The importance of sampling cheese at the counter

17 September 2023, 07:00 AM
  • Letting your customers try before they buy could make a huge difference to your bottom line
The importance of sampling cheese at the counter

Ah, the allure of the deli counter. A feast for the senses. Layer after layer of temptation – from wheels of fine artisanal cheeses, to cured hams, neatly tied salamis, and pates glistening under aspic.

This is the heart of the operation, isn’t it? The place most mongers and deli owners will dedicate a significant amount of time to.

But, have you ever considered that the altar of delights you curate week after week, might be a little…overwhelming for the average customer?

Dizzied by choice, there is a chance they might walk in, have a cursory look, and slink back out the door.

This is where the power of sampling – and good product knowledge – comes in. 

How to sample cheese

Gently ushering customers up to the counter, and letting them have a nibble of a few of your wares is a vital part of any deli operation. Not only is it an ice breaker, but it could be the beginning of an education. Mark Kacary, owner of The Norfolk Deli, says, “It feels that to the majority of the world there are only two types of cheese - ‘strong’ and ‘Cheddar’. And on the odd occasion there is a marriage of the two and the cheesemonger will be asked for ‘strong Cheddar’.”

Mark says deciding what you’d like to promote, slicing it into morsels and allowing people to try for themselves, “Works, but has its disadvantages, in that it encourages the ‘I haven’t had lunch yet but I’m hungry’ brigade, who will pick as many pieces as they can before scuttling off. But it does allow for some others to taste and ask about the cheese, and more often than not, if you combine sampling with customer engagement then a sale is the net result.”

If his pre-cut samples aren’t a customer’s cup of tea, he sees this as a chance to open up another suggestion, but adds, “I never believe somebody when they adamantly state that they hate all blue cheeses. ‘You just haven’t tried the right blue cheese’, I would say. ‘What type of blue cheese have you had? Was it something like this?’. As I point to the Stilton. ‘Yes’ is often the reply, in which case I suggest that just to satisfy a pet project I have, that they try a little piece of Montagnolo. ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’.

He says around 80% of the time he manages to win an unsure customer over, and that tasting and sampling is the most crucial part. “Unless you taste the cheese, or give people the opportunity to do so, don’t be surprised if you’re not selling as much as you would like.”

Simon Jones of Forest Deli says the shop always lets customers taste new cheeses, or ones they haven’t happened to have tried before, taking small shavings off hard cheese, or a little piece of a softer variety.

Like Mark, he’s less of a fan of ready prepared samples, saying trying products should be a more personalised experience. “We definitely find that just having a plate of some samples to try with a cocktail stick doesn’t really get the customers engaged! Getting customers to talk about cheese and what they like is always fun, and helpful, as that makes it easier to recommend other cheeses to them, and ones for them to avoid.”

Simon also sees sampling as a way to share on his expertise – the kind of knowledge shoppers won’t find idling in a supermarket aisle. “We’ll talk about the importance of taking cheese out of the fridge quite a while before eating,” he explains. “A really sharp Cheddar straight from he fridge does not give all of its flavours up!”

Creating events around samples and tasting are key too, Simon adds. “We have tasting events every Saturday afternoon. We offer three cheeses with the relevent crackers and condiments, along with local beer, cider or wine. The area only seats eight, but every week all the participants chat with each other and recommend cheeses to others, which gets people wanting to try more.”

Ross Parrock, of Mill Street Store & Deli says there’s another advantage to sampling. “It’s beneficial to us, because it helps us control our stock. For example, I overordered on Morbier recently. It was the biggest piece ever! So I’ve been getting everyone who comes in store to try it, and it’s almost gone. It would have just sat there if we hadn’t sampled it. So we do this strategically quite a lot to rotate stock, giving us the opportunity to clear our space in the counter to bring new products in regularly.”

Striking up a conversation

Mark’s favourite way of selling is to see every single conversation in the shop as a chance to get a prospective customer to sample some cheese. “We believe the perfect way to differentite ourselvse from the corporate supermarkets is to encourage people to try a cheese they’ve shown an interest in,” he says.

“Talk to customers. Ask them questions. Work out what they mean by ‘strong cheese’. ‘Have they heard of X or Y? If not, why not try a sliver?’. At the end of the day, getting someone to try a tiny amount could be the difference between a sale and seeing them walk out the door as they march off to the local supermarket. I want people to discover the miracle of cheese. How a single ingredient can be turned into so many different varieties.”

Ross agrees this is the best approach. “Anyone can order in 40 to 50 cheeses, but you can’t just expect customers to know what everything is.”

Ross’s store is active on social media, letting regulars and new customers know that Wednesday is the day they get new cheeses in to try. But he says it’s also important for whoever’s at the counter to be approachable. “It’s all about that talk at the counter. Chatting with customers we can get to know them and what they like. But it’s also so important to know your stock so you are ready, when you’re sampling, with a few bullet points about each cheese. Who made it. How it’s wrapped. Where the milk comes from. Something more interesting than the fact it might be a cow’s milk cheese, or that it has a washed rind.”

Upselling cheese at the counter

One of the reasons sampling in store is so valuable, adds Ross, is that it can encourage repeat trade, and helps staff build relationships with customers, getting to know what they like, don’t like, and want more of.

“We can put in leading questions. What do they like? What wines are they interested in? And sometimes from that we can tailor-make the rest of their shopping for them.”

Building brand identity is another big reason to offer tasters, he adds. “We very much promote British cheese, especially cheese from Suffolk and Norfolk, where we’re based. Tastings are a good way to showcase ‘local’, especially to people from out of town, or tourists. Often they’ll end up buying the whole local range because they want to take home a reminder of their trip to the countryside.”

more like this
close stay up-to-date with our free newsletter | expert intel | tailored industry news | new-to-know trend analysis | sign up | speciality food daily briefing