound out of every loaf or throwing two pounds out because it doesn't sell?" Because the deli has such high impulse sales, shoppers there are most willing to try new things if they're given the opportunity, he says.

"Offering quality customer service--from correct product handling to effective signage to added-value items--is key, especially in service departments," says Leonhardi.

Cheese has almost universal appeal, and Leonhardi says many consumers are seeking our new varieties and higher quality products from around the globe. "People buy cheese because it hits on all the senses, but the sensory experience doesn't transfer to customers through a glass case," he says, adding that shoppers appreciate being guided to new cheese experiences "by putting it in their mouth."

Boutique merchandising

As consumers have learned more about cheese, the demand for artisan and farmstead cheeses has grown, says Ellen Kreimendahl, fresh food coordinator for Hen House Markets. Farmstead cheeses are made from the milk of the producer's own herd.

The trend has led many aggressive retailers like Kansas City, Kan.-based Hen House to develop a boutique concept of merchandising, labeling a special area of the store as the "cheese cellar." This approach lends itself especially well to unique displays and theme promotions that keep consumers' interest and expectations high, according to Kreimendahl.

"We have really put a big emphasis on cheese shops within our stores," she says. "Each month we highlight a particular cheese, which we will tell customers about both in stores and on our Web site. More importantly, we invite them to come into our stores and taste them so that they can discover their own repertoire of favorites."

In addition to a large and diverse selection of domestic cheeses that Hen House has always carried, Kreimendahl says, the company has begun focusing on building an increased variety of new farmstead varieties, ethnic specialties, and imports. "The variety and quality continues to grow, as does our excitement, along with the public's interest and consumption," she says, citing data from the U.S. Dairy Export Council that annual cheese consumption in the United States is reaching 30 pounds per capita and growing.

"This interest can be seen in upscale restaurants, many of which have added sophisticated cheese plates, trays, and courses to their menus," says Kreimendahl, noting that restaurants are cropping up that are built completely around the concept of cheese.

On the Web

Mike Kempton, Hen House's director of deli and bakery, selects the cheese of the month, while Bonnie Winston, culinary concepts developer, researches the featured item for the Web site, where customers can learn about its history, production region, and variations. Winston also develops pairings to promote with the featured cheese and creates recipes and usage ideas to further boost sales.

In light of consumers' willingness to experiment and seek out new products, WMMB's Leonhardi says there are several new varieties that can help boost sales in the service deli, raising total store volume while posing little risk of reducing cheese purchases in the dairy case.

Savory and full-flavored varieties are showing especially strong growth, he says. Among them are aged provolone, aged cheddars, and flavor-infused horseradish and spicy pepper cheeses, as well as fresh mozzarella in water.

"Some retailers are also making nice inroads by expanding to baby Swiss lines," Leonhardi says, and there's movement toward stocking better-tasting, figure-friendly varieties. Traditional Danish havarti is getting the cold shoulder, however, because it doesn't slice well. "There are a few manufacturers who make a Danish-style havarti from Wisconsin that does slice well," he says, adding that it's in retailers' best interest to make the effort to find our who's making new products for the deli case.

Leonhardi cautions retailers seeking to harness the power of cheese for the service deli not to make a huge task of it. "Add one or two new cheeses every quarter, and in time you may have doubled the amount of variety in your case in a relatively easy fashion," he advises. "In this regard, you've done it gradually by educating your service staff and making educated decisions on where the space is going to come from."

Once the new varieties are in the case, it's not time to relax. "Do something creative with it rather than just letting it sit there," Leonhardi urges deli managers. Manufacturers and distributors are good sources of ideas on how to make cheese even more appealing to its growing legions of fans, he says.
The trend is up

U.S. per capita cheese consumption


1980      17.5
1985      22.5
1990      24.6
1995      26.9
2000 *    29.8
2005 **   33.0

* Preliminary estimate

** Projected, based on 1995-2000 CAGR of 2.07%

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

RELATED ARTICLE: How to move your cheese

The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board has a number of suggestions for maximizing cheese sales in the deli.

Sampling is a great way to start. Offering customers a taste of a new cheese takes some of the perceived risk out of the purchase decision. Don't forget to sample familiar cheeses, too. Offer a vertical tasting of cheddar--mild, medium, and sharp--to remind customers of the differences and to suggest new uses or recipes.

Here are some tips for successful sampling:

* Prepare associates to sample and sell. Explain and demonstrate to them how you want them to interact with customers.

* Sample during peak traffic times.

* Wear gloves when offering samples. An apron also presents a clean image.

* Sample three varieties of cheese at a time for small departments and six for large ones.

* Signs should tell your customers which cheese variety they are sampling and give them information such as place of origin, price, and dates of the sale period. Complete signage is especially important for self-sampling.

* Hang a sign in the cheese department that says, "Please ask for a sample."

* For demonstrations, print information on the back of the sign that can be used by the person doing the demo.

* Provide trash containers for toothpicks and napkins.

* Neutral bread or crackers are best for sampling; they allow consumers to experience the full flavor of the cheese.

* Place recipes, serving suggestions, and coupons near samples.

Here are some other ways to keep your customers interested in cheese all year round:

Develop special promotions. Use customer contests and in-store events to influence purchasing decisions. Use a theme, such as a holiday, graduation, or a celebration of one variety of cheese. Play up seasonal themes like fall, Lent, National Dairy Month, and football season. Other promotional events could include sampling a featured cheese, cooking demos, cheese cutting, and cheese carving.

Set up contests. To attract shoppers to the cheese display, ask them to guess the weight of a large cheese or how many quarts of milk go into a mammoth cheddar. Prizes might include a wedge of cheese, a grater, or a gift certificate for a cheese tray.

Use good signage. In the deli area, a sign can be one of your most effective sales tools, constantly greeting customers and motivating them to buy. Use the back of the sign that faces employees for diagrams, servings, and other data. Additional information, such as pronunciation, helps employees talk intelligently with customers.

Signs for the deli case should include the following: cheese name, place of origin, description, pairing and serving suggestions, price, and nutrition information.

Cross-merchandise. Displaying items that complement the cheeses--from serving plates to condiments--is the single most effective way to increase sales of high-end cheese and other dairy and grocery items.

New look for a familiar face

LAND O'LAKES has spruced up the packaging on its deli cheeses to go along with the new look for all of its products and to reflect the company's new tagline, "Where simple goodness begins."

"The reaction among deli managers has been extremely positive," says Lydia Botham, director of public relations/communications for Arden Hills, Minn.-based Land O'Lakes. "Research has shown that over half of deli shoppers say that having a brand they know and trust is very important to their purchase decisions. Our new deli cheese packages put one of the world's most recognized trademarks back in front of deli consumers' eyes in a big, bold way."

The farmer-owned co-op developed another consumer-focused initiative for its Alpine Lace healthy deli cheese and meat line. "A Delicious Slice of Life" was designed to build awareness among deli shoppers seeking "something new, different, and healthy," says Botham.

The promotion features a point-of-sale leaflet with healthy sandwich recipes. A tropical ham and Swiss sandwich and a turkey and cheese chive hoagie are two of the combinations of Alpine Lace products with other store ingredients. In most markets, the leaflet also includes a coupon for $1 off Alpine Lace deli products.

Other marketing tools include static clings for the deli counter that highlight the nutritional value of the products, as well as the company's coupons and ad slicks that allow stores to create their own ads and in-store promotion materials.

Fresh Food editor Me Major can be reached at
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Comment:Changing cheeses: The same old American loaves don't cut it anymore for supermarket operators who want to sell more cheese through their service delis. (Supermarket Fresh Food Business).
Author:Major, Meg
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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