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It’s been a torrid few years for the UK cheese industry. From the disastrous effects of the Covid pandemic’s initial lockdown to a surge in sales as people focused on the edible pleasures they could enjoy at home, it’s been a rollercoaster for the sector.
According to The Grocer, the category added £49.4m in 2021. Smaller than the previous year’s gain of £257m but still a strong sign of the nation’s renewed love for cheese. An increased focus on health and concerns for the environment around dairy could affect sales this year, but the popularity garnered by cheese over the past 24 months means its future remains bright.
Writing in Mintel’s UK Cheese Market Report 2021, its author Alice Pilkington said, “COVID-19 has provided a considerable boost to cheese thanks to its affordability, versatility and the increased cooking from scratch trend. Whilst an increased consumer focus on health and the environment poses a threat to the market, openness to vegan/plant-based alternatives offers a way to keep people engaged. The use of cheese as a meat replacement and long-term working from home should also help to support the market going forward.”
Cheesemakers themselves are noticing the continued support and are optimistic for the year ahead. “Products with purpose and provenance is a trend that we expect to continue this year,” says Matthew Hall, fourth-generation owner of Butlers Farmhouse Cheeses in rural Lancashire. While the pandemic brought heightened consumer awareness and desire for quality, British-made products, it also allowed customers to recognise their part in dictating what’s available to them when they shop, he told Speciality Food. “We are seeing it in the growth in speciality cheeses, people have become more adventurous with their cheese choices as usage occasions have soared – they want to explore something different or a little bit special which, in turn, is driving retailer behaviour on what to stock.”
1. Communicate with suppliers
For many cheese retailers, the key to getting sourcing right is by working in partnership with suppliers. “The main thing is to really listen to those who are supplying you, be that your wholesalers or the farms directly,” says Clare Jackson, owner of Slate Cheese, a specialist cheese retailer in Southwold and Aldeburgh in Suffolk. “They are the people who know the cheese best. They can advise on what’s tasting really good, or can explain why something is maybe looking or tasting a bit different at the moment. We have some really knowledgeable wholesalers and take a lot of guidance from them. We also buy directly from cheesemakers and they are the best people to help you understand their cheese.”
She gives St Jude as an example, whose appearance can vary – a change that her supplier explains to her and she in turn can explain to a customer. “If we didn’t have that direct connection and we weren’t listening to the person providing cheese, we might think there was some kind of problem. Listening to the person you’re sourcing the cheese from is really important.”
2. Build trust
While every retailer would love to have a hotline to cheesemakers across the country, Edward Hancock, founder of online cheese retailer The Cheese Geek, admits a new business may not be able to start that way. Like other newcomers, when he started out Hancock had to source from wholesalers until he could build trust and relationships. “It was important that they understood what we were trying to achieve, what sort of customers we wanted to attract, and ensure it was a two-way relationship,” he told Speciality Food. “I did go out and meet a lot of cheesemakers to get to know them, to understand their story, but the reality is when you’re first starting out, it’s quite difficult to source directly.” That can shift as you become more established, he says, but it might take time and is based as much on trust as volume.
3. Grow your network
Longstanding relationships are something Russell Allen, managing director of Warwickshire-based butchers and deli Aubrey Allen, has built over decades. They not only ensure steady supply but also allow a dialogue that can help a retailer discover new cheeses and potentially stock them ahead of rivals. “Speak to your wholesalers constantly, have a relationship with them and say, ‘Let us try some of the different stuff. Let us give you feedback from our customers.” For Allen, it’s also important not to overlook the old favourites in a drive to focus on British-made cheese. “A lot of people now are just focusing on British and Irish, which is admirable, but let’s not forget some of the great cheeses out there from the continent to complement it. I admire the move and I understand why, but we’re ignoring a lot of the fantastic French, Italian and Spanish cheeses out there.”
4. Care for your stock
As a small bricks and mortar retailer, stocking and storing cheese you’ve carefully sourced to keep it in the best condition can be a challenge. For many shops, the key is stocking just the right amount so you don’t have to store it, whilst making sure you still have plenty to offer to customers. “We have an old fashioned shop with serve over fridges,” says Jen Grimstone-Jones, owner of Cheese Etc. The Pangbourne Cheese Shop, near Reading.
“I’d love to have a walk-in cold room but our lease doesn’t allow for major changes. Everything is kept refrigerated and cut cheese is wrapped in clingfilm. I unwrap and check each cheese every day and trim as required. On the whole though, we have almost no cheese wastage as we have a great customer base and also sell to local schools, caterers and restaurants so we have a lot of avenues to move cheeses which are in optimal eating condition.” Jackson adopts a similar approach at Slate. “You need lots of space to store cheese so we don’t particularly hold a lot of stock, and we don’t mature cheese ourselves. We tend to buy stock based on what we’ll sell in the next two or three weeks.”
If you are planning on storing cheese, it’s important to do it right, says Martin Gott, owner of Altrincham-based New Market Dairy, which sells British Isles artisan farmhouses cheeses direct to the public and to hospitality businesses across Manchester. A cheesemaker too, producing a range of specialist goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses with partner Nicola Robinson at their Holker Farm Dairy, near Cartmel in Cumbria, Gott’s advice is to think about the kit you’ll need. “Look really carefully at refrigeration systems – selecting the right system for your space is critical to ensuring the quality of your cheeses. Don’t forget about lighting either, because if you get it wrong it can be disastrous. Invest in high-quality LEDs for a shop setting or make the most of all available natural light if you’re trading outside – remember heat is your enemy.”
5. Consider display
Of course, you can source the right cheese and keep it in perfect condition but the real aim is to sell it. While lockdowns changed the way retailers sold cheese to their lactose-loving customers, a slow return to normality has seen newer sales tactics continue alongside the return of more traditional cheese-selling techniques. For Allen, it’s about making sure your display looks great – boasting a decent choice that will offer the right balance of old favourites and new options your customers may not have tried before. “One of the difficulties is to have a full counter, especially in quiet months like January, but I think it’s essential. If you’re not prepared to put a good counter out, even in the quiet months, your sales will be low - it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
It’s still wise to adapt your counter, he says, potentially stocking more hard or semi-hard cheeses that are less perishable during quiet times, but it’s imperative to have a good range on offer at all times. “You’ve got to be bold, you’ve got to stick with it.” For him, the key to selling face-to-face is to start a conversation, offering a customer something to try and engaging them what you’ve got. “They want to be guided, they want to be recommended. I always have a piece of cheese behind the counter and cut a piece off and say, “Would you like to try this cheese?’ Get into the conversation and quickly it moves from a browsing position into a purchase.”
6. Connect with customers – in person…
Grimstone-Jones agrees that customers often actively seek recommendations, willing to put their trust in their cheesemonger. “It’s all about making the cheese counter look inviting and guiding customers. Letting customers try before they buy helps, but our customers trust us and we get to know the things they like. We’re in a small village and know our regular customers by name, some always buy the same things, others will be adventurous. At the end of the day we’re selling an amazing product and we do it with a smile!” Jackson agrees, admitting cheese almost “sells itself” when you can give customers a taste. But part of the added value that comes with a higher price point is the benefit of knowledge and advice. That includes a cheesemonger’s ability to find the right vocabulary to bring that cheese to life for a customer, whether through an explanation of its story, or the tasting notes themselves.
... and online
While online selling may miss out on those face-to-face moments, it doesn’t mean certain tactics can’t be used to make sure the customer gets the best experience possible, says Hancock. For The Cheese Geek, curation is key – guiding customers in the same way a cheesemonger would, but virtually instead. The Cheese Geek initially only offered curated selections, and while it may have developed since then, the ability to guide a customer remains key to selling. “We’re trying to say to people, ‘if you don’t necessarily have that knowledge base, you haven’t had this long relationship with cheese, but you love cheese and you want to get into it, it’s easy to do and it’s accessible’. It’s like when you go to a fine dining restaurant, you take the tasting menu, because you’re entrusting the chef to put it all together for you.”
Putting together a cheese board to suit a particular person’s tastes and preferences may be hard through an online interaction, but Hancock says there are ways to make it happen, from providing as many interactive moments as possible to allow the customer input into their decision, as well as collecting data over time to help understand that customer’s preferences – in the same way a cheesemonger would learn their regulars’ likes and dislikes.
When it comes to fulfilling customers’ needs, it’s important to remember that cheese rarely stands alone, so successful selling may rely not only on putting different cheeses together but offering pairings with wines and beers, or adding to people’s purchases with other products. “Don’t forget to think about the array of products you can cross-sell to supplement your income,” says Gott, “such as artisan breads, condiments, crackers and so on, so you’ll need to think about displaying these too.”
It may seem daunting, but those in the industry are optimistic. The return of in-person shopping and the fact cheese retailers didn’t just survive – but thrived – during such a difficult time, means they are ready and willing to make sure cheese sales stay at the top of their game. For Allen, 2022 is looking promising. “I think people are going to be more and more interested in buying good cheese. It’s something that is a big, big growing market and if you’ve done your job correctly, people will come back.”