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The easing of lockdown rules has not only been news to the ears of non-essential retailers. Even cheesemongers and delis that have been lucky enough to remain open have reason to celebrate. A good farmhouse cheese retailer is no ordinary shop – it’s a foodie destination, and the end of tight restrictions on movement around the UK means that mongers can once again call visitors from all corners of Britain to their doors. So whether you sell cheese at a small counter in a bustling deli, at a farmer’s market stall or a dedicated shop, read on for advice for transforming your offering into a haven for cheese lovers.
What does a ‘cheese destination’ look like? For Kevin Sheridan of Sheridans Cheesemongers, it is all about creating a comfortable environment, and then letting your cheese do the talking. Your shop should be “a beautiful place to be in, and the easiest way to do that is to allow the products to form the atmosphere and dominate the visuals,” he explains. “Most importantly, we want to create a space in which people are comfortable, and where there are as few barriers as possible. It is so important that the space should be welcoming to people who are not familiar with artisan cheeses and foods,” Kevin says.
Indeed, as well as showcasing your best cheeses by setting as many out on display as you can, it is also important to consider your signage and product range, ensuring there’s an easy entrypoint for the supermarket crowd. “We keep a strong core of regular products which people grow to love and know well,” Kevin adds. “It is important to have a strong local range, but also people like the rare and the exotic. It is all about balance.”
“The range is key,” agrees Owen Wyn Davies of Ty Caws, which sells fine cheeses across Cardiff farmers’ markets. Cheesemongers should consider placing go-to cheeses front and centre alongside a rolling display of the more unusual varieties. “It is important to have a halo of new and occasional products to keep the customers interested and surprised,” Kevin says.
Regularly introducing new cheeses, even if only for a short period of time, keeps customers engaged, even if the cheese of the day doesn’t appeal to them, Owen says. “It just ensures that they are aware that there are other new cheeses out there, and that it’s not just the same – every week, it will evolve and adapt.”
While a well-chosen cheese selection will do much of the talking, cheesemongers still have a critical role to play in turning their establishment into a must-visit destination. “As cheesemongers, we are the link between the customer and the producer,” Kevin explains. “It is our job to strengthen the connection our customers experience with the producers and the places from which their foods come.”
This includes translating the stories of cheesemakers to customers, and helping them understand the impact that place and tradition has on different cheese varieties. “We must work to help customers understand the nature of artisan foods, its inconsistencies and the benefits of the variances we see from season to season and often batch to batch. We often need to challenge them in their choices and encourage them to explore new products and flavours,” Kevin continues.
Owen agrees that conversations with customers can be the difference between a cheese shop and a cheese destination – especially with newly lockdown-free consumers keen to enjoy the experience of shopping in-person. “It’s the rapport that you give your customers. Especially now, people have a little bit more time on their hands, perhaps, and they’re wanting that customer experience. A lot of shopping has been done online, but one of the things about cheese is that it always strikes up a conversation.”
Although Owen has spent much of his cheese career in the background, over the past year he’s had more experience selling cheese directly. “It always amazes me the enthusiasm for cheese. People have a genuine love for cheese. Having that kind of interaction directly with your customers and getting to know them and their family, I think that’s why the farmers’ markets, particularly in Cardiff, are doing really well. Because it’s a relaxed environment where people can have a chat and have an interaction.”
These conversations can be used, as Kevin says, to educate customers, build trust and encourage them out of their comfort zone, leading consumers to a wider appreciation of artisan cheeses. “Often customers are willing to trust us and say ‘yes we’ll give this a go this week’,” Owen says. Cheese destinations are built, he says, on “expanding customers’ knowledge and their discovery of British cheese. I think that’s one thing that we, as small independent retailers, can achieve.”