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This article originally appeared in Cheese Buyer 2021. Download a copy for more insights into today’s cheese industry.
Covid-19 was a spark that ignited huge changes for the retail sector. Almost overnight, footfall dropped due to lockdown orders, limits on shop capacity forced customers to queue up and quickly grab what they needed and go, and a fear of catching the virus kept many consumers home, instead turning to online shopping.
Amid these sweeping changes in shopper behaviour, cheesemongers that pivoted quickly towards e-commerce, social media and virtual events found success, as a next-generation form of cheesemongering emerged. But this sudden growth of online sales channels doesn’t mean bricks and mortar is over. “In my view, it’s a multi-strand approach – not just selling cheese over a counter in a shop,” explains Stephen Fleming of George & Joseph. “We see ourselves as facilitating people getting together over cheese, so that involves selling online to a wider audience than our shop can service, as well as offering events and educational courses to inform and entertain.”
Balancing the online and physical aspects of cheesemongering is a skill that modern cheese retailers will need to master, and one that will open up opportunities for those that succeed.
Over the pandemic, Kevin Sheridan of Sheridans Cheesemongers was pleased to see his physical outlets across Ireland continuing to perform well. In-person shopping still fulfills vital services for consumers, he says. “For many people, it is one of the few opportunities for outside human connection. In addition with restaurants being closed, they are looking for new ideas and have more time and willingness to cook at home and experiment with new foods.”
While bricks and mortar cheesemongering is by no means going away anytime soon, there are more opportunities than ever before in online business. “We experienced a big shift to online last year,” says Stephen. George & Joseph’s website has gone from accounting for about 5% of revenue to 45% over the last 12 months. “Previously, our website was mainly selling monthly cheese subscription boxes and tickets for our tasting events. We moved quickly to get our most popular products onto our website so customers could buy online during lockdown.”
Kevin also saw an uplift in e-commerce sales, even as in-store demand remained strong. “We have been extremely busy with our online business, and we haven’t found that it is competing with our traditional stores, but is another choice and layer to our service,” he explains. “It suits some customers more than others and has helped us reach areas outside our normal physical presence.”
While Kevin believes that some will move away from e-commerce as lockdown lifts, the door for digital sales will remain open. “Now that they have experienced the quality and the convenience of the service, they will keep it as an option.”
As well as promoting online cheese sales, next generation cheesemongers have found success in expanding their digital presence. For some, this took the form of increased activity on Facebook or more posts on Instagram as social media became a vital tool to stay in contact with customers. The Cheese Shop Nottingham owners Rob and Webb Freckingham found that videos posted to social media were a simple way to spread the word about the artisan cheeses in their shop.
“It’s very difficult to explain a taste on a website,” Webb explains. Over the cheese counter, drumming up sales is straightforward when customers can taste a sample of the cheese on offer, but online he found words weren’t doing their cheeses justice. To get a step closer to the in-store experience, they use video to show cheeses off and talk about tasting notes and pairings.
Elsewhere, others sought to build customer loyalty online through tools such as newsletters. George Mewes, who runs George Mewes Cheese, found newsletters to be the perfect way to communicate with and educate customers. The shop’s weekly newsletter has more than a thousand subscribers, and includes information about the latest cheeses, as well as offers and other announcements. “It’s been very, very positive for us,” George says. He finds newsletters to be a valuable way to share his passion for farmhouse cheeses. “People love to hear and read about the products. We do everything possible to get our message out there about the products that we sell.”
Another string in the bow of a next-generation cheesemonger is the ability to adopt new technologies and use them to their advantage, such as with virtual tastings. “We started doing cheese tastings over Zoom, which began as a replacement for our usual monthly in-store event, but we have also found a demand for private and corporate tastings on Zoom,” Stephen says. “One great advantage is that we can have guest speakers in the Zoom events that would have been much harder to do with our real-world events.”
“We are also very busy with virtual tastings and events,” adds Kevin. “This has been a great way to reach into people’s homes and to provide a night out where there are no restaurant evenings possible.”
Virtual tastings filled the void for consumers craving social events, and not having to rely on proximity meant that cheesemongers could welcome participants from further afield than for typical in-person events.
For newcomers to virtual tastings, Andy Swinscoe of The Courtyard Diary says the key is keeping things simple. “People are just after a fun experience.” He suggests running themed events in order to generate repeat bookings. “Use a specific topic that you can drill down on, whether that be French cheeses or Italian cheeses, to vary your tastings a bit more.” If a tasting is particularly popular and sells out, Andy will run an identical tasting a week or two later to make the most of his material.
For the next-generation cheesemonger, finding a balance between physical and digital is the key to success. After Stephen first introduced a greater online offering, he admits that this was a challenge. “At first we had to reduce our shop hours to give us time to get all the online orders together, but after a few weeks we had streamlined the process to allow us to open fully at the same time.” He suggests that cheesemongers who are hesitant about making the move to online start small. “We put out 20 best selling cheeses online first, then added others over time.”
Technology can be used to produce reports that detail exactly what is needed each day to fulfil orders. “When we started using route planning software we halved our delivery times,” Stephen continues. And remember that nothing is ever set in stone, he says. “Keep reviewing and improving your processes so things keep getting more efficient over time.”
Fundamental changes have occurred in consumer behaviour over the last year which have opened up new doors for cheesemongers. Every shop will find success with a different mix of online and in-store selling, but the key to being a next-generation cheesemonger is being open to new technologies and finding what works best for your shop.