Perhaps no other product combines high levels of consumer demand and consumer confusion quite like cheese.

American shoppers love cheese — as highlighted by the all-time high of natural cheese consumption in 2018 — but they’re still not totally comfortable when it comes to purchasing it, especially when it comes to unfamiliar varieties.

Shoppers want to know more about cheese. Luckily for retailers, cheese is a perfect way to drive customer experience. Through sampling and instore education, retailers can help form well-informed cheese buyers who will, in turn, spend more of their money inside the store. 

“We’ve found that the purchasing experience for the average cheese buyer is complex,” says Heather Engwall, vice president of marketing for Monroe, Wisconsin-based Emmi Roth USA. “Consumers want to be confident in their cheese purchase, but that can be difficult if they are unsure of the flavor or  texture of the cheese. Sampling helps break down some of the barriers to the cheese purchase. It allows consumers to taste a cheese first-hand and engage with someone who can offer helpful pairing and usage ideas. Overall, sampling increases purchasing confidence and often leads to successful cross-merchandising opportunities for retailers.”

Showcase quality

Long gone are the days of simply pointing consumers in the direction of a new cheddar. Sure, cheddars and other more common cheeses are vital in your department’s success, but sampling allows you to open a whole new world of cheese for your shopper.

“The cheese category has evolved in recent years to include new varieties of specialty and artisan cheeses,” Engwall says. “These changes mean some consumers are unfamiliar with new cheese names or styles and don’t know what to expect in terms of the flavor, texture or how to use or pair the cheese.”

This makes cheese education more important than ever.

Engwall notes that Roth cheeses have labels that are designed to help consumers navigate the specialty case with ease, offering helpful tasting notes, pairing tips and usage ideas. This type of information should also be communicated through instore sampling, she says.

Green Bay, Wisconsin-based BelGioioso Cheese says it continues to market its cheeses with a strong sampling program.

“Sampling provides education and a chance to experience the quality and flavor of the BelGioioso brand,” says Jamie Wichlacz, the company’s marketing manager. “A chance to taste is an important part of our brand’s philosophy and an enticing way to encourage purchases.  Plus, consumers consistently provide feedback in surveys saying they prefer to try cheeses before purchasing.”

Educate yourself

Before you can teach shoppers about high-end cheeses through sampling, make sure your deli employees — and your upper-level employees, for that matter — know what they’re talking about.

“We suggest making sure all personnel are educated about the brand and cheese before sampling begins,” Wichlacz says. “Demo personnel speak more confidently and enthusiastically when they have a good understanding of the cheese.”

To help with this, BelGioioso provides demo signs with a cheat sheet on the backside, scripted talking points about the specific cheese for the demo person to refer to during samplings.

With sampling providing a great opportunity for one-on-one cheese education, Emmi Roth suggests retailers prepare the sampling staff with some basic talking points that will help engage and educate consumers. 

“Research tells us that consumers are often most interested in the texture and flavor of a cheese,” Engwall says. “It’s also helpful to share one key point that makes the cheese unique. This could be an interesting fact about the cheesemaker or something about the make or affinage process.”

The role of the cheesemonger is growing in supermarkets for these reasons. Madison, Wisconsin-based IDDBA says retailers are embracing the value of the American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional certification by providing support to have their lead cheesemonger obtain this difficult and comprehensive accreditation.

The ACS CCP exam requires 4,000 hours working in cheese to qualify and then requires passing a three-hour, 150-question exam held annually.

Lead the way

Cheese sampling can provide the perfect opportunity to showcase other items in the store, especially when the consumer is already engaged.

“It’s important to take advantage of cross-merchandising opportunities when sampling cheese,” s Engwall says. “Pairings such as preserves, dried fruit and chocolate are an easy cross sell, as well as simple beverage pairings.”

BelGioioso says it has worked with retailers to create custom signage for cross-merchandising displays in other departments of the store. The signs draw attention to the display with branding and creative recipe usage photos and ideas.