From Dalmatia fig spread to Boar's Head dried sausage to an old stand-by — crackers — specialty foods are doing their part to keep cheese department sales climbing.
Every retailer SN talked to credited cross-merchandising with helping to keep specialty cheese sales growing even as some other categories got their sales pushed down by the recession.
Aware that cross-merchandising does several good things for the specialty cheese department, many retailers are looking to do more.
“We know cross-merchandising is important. We haven't done enough of it, but we will,” said Craig Inabinett, director of deli/bakery operations at 112-unit Piggly Wiggly Carolina, Charleston, S.C.
“We're working on it, with preserves and crackers and bakery baguettes, and other things. We have a representative from our broker right now planning more cross-merchandising for our 10 highest-volume stores.”
That representative, Atlanta Foods International cheese technician Andrea Yelton, told SN she's trying to tie as many departments into specialty cheese as makes sense. She described a secondary display she built in a Piggly Wiggly Carolina this fall that was particularly successful.
“We took that one right up front. It was a mass display of apples. Then on one side, we had a table piled high with freshly cut and wrapped aged cheddar. A table on the other side of the apples held stacks of apple pies.”
Yelton said each season offers its own opportunity for effective cross-merchandising.
“For instance, when grilling season starts — and comes early around here — we'll be tying bleus and aged gouda in with the meat departments. I don't know yet whether we'll take the cheese over to the meat department or just have signs up there, maybe with pictures, saying that these cheeses, available in the specialty cheese department, are great on burgers.”
Often, secondary displays are utilized to introduce people to a cheese and a logical pairing and to route the customer back to the specialty cheese department.
Piggly Wiggly Carolina's Inabinett said many of his stores have constructed kiosks that pair wine and cheese.
At Food Circus, Middletown, N.J., which owns and operates 10 Super Foodtown stores, deli supervisor Patti Rispoli, who also is responsible for the chain's cheese buying and merchandising, prefers to incorporate products, usually sourced through the deli, into her cheese displays, she said.
She has placed items including fig spread, dried sausages and pepperoni, and apricot preserves right with the cut and wrapped cheeses.
“What we choose to cross-merchandise there depends on the store, the location. We may have eight to 10 different products we're cross-merchandising at any one time,” Rispoli said.
She said she's always looking for items to add interest and to show customers what goes well with cheese. The most recent addition is small jars of peppadews.
Another cheese expert agreed that cross-merchandising not only sells more product, it's also a tool to educate customers — and thus curry future sales.
“We think of ourselves primarily as food educators, and good cross-merchandising allows you to educate customers without even talking to them,” said Liz Thorpe, vice president, Murray's Cheese Shops, New York, and author of “The Cheese Chronicles.”
She said that besides the multiple rings and increased cheese sales, a retailer can sell high-ticket premium items just because they're incorporated with the specialty cheese display.
In one display in a Kroger supermarket, Murray's tied premium dried pasta and cured salami in with a big display of Parmagiana Reggiano.
“One item in the display was a Tuscan olive oil that retailed for $18. We found out we sold more of that olive oil from the cheese display than was sold from its normal location in the store.”
Murray's, New York City's oldest cheese shop, entered into a deal with Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. to open mini Murray's shops within selected Kroger stores a couple of years ago, as reported in earlier issues of Supermarket News.
Murray's now has cheese shops in 22 Kroger stores, in three of the chain's divisions.
In a different way to cross-merchandise, Scott Zeinert, cheese specialist at St. Paul, Minn.-based Kowalski's Markets, told SN that he prefers to take cheeses into other departments to pair them up with appropriate products.
“Our specialty cheese departments are relatively small, so it makes sense. I love to pair cheese with fresh fruits and vegetables,” Zeinert said.
People are apt to think of crackers when they think of cheese, Zeinert said, but he thinks most cheeses are even better with fruit or with some of the sweeter vegetables such as celery and carrots.
“This time of year, I'm pairing cheese with dried fruit, apricots and figs. They add texture to a platter and go wonderfully with Parmagiana Reggiano or gorgonzola, or manchego.”
Zeinert is apt to take freshly cut cheddar wedges over to the produce department and right now he has an Israeli feta cheese displayed alongside bags of leafy greens in produce.
“Taking cheese into another department is very smart merchandising,” Murray's Thorpe said. “The only drawback is you have to be right on top of it. It's sometimes easy to forget about it. You have to keep an eye on it.”
Many items from all over the store go great with cheese, noted David Leonhardi, director of education and events at Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board in Madison.
“It doesn't have to be crackers or wine. How about pomegranate juice or some of the sparkling fruit juices? Good breads are equal or better than crackers as a partner to cheese.”
Leonhardi said retailers themselves have come to know their cheeses better and therefore are doing more cross-merchandising.
“They've learned what goes well with what and they're showing their customers some good pairings,” he said. “What's great is you can keep changing things, bringing interest to the department. It's good to just keep your own eyes peeled as to what goes with what. It might help you sell an extra pound.”
But lost opportunities abound, industry sources told SN.
“I'm always surprised at what I see on top of some cheese cases,” said Thorpe. “Like pamphlets or artificial grapes. There could be some quince paste up there. Then people would know it goes with cheese. You can't sell artificial grapes.”
Those retailers who have been creative, thinking of different items to display with cheese, have inevitably boosted their sales of cheese, as well as getting an extra ring for the cross-merchandised item.
“Specialty cheese represents such an enormous opportunity for retailers to attract/capture the shopper who is the least price sensitive,” said retail consultant Terry Roberts, founder and president of Merchandising By Design/The Design Associates, Carrollton, Texas.
“The ability to cross-merchandise and sell to this [non-price-sensitive] consumer is absolute and very lucrative,” Roberts said.
“This is an easy category to get right. The suppliers are very able and ready to provide the appropriate product mix and training.”
Whether it was the result of pumped up cross-merchandising or promotions or just having paid a lot of attention to their specialty cheese departments, retailers said they've been happy with sales over this past year.
“Our sales have been good for the year,” Rispoli said. “Throughout the holidays, our sales were strong — 7% to 15% over last year at most locations.”
Zeinert at Kowalski's said much the same thing.
“Our sales here at Woodbury [the 10-unit chain's flagship store] over the holidays were fabulous, and some of our other locations did even better. They were shocked at how good sales were.”
The factors responsible for the category's apparent immunity to the recession are a matter of opinion. Some retailers said customers found that they could treat themselves to a gourmet item without spending a ton of money. Retailers, such as Rispoli, made sure they cut wedges small so nobody would get sticker shock. That also gave them the opportunity to try some cheeses they might not have tried before, she said.
Customers, too, are just becoming more aware of specialty cheese. Some credited cooking shows on television with getting consumers to be more adventurous when it comes to trying any new foods.
It's no longer a cheddar and American cheese world. Andrea Yelton said Brie has become mainstream even in the South.
“If they don't find it at Piggly Wiggly, we hear about it. That wouldn't be a surprise in urban areas, but now the demand for Brie has come to South Carolina.”