Retailers in different marketing areas are breathing some new life into their specialty cheese programs by adding more varieties to their mix.
Some are putting a stronger focus on domestic cheeses than they have in the past as they expand the items in their cases. That is because of relatively stable pricing, compared with fluctuating import prices. Also, an increasing number of U.S. companies are making stateside versions of European favorites such as brie and bleu, which have lower shipping costs built into the price.
Others, such as Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, Ohio, a 44-unit chain in the process of creating a new fresh image, are looking abroad for variety.
"We have extended our cheese category, particularly in imported cheese, and have developed a line of packaged self-service sliced cheese, both imported and domestic," said Fred DiQuattro, director of deli, bakery, seafood at Riser.
"Where appropriate, we have enlarged our space allocation for specialty cheese. Also, we have incorporated service cheese areas in our three new Marketplace stores," DiQuattro said.
"Riser is in basically a domestic cheese market," DiQuattro added. "However, we have a number of stores with the demographics which enable us to provide a variety of specialty imported cheeses. Our mix in those stores is 60% domestic and 40% imported."
DiQuattro said the chain is trying to boost sales of specialty cheeses with promotional activity in the service departments, including decorating and theme contests for associates, cross-merchandising cheese with wine, produce and floral, and special promotions such as April in Paris and Oktoberfest. B&R Stores, Lincoln, Neb., is offering a greater variety and different flavors of specialty cheeses, said Diane Velasquez, director of deli.
"In the last year we have increased our variety of imported cheeses by about 50%. We have introduced English cheese, Mexican cheese, a Danish bleu and domestic bleu, and expanded into different types of bries. We no longer have just one variety of an import. We may carry every flavor associated with that variety," Velasquez said.
The expanded variety has translated into increased display space for specialty cheese, which was achieved in most cases by adding steps onto existing shelves, she said.
"Most of our advertising is done in support of domestic cheese, but we do in-store promotion of the imported cheese. Last year we did an English cheese ad and we plan to do a French cheese ad. Right now we are looking at running a whole ad for imported cheese in June," Velasquez said.
"We do a lot of sampling of specialty cheeses," she added. "Often people do not know what they taste like. We have to educate them. The stores are supposed to do ongoing sampling of a domestic cheese and an imported cheese in order to increase the category and its sales. Anytime you sample, you usually sell the item."
The category is capable of further growth if more time is spent on merchandising it and educating both store employees and customers about the product and potential applications, Velasquez said.
At Basics/Metro Markets, Randallstown, Md., the 24 stores already had been carrying a "big variety" of specialty cheeses, but about 15 items have been added in the last year, according to Mel Fonte, assistant vice president of deli operations. About 75% of the specialty cheese carried is domestic and 25% imported, Fonte said.
To accommodate the expanded selection, some stores cut down on bulk displays, while others moved to three-tier island displays, Fonte said.
When Janet Kenroy, bakery-deli merchandiser at G&R Felpausch, Hastings, Mich., assumed her position last November, the stores did not carry any imported cheese in the deli, she said. That's where variety came in.
"We are in the process of launching an imported cheese
program. There were a lot of customer requests for imported cheese. Some customers were driving to specialty markets outside of our marketing area to buy it. We have just begun introducing imported cheese in the stores in the last few weeks," she said.
The variety carried will vary by store, tailored to each individual market area. It will be about six months before the launch is completed, Kenroy said.
The mix for the retailer's 19 stores will be 70% domestic and 30% imported, she said.
"We are just starting to improve efficiency in the department. Training is ongoing. We are working with suppliers of imported cheese. They have information available for us to use. We want to be able to cross-merchandise imported cheese with wine and crusty breads," Kenroy added.
Jim Ferger, deli, cheese and bulk food merchandiser at Scott's Food Stores, Fort Wayne, Ind., said imported cheese represents no more than 20% of the cheese mix. "We carry very few imports because of the unstable dollar and costs that jump or drop drastically. We try to buy up on a deal basis at the lowest possible price," he said.
For Dominick's Finer Foods, Northlake, Ill., imported cheese appears to be losing some of its cachet, said Cheryl Robertson, manager of consumer affairs. "Imported cheese does not seem to be as hot as it used to be. Evidently, consumers are finding domestic versions of many of the items that they used to buy imported, such as brie," she said.
Domestic is also the favorite at an East Coast chain with about 50 stores. "We have always emphasized domestic cheese. We would rather buy and sell American," said the deli director.