Whether it’s a taste for classics such as feta and mozzarella or a palate for artisan varieties such as provolone and pepperoncino, consumers are crazy for cheese in all its addictive applications. Once a niche category appealing to gourmands and epicureans, specialty cheese has enhanced its status with age, enticing a wide range of consumers across all types of eating occasions largely thanks to retailers’ promotional efforts to highlight diverse flavor profiles, aroma, authenticity and versatility.
A $4.2 billion category, specialty cheese is flourishing, with feta, mozzarella, Parmesan and Brie garnering the largest dollar share of the category at 11.3%, 10.8%, 9.9% and 6.5%, respectively, according to New York-based market research firm Nielsen. The rising popularity of cheese, as well as consumers’ growing excitement over creating their own Instagrammable cheese boards, has made way for cheese to become an eating occasion of its own. Whole Foods Market, based in Austin, Texas, declared “upgraded” snack time as one of its most anticipated and innovative food trends for 2019, with mini-meal renditions of cheese and charcuterie boards dominating the desk snack and lunch box arenas.
Whether targeting seasonal celebrations or everyday eating occasions, retailers are getting creative with their specialty cheese promotions, including in-store events, unique recipes, convenient formats, social media efforts and pricing strategies, to get a slice of the ever-growing cheese-loving consumer base.
Events Generate Excitement
In-store sampling events are arguably the most effective—and most interactive—way to promote a new cheese variety or cheese-based recipe. New York-based Fairway Market, known for its expansive cheese department featuring more than 600 varieties, relies on large displays, prominent signage and in-store events to drive sales and excitement around its specialty cheese assortment.
Photograph courtesy of Fairway Market
“When we launch a product, we go big; or when we put something on sale, we go big,” says Michael Corsello, Fairway’s director of cheese. “We display a lot of inventory. We have a lot of precut cheese available for the consumer to grab and go on their own.”
For the winter months, Fairway is promoting fondue and Raclette cheeses “because what’s old is new again,” using in-store samplings and Raclette grilling demos to create customer excitement, Corsello says. The retailer also proudly produces its own fresh mozzarella in-store and uses this differentiator as an opportunity to spark a spontaneous in-store event by making announcements over the loudspeaker to call shoppers toward the cheese department once the mozzarella is ready.
BelGioioso Cheese Inc., based in Green Bay, Wis., also encourages retailers to employ in-store sampling events to promote new items. The company—which produces a number of award-winning classic and artisan cheeses, including crumbly gorgonzola and fresh mozzarella—recently expanded its snacking cheese line with its new Fresh Asiago Fresco Snacking cheese, conveniently wrapped in 3-ounce packages for a healthy lunchbox addition or cheese board accompaniment.
“The most effective [type of promotion] is definitely in-store sampling demos,” says Jamie Wichlacz, marketing manager for BelGioioso.
Milwaukee-based Sendik’s Food Market, a partner of BelGioioso, highlights local cheese producers with its monthly Meet the Cheesemaker event, offering shoppers not only product samples but also personal interaction with the cheesemakers themselves, where they can learn about the various flavors, textures and aromas of cheese varieties as well as the featured company’s story and production process, which helps drive brand affinity.
Strategic Use of Social Media
“Most people want to know where their food comes from,” says George Crave, manager of cheese factory for Crave Bros. Farmstead Cheese, which also participates in personalized events from coast to coast several times each year. “We have a great story, having our own cows and producing our own crops … and making our cheese right on our own farm cheese factory. They’re amazed at our story, and we enjoy getting that face-to-face [experience].”
Yet, because face-to-face interaction isn’t always feasible, Crave says the company also uses social media to keep consumers informed about its latest recipe concoctions, product launches and behind-the-scenes updates from the farm.
Similarly, Metcalfe’s Market in Madison, Wis., offers its shoppers an inside look into its latest cheese products to share the stories behind the cheese and local brands with year-round videos on social media.
Photograph courtesy of Metcalfe's Market
“Producers are making interpretations of European-style cheeses, oftentimes better than their European counterparts,” says Justin Witzeling, cheesemonger and Metcalfe’s Hilldale cheese department manager. For example, “Uplands Cheese from Dodgeville has a take on Vacherin Mont D’or called Rush Creek Reserve,” which, he says, “has an amazing texture and a meaty, smoky flavor.”
Witzeling was recently featured in a video in which the retailer discussed the origin, production process, flavor and pairing suggestions for the Rush Creek Reserve, including vibrant text graphics, close-up shots of the product and fun music to generate customer excitement. Also, for National Moldy Cheese Day on Oct. 9, the retailer teamed up with cheesemonger Ty Carlson to explain the science and flavor behind blue, moldy cheese, highlighting local producers Carr Valley Glacier, Roelli Cheese Co. Inc. and Hook’s Cheese Co. Inc.
“Consumers are hungry for authenticity—they want brands that are committed to something, like quality or a social purpose, because they are buying for more than just their physical need,” says Allison Schuman, senior director of sales and a fourth-generation family member of Schuman Cheese, based in Fairfield, N.J. The company offers a full line of traditional and innovative premium Italian and Italian-style cheeses, such as its Yellow Door Creamery Alpine collection and its Cello Parmigiano Reggiano.
“The most effective promotions are those that connect consumers to the story of the cheese and the brand,” Schuman says. “That not only creates a purchase during the promotion [but] helps create affinity for the brand and a repeat purchase.”
Catering to the Holidays
The holiday season remains a key time for retailers to launch promotions, encouraging customers to make cheese the center of their holiday entertainment. For instance, Aldi this year launched its renowned cheese advent calendar for the first time in the U.S. Available for $12.99, the calendar featured 24 snack-sized European cheeses in cheddar, Gouda, Edam, Havarti and red Leicester varieties. And because the wildly popular calendar sold out so quickly, the retailer also offered suggestions for shoppers to build their own DIY cheese advent calendars, promoting its award-winning cheeses such as Happy Farms Preferred Brie Cheese Round for $2.99 or its limited-time offer of Specially Selected Holiday Waxed Cheese Truckles for $2.49.
Aldi’s advent calendar appeals to consumers as both a gourmet-style gift or convenient party platter and conversation starter. In the 52 weeks ending Oct. 27, 2018, sales of cheese party platters grew 8.9%, according to Nielsen, enticing shoppers for their convenience and opportunity to explore multiple varieties in a single product.
Similarly, Whole Foods launched its annual 12 Days of Cheese promotion to inspire shoppers to build their own centerpiece cheese platters and explore new varieties at a steep discount for the holiday season. Each day from Dec. 12 to Dec. 23, the retailer featured a different artisan cheese at a 50% discount, offering Amazon Prime members an additional 10% off, for unique items ranging from Klare Melk Truffle Gouda to Vermont Creamery Bijou to Rogue Creamery Organic Enraptured Blue.
Recipes for Success
To attract shoppers who may feel intimidated by cheese’s countless varieties and flavor profiles, retailers and dairy producers are getting inventive with recipe ideas that offer an approachable entry point to specialty cheese. SpartanNash, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., recently partnered with food blogger and cookbook author Molly Yeh to feature ingredients from its Our Family private brand in her blog recipes, such as pizza bourekas and caramel apple cake with cream cheese frosting, featuring Our Family cream cheese, shredded mozzarella and ricotta cheeses.
Simiarly, for the holiday season, Wisconsin Cheese launched a holiday issue of its Grate. Pair. Share. magazine to offer consumers creative and festive recipe ideas for their entertaining needs. Featured recipes included mozzarella and prosciutto pinwheels, garlic and herb cheese roll-ups and the holiday cheese ball wreath, prominently featured on the cover to satisfy both centerpiece decor inspiration and a unique stand-out starter.
Pricing Is Imperative
Despite its strong growth and diverse flavor profiles that appeal to a wide range of consumers, specialty cheese can turn off shoppers with its notoriously higher price point. As such, remaining competitive with pricing is essential for retailers to drive growth in the category.
“Everyone in the world hates when I say [this], but people are motivated by price,” says Corsello of Fairway. “It’s absolutely quality and service—and, you know what, it’s price. When you marry those three together—service, quality and price—you’re going to move a lot of cheese.”
Fairway relies on sharp pricing to remain competitive, Cosello says, and takes a unique approach to perishable random-weight promotions. For instance, in December, the retailer offered a buy one, get one free deal for its Parmigiano Reggiano in which the customer received a chunk of cheese of equal or lesser value for free.
“The economics are favorable,” Corsello says. “We make sure we get the right price, but because of the dynamics of random weights, it’s never equal value. So the second piece is always at least a smidgen smaller, which works out in the retailer’s favor.”