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As our recent publication, Inspirational Cheese Retailers – available to download for free on our website – demonstrated, independents have it covered when it comes to creating a great experience for their customers as well as pivoting to guide their businesses through challenging times.
Sometimes, though, we could all do with a refresher on the basics, so we’ve gathered three cheese-selling experts to help us do just that. Read on for our cheese selling 101.
When it comes to selling cheese, it’s important to sell what you love – for your benefit as much as your customers’. “It is important to buy the cheeses that you like as you will be able to sell them with authority and know what each tastes like through the changing seasons, batches and availability,” explains Bill de la Hey, owner of The Mainstreet Trading Company, located on the Scottish Borders. He suggests keeping the rest of your cheese selection tight: “Don’t buy too many cheeses; stick with a few favourites from the main categories.”
Tracey Colley of The Academy of Cheese agrees that tried and true classics are must-stocks in order to be a one-stop-shop for supermarket avoiders: “Local and seasonal cheeses are a given, the well-known cheeses will be expected and common cheeses to cook with too. Stock the everyday cheeses such as block Cheddar, Mozzarella, Feta, Halloumi, cream cheese etc so it’s convenient to make that spend with you rather than the supermarket, and swot up on like-for-like cheeses so you can offer an alternative to cheeses you are unable to carry.”
All suggest working with multiple suppliers in order to avoid any out-of-stock dramas. “A good wholesaler will help you set up, choose and explain how to look after your cheeses,” says Bill, with Tracey adding that speciality wholesalers are “a great way to efficiently receive a selection of cheese from both specialist cheesemakers and bigger brands.” Sourcing directly from a handful of cheesemakers themselves is also a viable option, offering an opportunity to improve question and the story behind them.
“Buying direct from the cheesemaker is a fantastic way to support local cheesemakers, learn first-hand about the cheese, stay on top of what’s new and buy at a good price,” says Tracey. “However, minimum orders and additional carriage or collection charges from lots of individual makers can hike up the price and your administration time,” she warns.
Another plus side to keeping your cheese selection on the smaller side is the ability to check the state of each cheese on a regular basis. “A good selection of cheeses to entice your customers is a must, however this must be in line with the amount you can sell while the cheese is still in good condition,” states Tracey.
“Better to have fewer superb cheeses in tip top condition rather than a sea of cheeses with many past their best, or even worse, ending up wasted.”
“Try to sample the cheeses every day to check both their quality and also to finesse your palette with what they taste like,” suggests Bill. “By re-wrapping (ideally daily) and tasting each cheese in your counter you will get to know them intimately and become aware of nuances of change while they age.”
While your cheesemonger’s eye is a vital tool in maintaining quality in your cheese counter, take the time to ensure that your selection is attractive to your customers too by inspecting it from their point of view. “Examine each cheese for damage, mould growth, wrapping that’s come astray or leakage,” says Tracey. According to The Academy of Cheese, it’s important to wrap cheese to avoid it drying out but to avoid re-using dirty packaging, i.e. where moulds or crumbs from the rind could impair the quality of the cut face.
Indeed, packaging should be changed regularly, especially if you’re using cling film. Cheese planes are good for gently shaving off the outer surface of a cut cheese which has developed surface moulds. The environment in which your cheese is kept should also be regularly checked. “Keep a log of fridge and room temperatures so you can keep your EHO happy, and also so you can spot any problems with refrigeration,” recommends Stephen Fleming of George & Joseph.
While, as Bill suggests, “the look of the cheese cabinet should be in keeping with the character of the rest of your shop, ie modern or rustic,” it’s important not to sacrifice practicality in favour of aesthetics. “Make sure the cabinet is clean, tidy and with the cheeses well wrapped,” he continues. A well-kept and attractive display will maximise sales; Tracey suggests displaying larger cheeses towards the rear with smaller cheeses in front, while Bill recommends positioning “soft and unusual cheeses” in the middle of your display, “as these will be seen more readily by the customer and should sell faster. You will want to sell your soft cheeses faster than the hard cheeses.”
When it comes to selling your cheese to a waiting customer, “on a busy Saturday customers won’t want to wait while you unwrap, cut and portion to the size they want, so make sure the counter is prepped with a variety of pre-cut and packed wedges already displayed atop the bigger pieces,” suggests Tracey. Consider their view while positioning cheeses, and then “ensure all those beautiful interior pastes are oozing or crumbling in their direction!”
In terms of labelling and signage, clarity is key. “Good signage is really important in helping customers to choose – and also acts as an aide memoire for your staff too,” explains Stephen. “Include key information such as the type of milk, whether the cheese is pasteurised or not, whether It is made with vegetarian or traditional rennet. We also like to include where it’s from and a fun fact about each cheese.” Stephen also highly recommends learning the skill of ‘glass wrapping’ – an attractive and useful technique which makes it appear as though your cheeses aren’t wrapped at all.
While consumers who usually shop in supermarkets opt for independents instead, there’s a great opportunity to really demonstrate what makes us stand apart from the big guys. “The current pandemic is here to stay so it is essential more than ever now to pay attention to all your customers, make them feel welcome and get them buying from your great cheese selection,” says Tracey.
Bill agrees: “Give your customer as much a personalised shopping experience as possible.” In practical terms, he says, “Pre-Covid you would have sampled out cheeses as you spoke and helped customers make decisions on which cheeses to buy. Now you need to convey this through your knowledge and passion for each cheese in your counter.”
“Keep smiling,” says Stephen. “Everyone is feeling the strain this time around, and a warm welcome to everyone who comes into your shop makes all the difference.” Also, with new customers to serve alongside your more seasoned regulars, “Make sure you help them feel comfortable by guiding them through the different types of cheese, and try to avoid using technical language that they may not understand.”
“We’ve found that customers are reassured by our clear signage, limits on customer numbers and provision of sanitiser in the shop,” he continues. “Doesn’t really count as making it an enjoyable experience, but certainly creates a safe one that our customers have commended us for.”