“Bricks and clicks”

07 July 2017, 04:06 am
Dairy Dispatches by George Paul

The cheese award fest is by now in full swing, with a whole series of heavyweight events claiming some unique positioning in the trade

Whatever their individual claims, on a global scale of its sheer enormity, no one rivals the International Cheese Awards at Nantwich. But with the trade stands and the array of supporting social and business events that are scattered around the days of Nantwich, there is more than just a parade of judges and a shower of awards.

Quite clearly, a win here, in the challenging cockpit of a massive +5000 entries, is something that has real merit in the wider cheese trade. Plus, the business and social opportunities afforded to buyers and sellers alike is unrivalled with its vast array of stands and meeting opportunities, making it the must-do destination of the cheese calendar.

The blue ribbon event is unquestionably the retailer class, so eagerly fought over by national, regional, premium and discount retailers, all of whom have either fielded entries here for a long time, or have steadily acquired an impressive range of quality cheese to tempt the demanding customer.

After years of domination by M&S, Waitrose have scored a hat trick of wins in quick succession, but the competition gets fiercer, as has been demonstrated by the steady rise of Morrisons over the past few years, and aside from the established contenders of Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda, might we see Aldi, Lidl or especially specialist premium retailer Booths provide a real challenge to that crown? Nothing in life ever gets easier.

But one wonders how this might change in the years ahead, with the news breaking at time of writing that Whole Foods is now a part of the great Amazon empire. An empire of clicks not bricks. One can only speculate that with the bought in credentials of Whole Foods on cheese, as well as other foodstuffs, can it be long before Amazon is a contender for cheese retailer of the year?

There have been so many bumps in the road. Just over one year ago, Brexit heralded a whole series of new challenges and uncertainty for the trade, from a substantial exchange rate fall to wondering about both import and export access for cheese to Europe.

Vagaries in the weather, a dry spring, a generally poor spring milk flush and price increases have quickly followed – welcome to the farming community – but the stuff of nightmares when looking to land these with major retailers.

The largely stagnant food market and the complex retailer wars, changing shopping habits, a customer beginning to feel hard done by as for the first time in four years food inflation arrives. This much maligned sector is blamed for people being too poor, whilst representing a lower and lower share of their total spend, as satellite TV, cigarettes and mobile phones move up the priority scale and evade any consumer wrath.

And now Amazon is taking a giant bite into the grocery market, and aligning themselves with the new phoney generation, more connected to IT than to high street shopping, and now able to click their way to premium cheese via their Whole Foods credentials whilst sitting on the train from Purley or Pudsey each morning.

So will the battle now fall on premium and speciality packing capacity, on premium and speciality supply to meet what must be a potentially voracious demand? Is this route to market what the speciality makers will want, or will they stay in the established channels?

Will newer entrants see this as a possible way to markets not open to them, and how will the high technical needs of Whole Foods be met consistently by makers? Will there be a volume crunch, and will it bring some lesser-known cheeses to the attention of the wider market? There are bound to be some interesting challenges in cheese supply, cheese selling and consumer choice, as nothing on this scale is going to be without its consequences.

For some time I have predicted that some speciality cheese will not be available to all within the UK, as we close this decade with the rise of export volumes and demand, the growth of food service usage, premium sandwich and food makers, while other onlline options have begun to eat into that availability.

I doubt that many, if any, had foreseen this seismic event, and this may ultimately be the biggest challenge of all in respect of supply across a lot of sectors – it could create some brand dilemmas, as well as create a whole new set of parameters in marketing, merchandising, fresh food thinking, store usage and so much more.

In last month’s issue I predicted you won’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, and with amazing speed a momentous event, the consequences of which we may yet need to understand, adds to that supply challenge, and we may now see loyalty about to be tested on a new and different stage.

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