Knowledgeable employees trump even the most impressive variety of well-merchandised cheese, sources agree.
Indeed, the more varieties of cheese offered, the more important it is to educate associates so they can interact confidently with customers, one retailer told SN.
“You have to cut, and sample, and talk about the cheese,” said Jim Hassler, co-owner of Ferguson & Hassler, a single-unit independent in Quarryville, Pa.
“Years ago that's the way cheese was sold, and that's the way it should be. Right now, we have only a self-service island set in front of the deli, but our next move will be to a much larger island, staffed most of the day.”
Hassler stressed the importance of interaction with customers. In fact, getting customers to talk has its own value, he said.
“They get interested, stay longer, and very possibly the associate learns something new. When a customer likes a particular cheese, he likes to talk about it, how he uses it, what goes well with it.”
Another independent, Super Foodtown/Food Circus, Middletown, N.J., gives credit to well-trained associates for above-average cheese sales.
“I can easily say that without having a person who's so knowledgeable there at Red Bank [N.J.; a high-volume Super Foodtown unit with a department that is staffed until 7 in the evening] we'd be selling 15% to 20% less cheese there than we are now,” said Patti Rispoli, the 10-unit chain's deli supervisor, in an earlier interview.
Rispoli has responsibility for all the chain's delis and cheese departments. Like other retailers who say educating their associates is critical, Rispoli told SN last week that her company takes every opportunity to educate, and continue to educate, its cheese team.
“I had an opportunity last summer to tour BelGioioso's cheesemaking facility in Wisconsin. We watched the whole process of cheesemaking,” Rispoli said. “It gave me a whole new perspective, and I want to take some of our people on a similar tour, maybe more local.”
Rispoli and her cheese staff often attend educational events that distributors offer. As recently as October they participated in an off-site, three-hour cheese class sponsored by distributors.
“We also make good use of any educational materials Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board offers. We keep their reference guide in the stores, and ‘The Cheese Primer’ [by cheese expert Steven Jenkins].”
Hassler, too, is always looking for more information, he said.
“AWI [Associated Wholesalers Inc.] is bringing over a catalog of all the cheeses they carry now, with descriptions of how they're made and how to use them,” Hassler said. “They've taken on a new supplier that has a huge variety of cheese, and we don't have to buy large quantities. We can try some new varieties without going out on a limb.”
Hassler became acquainted with that supplier when he and his deli manager attended a cheese seminar at AWI's food show in the fall. Afterward, he suggested the company participate in F&H's Customer Appreciation Day in April, when more than 60 vendors sample their products on F&H's sales floor.
Hassler said his associates, as well as his customers, will be exposed to more varieties of cheese and learn about them at that event.
Even though F&H's cheese island is currently self-service, deli associates are instructed to watch to see if shoppers at the island need help.
“They do get questions from customers, and if they can't answer them, they'll take the person's telephone number, find the answer and call them back,” Hassler said.
At AJ's, a 14-unit upscale division of Bashas', Chandler, Ariz., Mario Martinez makes a habit of regularly featuring specific cheeses, and whenever he selects a new cheese to feature, he takes the opportunity to give his staff a mini lesson in all aspects of that cheese.
“For example, if we're featuring bries, we'll talk to associates about how to answer questions and how one brie differs from another,” said Martinez, who is AJ's corporate executive chef and director of bistros and boulangeries.
He even tells his associates to let customers know why wine and cheese go so well together.
“I tell them wine scrubs the palette. You know, if you taste a buttery cheese, you need to clean your palette so the next bite will be as good. It's time for a sip of wine.”
Since AJ's sells wine, Martinez emphasizes to associates that they should talk to customers about pairing. What goes best with what is something customers want to know, he said.
Martinez said he and some of his associates take advantage of any vendor-sponsored cheese seminar they hear about.
Last summer, he and AJ's cheese specialists and bistro managers attended a nearly daylong cheese class sponsored by an importer at a nearby location.
Kowalski's Markets has sent some of its employees very far afield — to France and to Italy — to learn more about cheese.
In fact, Terri Bennis, the 10-unit independent's vice president of perishables operations, visited cheesemaking operations in northern Italy in the fall, and earlier in the year, cheese director Jill Forster visited France to tour cheesemaking operations. Those trips were sponsored by the Italian and French governments' trade commissions.
On their return, the women shared information and stories with all of Kowalski's cheese specialists.
“We get our cheese specialists involved in the [regularly scheduled] cheese classes we hold for our customers, so they had new information for them,” Bennis said.
Forster said telling her associates little stories about her experience in France reinforces what she learned and helps them all remember facts about different cheeses.
“Our suppliers know how passionate we are about cheese and recommended us for the trips to learn about Italian and French cheeses,” she said.
In fact, several other retailers and distributors also went on the educational trip to France.
Kowalski's also implements a number of unique educational methods closer to home to keep its cheese people up to speed.
“Last summer we loaded them all on a tour bus and we visited artisanal cheesemakers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. We'll do another one of those this year, with our deli people,” Bennis said.
Each year, the company also pays for several associates to attend the American Cheese Society's annual meeting, wherever it is being held.
All this attention to education must be paying off, because Kowalski's has seen specialty cheese sales double each year for the past five years, Bennis said.
“Over the last 10 or 12 years, our specialty cheese department has become a destination. Credit definitely goes to our cheese specialists. Through interaction with customers, they've become sensitive to what people want, how much they want to spend, what they might like to try.”
Forster told SN that customers are very aware that the Kowalski's cheese team is providing a valuable service, and their appreciation was evident recently.
“During the holidays, I saw in the back at one of our stores a tableful of wrapped gifts customers had brought to the cheese associates.”
Spending money for training is often where retailers balk, especially in tough times, said consultant Terry Roberts, president, Merchandising by Design/Design Associates, Carrollton, Texas.
“Even when the training itself is free, they don't want to pay the salary for that day or days when the associate is at an educational seminar or on a tour.”
But that is particularly shortsighted, she said, because when customers start keeping a closer eye on their budgets, they're looking for value, and customer service is value.
Kowalski's continues to see training as a wise investment. Not only have cheese sales grown, but employee turnover has always been relatively low at Kowalski's, Bennis said. She attributes both to employee education.
Roberts said she's surprised that more retailers don't take advantage of the educational sources available to them, especially when it comes to specialty cheese.
“People buying specialty cheese are the least price-sensitive customers, so getting them in is going to translate positively to other perishables departments — really, to the rest of the store.”
She pointed out that cheesemakers, vendors, trade associations, importers and distributors are all excellent sources of free information and training.
In that regard, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board stands out.
“Since the start of WMMB, we've had a cheese encyclopedia we make available to retailers,” Dave Leonhardi, WMMB's director of education. “We have a baseline of information we can deliver in different ways.”
WMMB also has a self-study course and will conduct seminars for retailers at an offsite location.
“We just ask the retailer to bring his staff for half a day. It's free,” Leonhardi said. “We go over each category of cheese and what they marry well with. You can't sell much cheese unless you know what it goes with.”
Leonhardi emphasized that retailers who focus on educating their associates see the results pay off in many ways — with increased sales, customer loyalty, differentiation and reduced employee turnover, to name a few benefits.
WMMB also orchestrates tours to cheesemakers' facilities in Wisconsin, and some Wisconsin cheesemakers themselves offer seminars for retailers and distributors.
“We do trainings at store level, and we'll also bring retailers out to Monroe and put them through the rigors of cheesemaking,” said Jodi Wische, vice president, specialty division, Roth Kase, Monroe, Wis.
“When Wegmans [Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., known for its ongoing attention to employee training] opens a new store, we'll typically go there and conduct a two- to three-hour class on how to talk about cheese,” Wische said.
“Not just our cheese, but the basics — and then, after Cheese 101, we'll go into specific types of cheeses, like soft ripened, and washed rind. We figure the more information they have about all cheese, the better they can sell ours.”
But whether it's a visit to a cheesemaker's facility in real life, or a PowerPoint presentation showing the process, nothing beats seeing how cheese is made, Wische said.
Supermarket officials who have taken advantage of WMMB-arranged tours of cheesemaking facilities have told SN that associates who participate bring enthusiasm and excitement, as well as knowledge, back to the store. It's all positive, and it drives sales, they said.