BOSTON (FNS) -- Dressing up a specialty cheese department can substantially increase sales, John Greeley, president of Sheila Marie Imports, told attendees at the NorthEast Fresh Foods Alliance's 2001 annual conference and exposition.
"In the supermarket, 20% of your sales come from about 80% of your cheese -- so 80% of your sales come from 20% of your cheese," he said.
"Well, that 20% is only a skeleton."
Adding a shirt and pants is only part of the solution. Sales of specialty cheeses and similar items are so strong, the retailers would be wise to outfit the department "like a tuxedo," Greeley said.
The people who will notice are often the ones who buy higher-priced items at the deli counter. They also purchase companion items like olives, breads and other merchandise sold out of the specialty cheese department.
"What's new?" is their favorite question, Greeley said. Maintaining their interest means regularly providing them with something new.
Greeley's approach to attracting customers is multifaceted. Display is important, he pointed out. Sometimes he removes the cheese from its original packaging.
Creative signage can also dress up cheese, he said. But, whether handmade or professional, all signage should describe the item, its characteristics and suggested uses in cooking or as food accompaniments. In this sense, the label is like those found in a wine shop. Indeed, many cheese customers are also wine afficionados.
Greeley noted that the world of specialty cheese has greatly expanded to include all countries and virtually all milk-producing mammals. Many are made of goat's milk, some of sheep's milk. Some possess a specific ethnic appeal. Some are imported, while others are made in the United States. But, all have something unusual about them that distinguishes them from ordinary cheese.
"They're either well packaged or not packaged at all," he said.
In an attractive setting, with the right merchandising, they can draw customers into the store. Greeley outlined a four-point plan to make it happen.
The first point is making a one-year commitment. That means making a merchandising plan for the whole year and sticking with it. Make sure the plan is in installments so that customer education comes before coupon specials, for example, he said.
The second step is advertising. Offering recipes and posting them over the cheese counter is one way to educate the consumer and advertise at the same time. The novice will buy the cheese to use the recipe and the seasoned customer will have a reason to try a known cheese in a new way. Newspaper advertising and coupons can follow the consumer education phase, he said.
The third and fourth points of the plan are staff training and sampling. Both are essential, and go hand-in-hand, he said.
"Associates have to know the products," he noted.
Sampling can be a way of reducing shrink, if coming close to code, while concurrently inducing customers to try new products. Greeley recommended offering two-inch chunks, since they give the customer a real taste of the cheese. As part of the promotion, he suggested demonstrating several varieties, and placing the same items together as a sample package, which is specially priced.
You should have a plan for sampling just like you have a plan for merchandising, Greeley said.
"When sampling, make sure you put the labels out there," he said. "Some people need to know about cheese by taste. They won't respond to a special offer unless they know the product."
The success of the sampling initiative hinges on the educated employee. Greeley said managers should schedule regular meetings with department associates to discuss new arrivals, upcoming promotions and work on sampling.
Part of the learning process involves developing a wine-like vocabulary, and descriptive adjectives -- like fruity, for example.
"Sometimes it takes six months to learn how to pronounce the name of the cheeses correctly," Greeley said.