Knowing and understanding the specialty cheese category “from the top down” is a must for grocers and other merchandisers, said Connie Concon, national sales director of Point Reyes Station, Calif.-based Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.

“Understanding what sells in each region, city or neighborhood,” she said. “Educating the cheese mongers, deli managers and category managers by creating value for their market, which we see them showing support of our brands in return.”

The approach to merchandising specialty cheese has changed over the years, Concon said. For one, retailers are getting more store-specific. Because of the current economy, retailers are more in tune with placing the right cheeses in the right stores.

“There are less than one-size-fits-all approaches, and stores have a say in what they carry. It’s more important now to listen to the retailer and to be in tune with the type of store to understand what recommendations make sense on a case-by-case basis.”

Supplier brand stories can be crucial to merchandising once the product gets to its retail destination. Point Reyes’ story, Concon said, is “key and unique.” The company’s refresh labels play a big role in educating consumers about that story. “The new color band is designed for each flavor,” she said. “It’s an attractive eye-catching design that still has the same recognizable milk can logo symbolizing quality and freshness from the farm.”

Point Reyes added statements of identity to its labels to describe what’s in the flavored cheeses, Concon said.

Packaging also now features easier-to-read pairing and application suggestion on the outer rim of the front label, and the QR Code on the back directs the consumer to seasonal recipes and stories from the farm.

Point Reyes also works with retailers to make sure its WBENC logo is highlighted at point-of-sale, drawing attention to the company’s commitment to sustainable farming.

“It’s not only educating consumers but also creating impactful promotional activity, keeping cheese sales increasing year after year.”

Point Reyes utilizes both strong relationships with its retailer and broker partners to meet its merchandising goals, Concon said. What they jointly strived to achieve, she said, is “building programs that make sense and utilizing data to help to fill voids faster than a merchandising team can accomplish quickly.”

“Our broker merchandising team specializes in building relationships long-term in the stores and also helps to constantly train new staff about our brand.”

Cross-merchandising musts

Top tips from Janet Fletcher and the Specialty Food Association

For cheese merchants, getting customers to leave the shop with more than just cheese can mean the difference between red ink and black. A pint of olives, some premium crackers, a slice of quince paste to go with Manchego—these are the add-on purchases, often impulse buys, that can result from clever cross-merchandising. If you’d like to do a better job of cross-merchandising with cheese, follow these 10 top tips.

1. Know your products and be passionate about them

Excitement is contagious. “I do a lot of talking, says Nancy Ford, manager of the 24th Street Cheese Company in San Francisco. “And I don’t talk people into anything that I don’t think is good. So when I’m psyched up about something, customers want to try it.” Recently, Ford brought in a new line of French condiments for cheese and sold a case in a week because customers sensed her excitement.

2. Consider adjacencies: what’s next to what

Position products to fit shoppers’ purchasing patterns. From cheese to olives to charcuterie to bread might be one such logical sequence. Many retailers put olives next to the cheese case, or even in the cheese case, because olives are such a natural add-on.

3. Make it take-able

Put the complementary item where people can easily grab it. If you are recommending aged Balsamic vinegar with Parmigiano-Reggiano, put the vinegar within reach. Very few people will make an effort to track something down.

4. Offer unique items

Make your store the place to come for condiments that shoppers cannot find in the supermarket. Star Provisions in Atlanta makes its own olive mix, a blend of eight or nine varieties with extra virgin olive oil, herbes de Provence and crushed red pepper. The Village Cheese Shop in Southampton, N.Y., makes herbed toasts from day-old bread and packages them as crostate, seasoned crisps that complement many creamy cheeses.

5. Tell a story

Ihsan Gurdal, proprietor of Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge and Boston, travels frequently to Europe to source cheeses and condiments and to experience traditional pairings firsthand. Recently, Gurdal began importing farmhouse preserves from France’s Ardèche and Basque regions, condiments typically served with the cheeses from those areas. He learned that the Basques serve black cherry preserves spiked with eau de vie to complement the strong local sheep’s milk cheeses made at high altitudes; with milder cheeses from the valley, they serve the preserves au naturel.

6. Excite your staff

Give them opportunities to taste and learn. Encourage them to develop opinions about good partners for cheese and to share those opinions with customers. Train your counter people to suggest accompaniments. At the Cheese Shop of Virginia, employees routinely ask, “Would you like a loaf of freshly baked bread or crackers with that?”

7. Have an active sampling program

If customers taste it, they will purchase it, retailers say. Adam Batcheller of the Village Cheese Shop says he recently offered samples of burrata, a fresh southern Italian cheese similar to mozzarella, drizzled with French olive oil, and customers bought both cheese and oil.

At Joan’s on Third, a specialty food store and deli in Los Angeles, mostarda (Italian preserved fruits with mustard oil) was a slow seller until the staff began offering tastes of it with Parmigiano-Reggiano.

8. Cross-merchandise with items from your kitchen or deli

In the cheese case, that could mean a house-made chutney or tapenade. If your store makes sandwiches, highlight the cheese. Offer ham and Emmenthal rather than ham and Swiss or, as the Village Cheese Shop does, an English farmhouse cheddar and bacon sandwich.

9. Don’t hard sell

Customers like suggestions, but they will balk if they feel you are aggressively trying to build the sale. If your attitude is ‘sell, sell,’ customers sense it. Instead, the attitude should be ‘learn, learn,’ then ‘teach, teach.’ And when you’re talking to one customer, three others are listening.

10. Plan your cross-merchandising

Make it part of your merchandising schedule for the year. Beefing up a display for cross-merchandising can mean a lot of extra work for employees, but if they know in March about the Spanish promotion in June, they have time to get involved and motivated.

This article is an excerpt from the October 2023 issue of Supermarket Perimeter. You can read the entire Cheese Merchandising feature and more in the digital edition here.