SEATTLE -- The time is ripe to take a sharp look at what cheese can do for the supermarket deli.
That's how fresh-foods consultant Paige Lamb sees it.
"There's a lot of money to be made. I'm not saying supermarkets aren't making money with cheese, but they could be making so much more," said Lamb.
Known in the industry for her merchandising and cheese expertise, Lamb successfully put cheese to work as a sales-and-profit-builder at the highly respected Larry's Markets here.
Before leaving Larry's nearly two years ago, Lamb was director of the six-unit, upscale retailer's Market Kitchen, which encompasses the specialty cold deli and cheese shop in each store. She now has her own consulting firm, The Food Paige, based here.
"We made hundreds of thousands of dollars with cheese at Larry's. We sold as much as $10,000 worth in a day at one store during the holidays," Lamb said.
She called the product category a potential "cash cow," because of its growing popularity. She said chefs are increasingly using interesting cheeses in their creations and the consumer press is writing about them, both of which pique people's cheese awareness.
"You can hardly pick up a magazine these days that doesn't have a feature story about cheese," Lamb said.
She urged supermarket operators to re-evaluate how they're treating cheese in the deli because it often doesn't get the attention it needs to bloom as a money-maker, she said.
A carefully selected product mix, stop-them-in-their-tracks displays, aggressive promotions, descriptive signage, tight control of inventory, some service and a dab of creativity are all part of the success recipe, she said.
Lamb has a formula, too, for beginning a cheese-section revamp.
"First, I would do a market survey of the competition, then establish a mission statement, and figure out where I want to take my customers," she said.
She pointed out that different retailers use cheese in different ways.
"For example, Trader Joe's mission is to have the lowest price. They want to move volume. On the other hand, Larry's looks to offer full-service and carry the most unique products to attract customers."
The goal should be to make the cheese section a destination, and that can be done with interesting products, price, super service, and/or the perception that staffers know what's what when it comes to cheese, Lamb added.
Any amount of added service will help increase sales, she stressed. Cheese sales soared by as much as 25% at some units of Larry's Markets when a full-service cheese counter was inaugurated.
In an ideal world, Lamb said, a supermarket cheese section would be incorporated in the deli, would be part self-service and part service, and would be staffed by well-trained employees who constantly educate customers so they'll keep trading up.
She conceded that not every store can support a full-service cheese counter. But any of them could add a measure of service by situating their cheese displays for maximum effect, she said.
"For example, bringing the cheese case in line with the service deli can help. At least there's someone behind the counter to talk to customers if they have questions," she said.
If the display is in an island case, moving it closer to the deli could help, she added. "Also, it's necessary to make one person responsible for it. Otherwise it gets forgotten," Lamb said. A staffer tending the display and stocking it frequently gives a perception of service, too.
Service, in whatever degree is practical, could be the key to success, Lamb said. The most obvious reason is that staffers can "romance" the cheese by describing the various types, offering samples and serving suggestions. But what's just as important -- if they're properly trained -- is that they're caring for the cheeses.
"That's why it's important to have one person responsible for the cheese display, whether it's a service counter or a self-service case. They need to know the ages of the cheeses and when to rotate them," she said.
Before choosing the types of cheese to sell, Lamb suggests doing a market survey in the area surrounding each store.
"First, find out who your competition is, what they're carrying, and what the prices are. See what kind of restaurants are nearby," she said.
The types of restaurants, and their menus, offer valuable insight into what people in a particular market area are looking for, she said.
"For example, if it's all fast-food restaurants, then it'll be simple. Don't try to go too much higher than Colbys, and cheddar and Swiss, at first. You'll have to start at square one with your customers.
"But if you're in an established upscale restaurant area, find out if they're doing anything with cheese. Restaurants are pace-setters with just about everything all over the country. Retailers usually lag a season to two years behind the restaurants," Lamb said.
She said that when Larry's added garlic-Parmesan mashed potatoes to its food-service menus five years ago it was because the chain saw they were popular in San Francisco restaurants.
"Now everybody has a version of garlic-Parm potatoes," she said.
She also advised taking careful note of what other supermarkets and specialty stores in the area are offering in order to set oneself apart from them.
"I'd look to see what the competition is offering. Do private label so you're not competing brand on brand or offer, or get some unique cheeses, items the competition doesn't have. I'd capture the part of the market that isn't being taken care of," she said.
Lamb also suggested asking distributors, from the big ones to the smaller specialty distributors, for a list of their top-moving cheeses in particular areas to identify local tastes in cheeses.
The product mix, too, should be a combination that will generate both sales volume and a good gross margin for the whole category, Lamb said. "It's a balancing act. You could bring in a full pallet of Brie, get it young, at a great price, and then build a big display, and sell it for a hot price. We've done that with a French Brie and sold it for $4.99 a pound. Or bring in whole blocks of cheddar and cut it in full-pound pieces, and make a display that will stop customers in their tracks," she added. A great product at a great price can make the department a destination. So can bringing in small quantities of specialty cheeses on a regular basis. "For example, if you have something new and interesting at a special price each week and let people know it'll happen every week, you don't even have to let them know what it is. They'll come in to see what it is. It could be a deal on pecorino one week, something else the next." Building at least one display so it hits customers at eye-level is a must, too, she said.
"Often I see cheese displays in cases so low that people just look right over them," Lamb said.
She's also a proponent of creative promotions, especially those with a theme, and those that have a personal touch.
For example, Lamb said she's created excitement in the cheese department by bringing the maker of particular farmstead cheeses into the store for a "Meet the Maker Day." She also suggests making a deal with chefs at nearby restaurants so one of their recipes is featured at the store's cheese case. In return, the chef could tag menu items at his restaurant to tell customers what specific types of cheese his creations contain. "For example, an item that has buttermilk blue in it," Lamb said, pointing out that will help raise consumers' awareness of different types of cheese -- and spur them to look for them when they're grocery shopping.
"I'm also a huge believer in cross merchandising in the cheese department, but not with props. Everything should be for sale, like tacos or bread or cookbooks," she said.
Lamb also is a strong advocate of descriptive signage in the cheese case, both to identify products and to tell customers about products they may not be familiar with.
"I like to create sections within the case like the 'Swiss' and 'Italian' section. And then, signage, for example, can tell customers that baby Swiss is made with whole milk and is creamier because of that, and therefore melts well. Or an Emmenthaler browns nicely. That's information people can use when they're using them in cooking," Lamb said.
"A sign that says, 'Try baby Swiss for a good melting cheese,' makes it easier for the customer to select," she added.
Informative signs are a necessity, particularly if cheese displays are entirely self-service, Lamb stressed.
"If you don't have a sales staff, then you need very good signage. If you put English farmhouse cheddar in your case without a sign telling people what it is, and how to use it, you'll just watch it sit there," she said.
Lamb also recommends bringing in a different specialty cheese in relatively small amounts once a month and putting the spotlight on it.
"Remember that you can get them in small quantities," Lamb said as she warned against a tendency to over-inventory. "Everything should be in the case. If you have cheddar on sale for two weeks, you should make enough space for it out front. Make a bigger display. If you put it in the back cooler, you're paying for inventory longer than is necessary. And there's the possibility the product will get abused at store-level.
"Put everything out for sale. You've got to build big displays, but the case needs to change. You don't want customers to see the same thing every week. They get bored," Lamb said. She emphasized the importance of keeping track of what sells, but also warned against applying category management too strictly in the deli cheese category.
"You have to be careful not to eliminate the bottom sellers. I know on some of the specialty items, they may not go fast, but they could be unique. They could be what's making your department a destination. Fifty people could be coming into your store just for those products," Lamb said.
If a supermarket eliminates those specialty items because they're not top sellers, it will eventually be getting back to offering just Colby, cheddar and Swiss again, she said.
"Then it gets boring. Your customers might as well go to the dairy wall for their cheese," Lamb said.