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Arguably, sampling is one of the most important elements of independent retail. It’s something which differentiates indies from the multiples in terms of customer service and experience, and allows the knowledgeable cheesemonger to share their expertise and have their customer thoroughly experience the product. Andy Swinscoe of The Courtyard Dairy says that sampling is a key element to his business: “When we ask what people like most about our business, and why they come back, sampling comes out on top as the most frequently mentioned point.” For Neal’s Yard Dairy, says director David Lockwood, tasting and sharing is “fundamental”. “We sell on flavour,” he says, “and to be successful we need customers to buy the right cheese for them, take it home, eat it and feel the need to come back to NYD for more. We want people buying the cheeses that they feel taste best, not what we want to push. This will build regular customers and they learn to trust us to offer what we think is best at the moment.”
Cheese tastings have always been fundamental to the running of Neal’s Yard Dairy. “We worked to improve the cheeses that were made through soliciting feedback from customers,” explains David. “Randolph quickly learned that there was quite a lot of variation from batch to batch as well as within the batch itself. The staff needed to constantly taste the cheese and have customers taste the cheese too. NYD got direct feedback about the cheese and the staff could direct customers to the cheeses they liked best.”
“Over time other benefits were seen. First and foremost, when people walk in the shop to look around and don’t want to engage with staff, we can simply provide a taste without speaking. It’s on the knife before asking if the person is interested. No pressure. We are sharing something delicious and not worrying about making a sale.”
For little-known cheses, sampling is integral to their success. For Jumi, a London-based retailer of Swiss cheese, sampling is “fundamental so that our customers can get to know our products,” says Marcello Basini, director. “Only by tasting the cheese,” he says, “can you differentiate an artisanal product from a mass-produced one.”
How to do it
Andy advises that cheesemongers talk about the product at the same time as they’re handing out the sample – “interact with them,” he says. Staff training is key, explains David: “We train our team to say what they think about the cheese offered rather than asking the customer what they think of the cheese. It’s not nice to be put on the spot by an expert.” This training can help in developing skills to help gauge what the customer really wants, even if they don’t have the knowledge to ask for that outright.
“We use the sampling process to get to the cheese that the customer actually wants,” says David. “They may come in asking for a mild Cheddar and leave with a Stilton based on the feedback they provide the person serving them.” This understanding can be helpful to the wider business, too; at Neal’s Yard Dairy, information from customer samplings is fed back to producers and the in-house maturing team.
How not to do it
“You have to be careful not to sample passively,” says Andy. “Just putting out lumps of cheese that people can graze on as they pass without any interaction will tip the balance into being more about people just grabbing and eating and less about them sampling and thinking about what they are tasting.” In percentage terms, Andy states that around 25% of the time samples do not lead to a sale, but it’s important to not let that be the end of it – simply offer them a sample of something else as a comparison, and use it “as an introduction to talk to the customer about what you do and your cheeses.”
Personally,” says Marcello, “I don’t like the way some business sample cheese, just throwing it on a board and feeding it to a more or less engaged public – sampling should always be personal and unique.” Don’t think that customer service and experience will automatically lead to a sale, though; “A poor product won’t go anywhere even with the best communication,” he continues.
What about the cost?
“While sampling can be time consuming and may not lead to a sale at the moment, we believe that it builds the value of our brand,” says David. “While sampling can be time consuming and may not lead to a sale at the moment, we believe that it builds the value of our brand.” In terms of shoppers who are happy to taste cheese with little intention of purchasing it, David says that it’s “unusual. Very occasionally we will have people graze, and if we are sampling outside the shop our conversion rate will be low, but the activity will draw people to us.” Also, David states that mongering skills are key, as poor skills can lead to unsellable waste – a potentially sizeable cost of offering samples.