The Big Cheese of Ingredients Is ... Cheese

Consumers see cheese as perhaps the most versatile food
Photograph: Shutterstock

Cheese. I relish it. Many of you enjoy it, as do many of your shoppers. And it plays an important role in the continued growth of our fresh departments. In fact, it’s playing a much more important role that you might not be entirely aware of.

As the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA) has reported for several years in its annual research publication, What’s in Store, certain trends are playing major roles in the purchasing and consumption decisions of today’s shopper. They include food that contains protein; foods that service as snacks; foods that are convenient to purchase and eat (think single-serve and grab-and-go options); and food that can be incorporated into entertaining occasions, such as get-togethers and holiday events with family and friends.

Growing Role as an Ingredient 

In short, cheese is a versatile food. And in addition to the ways I just mentioned, it’s also seeing greater usage in another way: as an ingredient in meal solutions and bakery products.

Examples of greater usage of cheese as an enhancement are all around us. As presented by IRI during the May 2019 IDDBA webinar Cheese Spotlight: A Critical and Evolving Consumer Staple”(accessible at iddba.org), cheese is now found in many categories across the store. And it's growing in popularity ... and sales:

  • Frozen pizza with cheese (up 4.9% from a year ago).
  • Frozen appetizers with cheese (up 2.4% from a year ago).
  • Popcorn with cheese (up 7.9% from a year ago).
  • Refrigerated cheesecake with cheese (up 4.9% from a year ago).
  • Refrigerated dips with cheese (up 19.6% from a year ago).
  • Refrigerated nonbreakfast entrees with cheese (up 4% from a year ago).
  • Fresh soup with cheese (up 23.3% from a year ago).
  • Refrigerated salad dressing with cheese (up 2.3% from a year ago).


The Allure of Sliced Cheese in the Deli Department 

And cheese inclusion doesn’t end with packaged and store-prepared products. Consumers are purchasing cheese to add to their home-cooked creations. And more and more, they’re gravitating toward slices in the deli. According to stats presented in the aforementioned webinar, dollar sales of slices in the deli have increased 10.3% in the past five years, eclipsing crumbles, grated, loaf and shred varieties. What’s even more telling is the role of a deli as a destination for all these varieties. While sliced cheese is seeing the most growth, the other varieties within deli, with the exception of crumbles, are outpacing their counterparts in the dairy case.

Now let’s look at the convenience aspect, which plays a major part in helping supermarkets make their shoppers' lives easier. Yes, consumers are heading to the in-store deli for their sliced cheese—but not necessarily to the service counter. Sales are down 12.2% there in the past five years. Where are they increasing? In the grab-and-go case.

That statistic reinforces a theme crucial to success in the deli department: the need for convenience. Not every shopper has the time to order their sliced cheese from the service counter. Many hope to be in and out of the store as quickly as possible. If they can’t get what they’re looking for quickly and effortlessly, they’ll look elsewhere in the store (or, even worse, at a different store). Having fresh, presliced options in a grab-and-go case or cooler is a value-added perk for your current deli shopper; it’s also a great way to get shoppers who might ordinarily bypass the deli department to take a closer look.

Creating Consumer Interest 

Another statistic from the IDDBA/IRI webinar are the most common varieties sold in the deli grab-and-go case. Colby leads the way, followed by American, colby jack, mozzarella and Swiss. They're standards by any measure, but that doesn’t mean customers aren’t open to more specialty variety of cheeses. Samplings and pairing ideas in the deli department and at cheese islands can lend themselves to greater education for the shopper and result in more sales of specialty cheeses.

Cheese trays and boards are another way to engage shoppers. They’re becoming more and more popular for consumers looking for ideas for entertaining, whether it’s a family get-together or event or an office function. Cheese boards, in particular, are a great way to introduce colleagues, friends and family members to the tastes and textures of cheese, when paired with charcuterie, fruits and sweet items.

And let’s not forget the role our prepared food departments and programs play in expanding our shoppers’ personal cheese palates. Whether it’s a new take on traditional comfort food or popular store meal item, or trendy new cuisine being added to your store’s menu, the deli-prepared category is an ideal place for exposing customers to the many varieties and families of cheeses. And many will seek out these specialty cheeses in your deli department and cheese cases.

Mike Eardley is president and CEO of the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA).


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