KANSAS CITY, MO. - When the pandemic hit earlier this year, the grocery retail landscape quickly started to change. One of the first things to exit the scene was a merchandising tool that has a long history of success in driving impulse purchases of specialty items like deli cheeses: sampling.

While the grocery industry has begun to find a “new normal” through a new way of doing things, sampling has been one of the more difficult categories to bring back to its former glory. Consumers are still hesitant when it comes to using shared spaces — especially a sampling station in which bite-sized samples are usually served in open cups for any customer to grab as they walk by.

For specialty cheeses, sampling has always been a key tactic to encourage customers to try out a new type of specialty cheese, said Mike Currie, marketing director of Fairfield, N.J.-based Schuman Cheese.

“Especially cheese, it’s typically a higher-dollar item and you have a lot of different brands and a lot of different cheese types,” he said. “So, people are a little reluctant to shell out the cash to dabble in that category unless they know what they’re getting into. That’s how sampling really helps us drive that trial and familiarity so they’re more comfortable picking up a more expensive piece of cheese. It’s been a challenge in replicating the success we’ve had with sampling programs.”

So far, few grocers have returned to offering instore samples. In mid-June Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco — a retailer famous for its samples —started bringing back free samples in a trial at some of its locations after a three-month hiatus. At those select stores, Costco began offering pre-packaged samples kept behind plexiglass shields and given out by servers wearing masks and gloves.

Many other retailers, however, are abstaining from resuming sampling stations any time soon, and cheese suppliers like Schuman Cheese and Montreal-based Saputo Cheese are searching for new ways to offer customers the same benefits of sampling without the act of offering free-for-all samples in the store.

“We’ve been trying to explore different ways to get that sampling benefit,” said Jessica Sharma, associate marketing manager at Saputo. “We’ve been figuring out alternative tactics that are available per retailer because every retailer is set up differently.”

Instore alternatives

Although it’s more of a challenge in pandemic times to reach customers as they are shopping in the store, there are a few things retailers can do to entice specialty cheese purchases.

Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator at the Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA), suggests that retailers use the same tactics that have been explored and successful in the other areas of the deli and deli-prepared category: pre-packaged and grab-n-go items.

“I think you can really use the same model when it comes to specialty cheese,” Richard said. “There is a way to open up consumers’ taste buds to special cheeses by offering a variety pack of cut and chucked cheeses that someone can quickly pick up in the deli, that’s already pre-packaged in a grab-n-go style. That’s a way to engage consumers.”

Since physical demos aren’t much of an option anymore, Schuman Cheese has been working with some of its retail partners to offer virtual demos instore. Currie said that they plan to have a display area set up instore with Schuman’s available cheeses along with signage and a QR code where customers can go to learn more about the cheese and ask questions.

“It’s not quite tasting it, but customers can see how the cheese can be used, what recipes it goes in, and they can kind of start to form a picture in their mind of, ‘Hey, this is a cheese I could really use and use often,’” Currie said. “It’s all the circumstance of a demo, just without the actual trying of the product. Typically, with demos a customer will ask the person there questions about how to use the cheese, and we’re still able to answer those questions virtually, so we can still educate the consumer.”

Saputo Cheese has been working with retailers to reach customers when they come through drive-up grocery pickup. The cheesemaker has noticed that some grocers are dropping in samples of non-perishable products along with a customer’s order, and they’ve applied a similar tactic with their products. Instead of giving grocers physical samples to include in a customer’s order, since cheese is a perishable item, Saputo is giving grocers educational cards that include a coupon and a recipe or other suggestions on how to use one of the company’s cheeses.

“Those are something that drive consumers to purchase the item later and incentivizes shoppers to purchase something they might not be familiar with, but since they have a coupon and are aware of ways to use the cheese they’re willing to try it out,” Sharma said.

Reaching consumers online

Connecting with consumers in the store has become more difficult as consumer shopping trips have become less frequent and more planned. That’s why the most beneficial way to reach consumers may now be through online channels such as social media, websites and online shopping. That’s where suppliers like Schuman and Saputo have been directing a chunk of their latest efforts.

Schuman has been doing a lot of connecting with consumers through social media with contests and giveaways. While that tactic only gets their product to select individuals, Currie noted that a little exposure goes a long way.

“If they (the consumer) like it, they are more willing to talk about it on their social media and amplify that message of, ‘I tried cello copper kettle, and it’s amazing,’ and if they talk about it on social media that can be a proxy to their friends who may see their friend liking it, who has done the heavy lifting and found a good-tasting cheese and they’ll buy into the concept,” Currie said. “While we can’t do sampling for everyone who goes to the store, finding a few key people or influencers on social media to talk about us has been very helpful.”

Saputo has been working with some retailers to produce virtual demos that can be shared with customers online before they go to the store. Sharma noted that the demos have typically been live cooking demos at scheduled time in which customers can sign up to virtually attend.

“Those who sign up get a gift bag which includes samples of product or coupons to keep the brand top of mind for any purchases later on, or they can use that coupon to buy product for the virtual event,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to try to gain customer loyalty right after the event.”

Since this pandemic hit, cheese sales have held strong. The last week of July deli cheese sales were up 8.4%, and natural cheese sales were up 19.4% compared to the same timeframe in 2019, according to data published by 210 Analytics in partnership with IRI and IDDBA.

With more time at home, many consumers are cooking more, and thus looking for new recipes. Both Sharma and Currie conclude that this phenomenon has been an advantage to the specialty cheese segment.

“Customers are finding ways to add a little bit of a treat to maybe a typical dish like pasta, and they’re interested in putting a specialty cheese like parmesan or Romano cheese so there’s a little indulgence to the everyday dish,” Currie said.

Currie pointed out that consumers looking for ways to add to their home cooking might be driving trials, and encouraging buyers to try out new things — making it easier to pitch an idea like a recipe or educational fact about a cheese to a customer that then drives a purchase.

Pairing cheese with seasonal fruits

With summer at its peak, there are plenty of fruit-cheese combinations retailers can push toward consumers that can elevate any cheeseboard, barbecue or picnic. Madison-based Wisconsin Cheese has several suggestions perfect to share with customers:

Pineapple + Gouda

Tropical fruits like pineapple pair perfectly with a buttery, sometimes fruity cheese like Wisconsin’s Marieke® Gouda.

Havarti + Honeydew

Honeydew has a light, subtle flavor that leaves you feeling refreshed and your palate cleansed, and pairs well with the creamy Wisconsin Carr Valley Havarti cheese.

Strawberries + Feta Cheese

When fresh berries are in season, reach for an equally fresh cheese. Wisconsin Cheese’s Odyssey® Feta Cheese is tart, salty and super tasty fresh cheese that plays well with farmer’s market strawberries.

Apples + Cheddar Cheese

Whether young or aged, Wisconsin Cheese has delicious cheddars like Henning’s Aged Cheddar will create a sweet and salty pairing combination, that’s divine.

Raspberries + Mascarpone

Rich and buttery, slightly sweet Crave Brothers Farmstead Mascarpone from Wisconsin is the perfect accompaniment to luscious, ripe raspberries.

Cherries + Blue Cheese

Roth’s earthy and tangy Buttermilk Blue Cheese from Wisconsin is the ideal partner for tart and super sweet cherries.

SOURCE: Wisconsin Cheese

This story was featured in the August issue of Supermarket Perimeter. Check out the full issue here.