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Debbie Priestley, who runs The West Country Cheese Co with husband Nick, never planned for cheese hampers to become a major part of her offering, but after Covid-19 hit, she began looking for ways to shift the events-focused business to customers looking for selection boxes to enjoy at home or send as gifts to loved ones.
“Our wedding cheese cakes and cheese and pork pie cakes were our core business until Covid hit last year,” she tells Speciality Food. “We diversified very quickly, put a whole new deli section up online as well as a new batch of cheese selection boxes and our new ‘boozy boxes’ – they were almost an instant hit and now are a massive part of our business.”
The West Country Cheese Co’s story goes to show just how important cheese boxes and hampers have become to many cheesemongers and delis during the pandemic. Designed to provide a thoughtfully chosen selection of artisan cheeses to suit a variety of occasions, hampers are a fantastic option for attracting new customers who arrive at your shop or website looking for something unique.
More is more when it comes to your offering. While an independent retailer can easily get by with just a few core boxes – local selections always sell well, as do boxes focused on holidays or events – they’re also free to flex their creative muscles and experiment with new ideas. “I try to choose products I love and that I know work together,” says Debbie.
“We have a range of price points and different size gifts, so we have a good overall offering, from quirky stacked cakes to beautiful boxes tied with ribbon.”
When brainstorming new box and hamper ideas, put yourself in the position of your customer and consider what they will be looking for. Themed cheeseboard or ploughman selections, birthday or mother’s and father’s day gift boxes, Christmas classics, award-winners, thinking-of-you boxes – the options are endless.
“To be honest, I don’t follow any rules,” Debbie says, “I just get an idea and run with it – it seems to have always worked well for us, so we continue to do that to this day.”
At the start, focus on a small range and make sure you can do that well. “Don’t try and do too much,” Debbie warns. Once you have the processes down, you can build on your core range with trial and error by seeing which cheeses your customers are particularly drawn to.
The West Country Cheese Co’s range of boxes, hampers and wrapped gifts provides customers with a wide array of options. From a Delicious Weekend Sharing Box, which contains cheeses and chutney as well as olives, salami and flatbreads, to ready-made evening-in selection boxes and hampers filled with local produce that are ideal for gifting.
“Our mini cheese cakes, which we stack and wrap in cellophane and tie with ribbon, are definitely one of our bestsellers,” Debbie says. “I think because they are quirky and unique, something different to the normal offering.” These ready-to-gift cheeses also offered a way for the business to continue selling its popular celebration cheese cakes to home-bound customers.
“We like to try and stand out with different ideas,” Debbie adds. The shop’s ‘boozy boxes’ have also proved to be a hit with customers – especially the port and Stilton box. “You can’t beat the classics!” Debbie says. Once you discover your bestsellers, you can experiment with more variations on these themes.
Another reason that cheese boxes and hampers are selling particularly well today, when many shops have boosted their online offering, is that they’re perfectly suited to e-commerce. The majority of customers are keen not to spend hours scrolling through every cheese your shop offers, but instead find a pre-selected box with perfectly suited flavours that can be delivered straight to their door.
What do cheesemongers need to know about selling boxes and hampers online? Debbie recommends focusing on strong photography as well as simple, yet descriptive blurbs. “Make your website easy to use with clear and concise information. This is something we continue to work on – it’s not easy!”
Cheesemongers who are not yet offering hampers or boxes may find the logistics to be challenging at the start, but once these hurdles are overcome and a system is in place, they have the potential to become a lucrative new area of business – and one, crucially that customers will truly appreciate. As Debbie says, “It’s hard work, but it’s worth the lovely comments from your customers if you get it right.”