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Although it’s enjoyed throughout the year, Christmas really is when artisan cheese comes into its own. With customers out to enjoy themselves, choosing to indulge in the finer things in life, comes the opportunity for savvy retailers to ‘up the ante’ in a bid to enhance sales in the countdown to December 25.
Now’s the time to think about creating gift bundles and attractive hampers, to sample those special, seasonal cheeses you’ve stocked up on, and to devise ways to upsell cheese-adjacent products, such as chutneys, pickles, crackers, relishes and more.
Mark Kacary of The Norfolk Deli, says independents have a lot of graft to put throughout the year – particularly if they are ‘in the sticks’, but that Christmas is a whole different ball game.
“It’s the one time in the year when people who wouldn’t give you the time of day through the rest of the year, suddenly remember that you sell cheese!” This, Mark adds, results in a dilemma for specialist retailers, who have had nothing other than gut instinct to go on when deciding what to stock and how much to buy.
“Supermarkets and their shareholders want total domination, which is why at Christmas it’s possible to buy a Christmas cheeseboard from them. This usually comprises an insipid piece of Stilton, Cheddar, and on occasions I have spied a piece of Epoisses or something similar.”
What speciality stores can and do do better than supermarkets, Mark says, is help customers create proper cheeseboards...and this begins with having an attractive display that invites discussion, leading to sampling and ultimately sales.
“To differentiate from supermarkets we try to create a display that, to start with, is a little awe-inspiring, but provides labels with some information.”
Caroline Blaydon of Wildgoose Fine Foods uses black slate boards to display her cheeses, with a finishing flourish of silver calligraphy penned on mini black cards to reveal each product’s name and details. This gives the counter a “sparkly touch” that’s ideal for the festive season.
“Unlike our year-round display, where we group our cheeses roughly according to soft, blue and hard, we choose a strong centrepiece cheese, usually a whole, round Stilton, then surround it with smaller wedges, cubes, and rectangles of a variety of other cheeses, choosing seasonal, traditional favourites like Brie de Meaux and mature Cheddar, and interspersing these with some lesser-known artisan cheeses, which creates a very attractive display, and encourages customers to try something new.”
Caroline places boxed cheeses in pyramids at the corner of her display counters to invite conversation, and give them more prominence.
She also likes to ‘garnish’ her display. “We contemplate which warm, seasonal colours will work with, not detract from, the cheese. Fresh cranberries offer a vibrant, festive touch, together with fresh cut figs, and little groups of walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts. Just remember to regularly check the fresh cranberries and figs for any signs of spoilage.”
“It’s important in the lead-up to Christmas to provide tasters, and to choose cheese that you know people wouldn’t normally buy or choose,” says Mark. “Invite them [customers] to taste. Even if people are outside of their normal comfort zone, if it’s an opportunity to sample something for free, nine times out of 10 they will. Tell them about the cheese, how good it will be on a Christmas cheeseboard, what would go really well with it.”
If you have crackers that pair well with that cheese, now’s the time to give them a mention. “Or if you have a sample jar of chutney, let them see for themselves how good a combination that would be.”
“On the internal glass shelf immediately above the cheeses we display jars of membrillo paste, cranberry and port jelly, truffle honey and other seasonal delights,” says Caroline. “And we also place groups of boxes of biscuits and crackers on top of the counter to maximise the opportunity to upsell.”
The landscape of your cheese counter should look and feel different in the festive season, with lots of products to pique the interest of regular customers. Caroline says that despite being a smaller store, she sees this time of year as an opportunity to stock larger, whole rounds which might not necessarily sell easily in the spring or summer, such as 8kg wheels of Stilton.
“Vacherin Mont D’or is always a popular choice for our customers, as are truffled cheeses, including the Swiss Kaltbach truffle wheel, and our lovely and local truffled Baron Bigod. We have found that crowd pleasers including Roquefort Papillon and vintage Lincolnshire Poacher always sell well, as do Snowdonia’s range of waxed truckles.”
Caroline also loves incorporating cheese hampers into her offering, which she says are popular for ‘the person who has everything’. It’s important to understand the gift recipient’s likes and dislikes and dietary restrictions, bringing together some of their favourites, as well as a few cheeses that might take them out of their comfort zone, for the element of surprise and delight.
Theming cheese hampers is a fun way to put a twist on Christmas gifting too. “So, if someone is known to love Italian cheeses, we might also include Italian biscuits and plump marinated olives. Or where a traditional gift of, say, Stilton or Cheddar is chosen, we may include black pepper crackers and a fig chutney. A small bottle of vintage Port is also a welcome inclusion.”
Presentation, Caroline adds, is key. “When cutting the individual cheeses, do have in mind the shape of the cheeses and where best to position these in the gift box alongside the chosen accompaniments to create an aesthetically pleasing display. We finish off with beautiful ribbons, and also offer our customers the opportunity to include a personalised gift card.”