POLL SHOWS IMPORTANCE OF SAMPLING SPECIALTY CHEESES

MADISON, Wis. -- Consumer data contained in a new Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board survey supports what retailers have been saying for years -- that sampling specialty cheeses is particularly crucial.Given the wide spectrum of flavors and textures, the category can be mysterious and consumers need to be offered a taste to get them to buy anything different, retailers have told SN. Without knowing what

MADISON, Wis. -- Consumer data contained in a new Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board survey supports what retailers have been saying for years -- that sampling specialty cheeses is particularly crucial.

Given the wide spectrum of flavors and textures, the category can be mysterious and consumers need to be offered a taste to get them to buy anything different, retailers have told SN. Without knowing what a new cheese tastes like, consumers will stick to buying familiar cheeses.

Indeed, more than half of the respondents indicated they probably won't buy an unfamiliar variety of cheese without having the opportunity to taste it first, according to the WMMB-sponsored online poll of 400 consumers who are primary grocery shoppers. Even among those who described themselves as "cheese lovers," more than half (54.6%) said they might not buy or try new varieties without having tasted them because, "I'm afraid I'll make the wrong choice and won't like the taste."

The WMMB poll found that six out of 10 respondents answered "stores" when asked, "At what location do you typically try new varieties of cheese?" The second largest number of respondents (57%) said "parties/catered events." While well over half the respondents in the 40-to-54 age group said stores are where they're most apt to try new cheeses, the largest number of respondents in the 25-to-39 age group said they typically try new varieties at parties/catered events. Stores, however, were a close second for the group. Across eating behavior groups -- from "cheese lovers" on down to "loyalists," defined as consumers who eat only one type of cheese -- the largest number in each group answered "stores."

"That's not a surprise," said Michel Bray, manager, specialty cheeses, at 107-unit Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y. "In fact, it's almost a given. People expect to try new cheeses in our department. We sample new varieties all the time. I tell our people to get something different out there. Get it in the customer's mouth. Not cheddar. We know we can sell that. This week we have Beligioioso extra-sharp provolone in our ad and we'll definitely be sampling that."

Cheese guru Steven Jenkins, author of "The Cheese Primer," and a member of senior management at Fairway Markets, New York, said he gets a lot of vendor support for active demos, which are just about a daily event at Fairway.

"There's no question that aggressive, proactive sampling is meritorious. It works. People are loathe to make a decision. The easiest choice is the one proffered," Jenkins said.

Jenkins also is a big advocate of explanatory signs and product cards that describe the flavor and texture and tell customers what goes well with a particular cheese.

Kowalski's Markets at its flagship Woodbury, Minn., store samples two types of cheese every day.

"Even though we have a slew of artisan cheese makers right nearby in Wisconsin, we in the Midwest have a little trouble selling artisanal cheese," said Scott Zeinert, cheese specialist, at 11-unit Kowalski's. "We always try to sample a couple of the varieties that have a higher price tag. If the customer isn't certain about a cheese, he won't buy it without tasting it."

Zeinert is scheduled to conduct a consumer class at Kowalski's later this fall that will focus on creating an interesting cheese platter -- just in time for holiday entertaining.

Another piece of information from the WMMB survey indicated customers want to know where the cheese they're buying comes from. In fact, 68% of respondents said they want a symbol to identify the origin of their cheeses. Wisconsin cheeses for the most part carry a WMMB symbol that indicates they're made in Wisconsin and WMMB provides stickers with their logo.

Some retailers go further than revealing what state or country a cheese originates in. For example, Jenkins pointed out that at Fairway, he tells customers what region within a state or a country -- for example what region of Italy -- a cheese comes from. That's done via signs and verbally.

Bray at Price Chopper told SN that it's been a good year for sales of cheeses made in this country. Lately in fact, domestic cheeses have been outselling imported ones, he said. The WMMB survey showed that eight in 10 consumers say they love cheese and would welcome more information about varieties of cheese made in America. A whopping 60% of those polled named Wisconsin as the geographic location most associated with cheese.