THE VALUE OF EDUCATION

A little education can go a long way when you're trying to convince consumers to try an unfamiliar -- and pricey -- specialty cheese.While upscale deli cheese cases are a destination for many cheese-loving shoppers, retail executives told SN they need promotional programs centered on education to increase trial among nonusers."There are such a variety of cheeses and they all have good potential. But

A little education can go a long way when you're trying to convince consumers to try an unfamiliar -- and pricey -- specialty cheese.

While upscale deli cheese cases are a destination for many cheese-loving shoppers, retail executives told SN they need promotional programs centered on education to increase trial among nonusers.

"There are such a variety of cheeses and they all have good potential. But you've got to tell people what to do with them," said an executive with a Midwestern retail chain who asked not to be named.

"We've done focus groups recently. The No. 1 reason people don't buy cheeses, other than the common varieties of cheese such as Swiss and American, is that they don't know what to do with them."

Higher priced specialty cheeses, especially more sharply flavored and aged items, have been growing in popularity, in some cases virtually unassisted, said retailers. But with prices of $5.99 and more per pound, a further increase in sales could be a real boon to the deli department's bottom line.

That is why more retailers are beginning to heavily promote specialty cheeses using in-store signs, sampling and demo programs that highlight serving suggestions.

Rod Cox, director of deli at Morgan's Holiday Markets, Cottonwood, Calif., said while sales of specialty cheeses do better in upscale regions than in some others, ignorance about a product limits sales more than price.

Consumers need to be educated on how to use specialty cheeses, he said. "They are fearful of trying something new."

A few years ago, Morgan's carried only five or six varieties of specialty cheese. Today it offers about 25, said Cox. "So we have gone a long way with it, and it is like any product. You have to push it, and educate your people on it."

The Midwestern retailer said he promoted Havarti in his stores by showing a photo of a pear next to a slice of cheese. A sign next to the photo read, "Goes well with pears." He used a similar sign to promote brie and strawberries.

"We change the sign frequently, and it has definitely increased sales," said the executive.

Mark Polsky, vice president of buying at Magruder Inc., Rockville, Md., also cited the importance of exposing the public to these cheeses, and said they are "sampled all the time" in his company's stores.

"We will sample two or three cheeses, especially on the weekend."

Mary Lou Long, deli director at Byerly's, Edina, Minn., said the 10-store chain does "a lot" of promoting of specialty cheeses, using demos and price features.

This month it will promote a new line of creme cheeses in sundried tomato, pesto and garlic flavors, among others. "Those types of items are trendy right now," she noted.

The cheeses, offered at a feature price, will be sampled for two days, and a demonstrator will be on hand to offer serving suggestions.