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Looks have always mattered in the world of cheese, but in the time of Covid-19, they’re more important than ever. Tastings are out, which means customers are shopping solely with their eyes.
Indeed, with the pandemic limiting the number of customers allowed in small shops at one time, ramping up the wow factor with an innovative set-up is a great reward for those who make it through the queue. What better way to start the new year than by refreshing your cheese display?
There are a number of ways to display cheese, but when working out what’s right for your shop, the main factors to consider are size and budget. At the top end are entirely refrigerated cheese rooms. These can be brilliant for creating immersive cheese displays, but if you’re hoping for customers to dwell in your shop, they can get chilly.
The more typical options for farmhouse cheese shops and delis are multideck chillers, which encourage browsing and take up little space but can risk drying out cheeses, and serveover displays, which are versatile but can be on the bulky side. Each set-up has its positives and negatives, so to create your bespoke display, it’s important to consider which are the most important factors for your shop.
Gemma Williams, who owns The Little Cheesemonger, opted for a multideck chiller to suit her small store. “To use every nook and cranny, we squeezed in glass fronted fridges under the counters, too.”
As Gemma expands into a new, larger shop this year, she’ll be taking advantage of the space to implement new ideas. “The new shop will have refrigeration units on the ceiling so we can have our cheese out on the counter, and a cheese maturing room on view to the customers through three large windows,” she explains.
Jen Grimstone-Jones, of The Pangbourne Cheese Shop and Cheese Etc, is similarly restricted by space, but she uses two interconnected serveover fridges – the classic deli set-up – to zero in on her best-selling cheeses. “The key selling space is usually in the centre of the counter,” Jen says. “This is the point that customers will gravitate towards, and we have our local cheeses in this area.”
Presenting your cheese in a dynamic and eye-catching way is the key to a next-level cheese display. The best way to ensure that your shop won’t be forgotten is by thinking outside of the box and finding your USP.
Slate Cheese in Suffolk is known for its ‘wall of cheese’ which is made up of a series of vertical fridges. “This presentation was inspired by a cheese shop that my family and I visit on holidays in the French town of Chamonix,” explains owner Clare Jackson. “Here, chilled shelves up to the ceiling are stacked with weighty rounds of Beaufort and Comté, alongside Alpine classics such as Morbier and the freshest of local goat’s cheeses.”
Gemma also finds that vertical arrangements work best for capturing shoppers’ attention. “I don’t like flat displays of cheese. The colours blend and it’s difficult for customers – and me, sometimes – to differentiate them,” she explains.
“For me, it’s the same at the book shop when they lay all the books on the table. It’s not easy to take in what’s available. I chose a multideck because the shelves are shallow, so it’s more like looking for a book on a shelf and easier to browse.”
Without a multideck, a similar effect can be achieved by stacking cheeses on blocks or even using the cheeses themselves to create different heights that draw in the customer’s eye. Large rounds of cheese create a big visual impact, but it’s just as important to break down cheeses to show off what’s inside. “You can cut a wheel of hard cheese into half and then two quarters and create a stack, which always looks eye-catching,” Jen says.
With Covid-19 limiting customers from handling products, it’s critical that cheeses aren’t hidden from view, so stacking to different heights can create a useful workaround.
When it comes to choosing a layout of cheese varieties, Clare considers how the customer would naturally browse the shop’s shelves. “Within the Slate wall of cheese we organise the cheeses by style so that customers can navigate the selection easily to find a particular cheese, or create a balanced cheese board with a choice from each shelf,” Clare says.
Take a shopper’s-eye view of your store to ensure your local cheeses and best sellers are situated in an easy-to-access prime position. And while it’s wise to keep the general layout of varieties constant so as not to confuse regulars, changing up the cheeses on display can be an effective way of pushing customers out of their comfort zones.
“The particular cheeses we showcase in the wall of cheese rotate so that alongside old favourites there is always something new for a customer to discover, perhaps a new cheese, a recent award winner, or simply one that is tasting particularly delicious at the moment,” Clare explains.
With your display organised, consider how you will communicate about your chosen cheeses with customers. Clear signage is an important sales tool, especially with shoppers who are unfamiliar with the different varieties you offer. Include cheese name and type, as well as any other pertinent information, such as milk type, place of origin, vegetarian versus animal rennet and texture.
Beyond the key information, there is also an opportunity to get creative with signage to prompt conversation and aid in the flow of your shop. Adding facts, reviews or backstories to particular cheeses and producers that you feature can all assist in building an emotional connection with your customers, which helps to turn a browser into a repeat customer.
Handwriting signs and labels offers a way for cheesemongers to add a personal flair to their display. “One of our team members is an illustrator, so she often creates extra little blackboards which we prop up next to cheeses in the counter,” explains Jen. Imaginative and informative displays spark interest, especially when customers aren’t able to handle the products.
Just as important as the big picture of your cheese display are the little details: the state of each individual cheese can have a significant impact on sales. Because cheese is itself a living product, it demands extra care and attention to look its best.
“Through our work with cheesemakers, we are deeply conscious of the care that has been put into the making and maturing of each cheese before it arrives at Slate. It is important that we continue this hard work in our fridges and ensure that we have a premium product available for our customers,” Clare explains.
“The condition of each cheese is checked on a very regular basis, and where necessary scraped or re-wrapped to ensure it is in the best possible condition.” she adds.
Jen similarly inspects each piece of cheese every day. “They get unwrapped, tidied up and rewrapped so they always look fresh. Some cheeses have a tendency to mould up quicker than others but we have such a good turnover of cheese that we have almost zero cheese wastage.”
Temperature maintenance is also key to avoid stripping the flavour of the cheese while still letting it breathe, Gemma says. “In hot dry weather, sometimes I use damp cloths on my clothbound cheese to stop them cracking.”
Creating a digital display
Cheesemongers put long hours into creating fantastic cheese displays, but with Covid-19’s continued impact on the retail landscape, being able to translate that display to your online shop is increasingly important.
“This year has definitely seen an upsurge in people shopping online,” Jen says. “For our website, we used the same backdrop when photographing the cheeses, and our artistic team member draws a lot of images to give the website an engaging feel.”
Clare also works to recreate the feel of her shop on her website. “We describe our website as our ‘virtual wall of cheese’ to try and translate the experience of visiting one of our physical shops to this online space,” she explains. “We photograph our cheeses against slate tiles, again linking back to the slate flooring of our shops.”
Social media and newsletters also offer new avenues for cheesemongers to connect with their customers when footfall to the shop is low. Gemma often creates videos of her cheese displays for social media. “Things have certainly changed a lot due to Covid-19,” she says.
“Many of my customers who would normally pop in now either phone, pre-order for collection on the website or have it delivered. There is less time for browsing now with us only allowing two customers in the shop at one time as everyone is conscious there is someone waiting to come in,” Gemma explains.
“It makes sense that people want to plan their purchases in their own time, so social media and the website photographs give them the opportunity to do this at their own pace.”
Although online cheese shopping is becoming increasingly popular, there is still a steady flow of customers keen for the experience of visiting their local cheesemongers and delis, and impactful cheese displays are central to that experience.
“I did an art degree, and displaying the cheese reminds me of setting out my degree work on plinths in London for my final show,” Gemma recalls. “Each cheese is placed like it’s a piece of art, because that’s really what they are.”
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