SEATTLE -- When it comes to potentially profitable but hard-to-sell specialty cheeses, supermarket executives say good labels are crucial to cutting through the confusion and making the sale.
At the annual conference here of the San Francisco-based American Cheese Society, retailers on a panel made it clear they and many of their supermarket colleagues would like to sell more of the specialty cheeses that the society's members make, but lack of product knowledge among their customers and employees makes that hard to do.
Labeling that identifies cheese and tells its "story," they said, can not only make an individual product stand out, but can also make a supermarket's typically self-service and usually bewildering department more friendly.
"We probably offer 300 to 350 cheeses in our better stores," said Joanne Nottke, specialty foods buyer at Dominick's Finer Foods, Northlake, Ill. "It is these large cheese presentations that we are concentrating on now, and I think we do a pretty fair job of merchandising for visibility and for recognizability.
"But I'll tell you what," Nottke continued. "No matter how good a job you do, when you start walking down 32 feet of cheese, even if you know what is there, and I do, as a customer I get very confused. Labeling is critical."
Nottke explained she was hired by Dominick's to ratchet up the chain's cheese merchandising, having come from a small specialty retailer that had no need for package labeling in order to sell plenty of cheese.
She said she has quickly learned the need for labels in a supermarket environment, especially now as Dominick's keeps expanding into larger cheese departments as it opens more Dominick's Fresh units with more emphasis on high quality fresh foods.
"I was brought in to move us from our more traditional offering [upright dairy cases, holding an assortment heavy on Italian cheeses] and start introducing a lot more specialty cheese, imported cheese, European cheese and ripened cheese," she said.
Now, with the proportion of specialty items in the departments hovering at 40%, shoppers' eyes are glazing over when they see 32 feet of straight in-line merchandising of multitiered cases full of cheese.
"Labeling in the case is the only chance to make that initial purchase and the repurchase," Nottke said. "If they find something they love, you have to give them a way to find it again, and the label is it."
At the Central Market fresh format in Austin, Texas, run by San Antonio-based H.E. Butt Grocery Co., the chance for confusion is easily doubled, with 600 to 800 varieties available and a larger proportion of specialty cheese.
According to Barbara Hoover, manager of the cheese department at Central Market, with selection like that anyone can be "utterly and completely lost" trying to find a specific cheese, because "a great many of our cheeses don't have labels."
"In the cheese department I have 12 full-time partners, but that is not enough for customer service," Hoover of Central Market said; it is still primarily a self-service case.
At Dominick's Fresh stores, it is even more a help-yourself situation. The cheese departments at the chain's 90 stores are tied to the delis, which in a heavily unionized market like Chicago led the company to impose limits on the level of in-store service.
"We do have a person assigned to each cheese department, so [customers] are not abandoned, but they are not standing behind the case cutting to order either, in most cases."
Merchandiser Shannon Loch of six-store independent Nature's Fresh Northwest, Portland, Ore., said her company does operate cheese departments separately from deli, grouping them with wine and beer as a specialty-foods program backed by service personnel trained in product knowledge and how to impart that knowledge to customers.
Still, Loch said, the presence of product labels does positively affect sales, even for an operator who makes a concerted effort to sell specialty farmstead cheeses, even to the point of chatting about the personal histories of the cheese makers.
"What we find is that we don't have enough labels, especially when we are cutting and wrapping bulk product, and so we have to choose between some product having labels and some not, or having no labels at all." She urged the cheese makers in the audience to "include plenty of labels with your product, and also the means for providing more labels."
Nottke concurred. "We rely heavily on repack labels for things that come to us in bulk, and we do a lot of cutting at store level," she said of Dominick's operation. "The point Shannon made about having enough labels is very important because once you run out, all you have is a not very good-looking scale label to identify the item. Colorful, informative repack labels or the packaging itself on individual items is critical."
To illustrate that importance, she related a real-life example of how consumers themselves depend on the labels of specialty cheese.
The chain had years of good success with a certain brand of romano cheese, which was conspicuously labeled with a black wrap, she said. Last year, for a variety of reasons, Dominick's started bringing that cheese in without the black wrap, although the brand was still obvious on the package.
"All of a sudden, the stores starting calling, asking us what happened to the cheese? The customers were telling them it was a different cheese, did not taste the same, it was not the right import quality, this cheese was wrong." In truth, the only change was the missing black wrap. "We went back to it, and the complaints died away."
Signs may not be as effective as labels, the retailers said. Both Loch and Hoover related incidents in which signs intended to draw attention to products failed to do so.
"Some people don't read signs," said Loch, "and although we provide signage, sometimes our customers think it is maybe too much. A lot of loyalty comes through visual recognition of the product. With a label with color and design, a lot of people can pick your product out of the case."