Managing Your Cheese Section
The cheese stands alone,
Is there some highly specialized biological function that says as fall's cooler weather approaches you must turn the oven on and bake something with cheese? It's a fact -- cheese consumption increases as the temperature outside decreases. We humans have a biological craving for foods that are higher in fat and calories. Why fight it? Customers count on their retailer to anticipate their every desire. When the fall cheese craving hits, your cheese department should be ready, well-stocked and beautifully merchandised with all the familiar and specialty cheeses customers want and need.
Fall and early winter is the time of year the cheese department can "pay the rent" for your store. Cheese sales will automatically increase --typically 15-20 percent over summer sales figures -- coinciding with the harvest of heartier vegetables and winter squashes and the body's need for heavier foods, thus providing you with an excellent opportunity to benefit from what happens naturally.
As with any department in your store, a successful and profitable cheese section depends on product selection and mix, display, pricing, customer base, promotion, and knowledgeable staff. Attractive and creative presentation, the right product at the right price, and staff educated in the products draw and retain customers.
The amount of attention given to a department is directly proportional to the amount of revenue that department generates. Fall and early winter are natural seasons and natural reasons to focus extra attention on your cheese department, since your customers are most likely headed that direction anyway.
A frequently changing cheese display reflects energy, creativity and care, and it generates interest and sales. "Frequently" is subjective -- change the display often enough to avoid boredom, but not so frequently that the customer is confused. In most areas of the country, product mix can be rotated quarterly, coinciding with the four seasons.
As the weather changes, it may be time to cut back on the summer fetas, processed spreads, and dill jack cheeses. Fall and early winter's cooler weather means making more room for the buttery Havartis and Goudas, the best cheddars, classic Camemberts and Bries, doubleand triple-creams, imports from France, England and Italy, and specialty domestic and locally made cheeses.
Of course you will continue to stock the basic: cheddars of every color, age, and fat and salt content, colby, monterey jack, mozzarella, pepperjack, swiss (mild and aged), and string (plain and smoked). But now is the time to offer the imported and specialty cheeses your adventurous customers are willing to experiment with and spend extra money for.
A successful cheese merchandiser arranges cheeses so that every cut appears to its full advantage and invites purchase. There are perhaps a million ways to do this. As you apply display techniques you'll discover what works for your store and your customers.
Basic elements ofdisplay include color, signage, and a look of fullness. An appealing cheese display looks abundant with varying colors -- creamy white to pumpkin orange -- diverse cuts, shapes and sizes of cheese, and colorful and thoughtfully placed signage. A staff person can't always be available to provide information or answer questions. Hand-lettered signs can offer basic facts and suggest uses for the more unusual or unfamiliar cheeses.
Displaying both full wheels and cut pieces gives the illusion of deli-style cut-to-order cheeses. Arrange pre-cut, wrapped cheese wedges on top of a full wheel. This works especially well with Jarlsberg and Reggiano parmesan. You can achieve the same effect with smaller, less expensive cheeses too, such as Brie or English Cotswold. Cut wedges of Brie and Camembert are lovely when they are wrapped with the original label and placed back in the wooden box they arrived in. Use the product's original labels when you can -- especially the imported and specialty ones.
Bright cloth square napkins provide colorful accents and contrasts and help alleviate that monochromatic yellow look. Napkins can be draped inside baskets of cut cheese or placed under them.
Seasonal themes can be the basis of an attractive display as well as crossmerchandising. Use the familiar "back to school" (string cheese and cheddar with apples), or highlight cheese by country of origin -- for instance, France (Brie, Camembert, Gruyere, Mimolet), Italy (Reggiano parmesan, Bel Paese), England (Stilton, cheddar, Caerphilly). Lay out the flag of the country featured, just as Jeff Smith of "The Frugal Gourmet" does.
Cross-merchandise cheese with bread, nuts, wine or non-alcoholic festive beverages, crisp and juicy fruits like Bosc or Bartlett pears orlocal apples (sharp cheddars), cookies (flavored Neufchatel) and crackers (anything goes). Convincing cross-merchandising will easily sell a case of cookies or crackers, not to mention cheese, in a few hours.
Sampling sells cheese
What attracts sales more than sampling? Having a local cheese maker demo product in-house is always an effective promotional event. Passive self-serve sampling of cheese cubes can also dramatically in ease interest and sales, as long as it is diligently tended. But nothing is worse for your store's image than an empty plate of used toothpicks and that one lonely dried out unidentifiable cheese cube. Sampling with recipe cards and a prepared dish is popular, as is having a few cookbooks for sale nearby.
Odds and ends
Good cheeses need to look good. Keep them wrapped, keep them fresh, and keep them only as long as they look appetizing. Nothing turns a customer's head faster than green or rusty looking cheese: yuk. Keep strong and mild cheeses separated, since mild cheeses quickly absorb the smells and tastes of their stronger sisters.
Visit other retailers and delis and farmers markets to stimulate your creativity. Take note of what attracts you and what doesn't seem to work. And please, periodically change your matting -- there is no law that says it has to be green -- and wash it often.
Retailers, take advantage of distributor specials! Distributors tend to follow a regular schedule of promotions, offering the same cheese on sale the same month each year. Most cheese distributors are willing to work a customized special with you if what you want to promote isn't on their list that particular month.
Cut and price cheeses to the size customers are comfortable with -- generally the $3 - 4.00 range -- instead of attempting to make every piece uniform in size. For instance, a saleable cut of mild cheddar or colby will be approximately 1/2#. A cut of Stilton or Reggiano parmesan will be smaller.
Pricing cheeses for your market is tricky and seemingly individual to every store. Some retailers add margin points to staple items they know will sell in order to lower the price on more expensive cheeses not carried year-round. Others feel it is important to keep good prices on popular, utilitarian cheeses and price those to move quickly. Proximity of competition is also a factor. Margin goals vary from 28 to 40 percent, with 32 percent being the average. It is perfectly acceptable to vary your margin by specific cheeses in order to achieve your over all margin goal. You'll want to discover what works for your customers in your store in your location.
Your staff plays an important role in creating a strong market for specialty and lessser known cheeses by displaying knowledge and resourcefulness in their department. Encourage all workers to sample cheese so that they are comfortable describing particular qualities to customers. Customers come to trust your staff. Training and education pay off in increased customer confidence and satisfaction.
Here are helpful general reference books that you may want in your library:
The Cheese Book: A Definitive Guide To Cheeses Of The World, by Vivienne Marquis and Patricia Haskell. Published by Simon & Schuster, New York.
The Comlete Book Of Cheese, by Bob Brown. Published by Gramercy Publishing Company, New York. Corny -- or should I say "cheesy" -- puns and poems, hokey drawings, and 65 recipes for rarebit/rabbit.
The World Atlas Of Cheese, by Nancy Eekhof-Stork. Published by Two Continents Publishing Group. An indispensable huge atlas of historical data, illustrated references, folklore, and colorful photos and maps that tell you more about the cheeses of the world than you'll ever have a reason to know.
Cheese department managers can also ask local cheese distributors and trade associations for general background and for educational, promotional, and storage information:
- National Dairy Board (703/528-4800)
- Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (608/255-2027), a regulatory and lobbying board;
- Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (608/836-8820), promotional and educational materials.
Although cheese in general has been around forever -- revered in Egyptian hieroglyphic texts and the Old Testament -- make sure that yours isn't. To wrap up the fall and holiday season profitably, it is wise to reduce the number of higher priced specialty cheeses on your shelves. Sales plummet on January 2. Who knows why? At any rate, be sure the specialty and imported cheeses are gone by then. It may be time to feature low-fat, low-salt, non-dairy cheeses for a month or so.
Customer buying patterns can be tracked month to month and season to season. Accurately recording what sells when can help you better anticipate shifts in shopping habits. And anticipating customer needs and stocking accordingly is what it's all about, right?
Ode to Cheese
by M. Thomas Braun (translated by Jethro Bithell)
God of the country, bless today Thy cheese,
For which we give Thee thanks on bended knees.
Let them be fat or light, with onions blent,
Shallots, brine, pepper, honey; whether scent
Of sheep or fields is in them, in the yard
Let them, good Lord, at dawn be beaten hard.
And let their edges take on silvery shades
Under the moist red hands of dairymaids;
And round and greenish, let them go to town
Weighing the sheperd's folding mantle down;
Whether from Parma or from Jura heights,
Kneaded by august hands of Carmelites,
Stamped with the mitre of a proud abbess.
Flowered with the perfumes of the grass of Bresse,
From hollow Holland, from the Vosges, from Brie,
From Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Italy!
Bless them, good Lord! Bless Stilton's royal fare,
Red Cheshire, and the tearful cream Gruyers.