While many retailers are gearing up their standard fare for the holiday season, the more cheese-oriented among them are determined to remain distinct and creative, counting on product uniqueness and today’s exploratory consumers to give them an even bigger annual boost.

For Skogen’s Festival Foods in Wisconsin, that means trying something new and expanding on it for their customers this year. For Jungle Jim’s International Market in Fairfield, OH, that means doing what they do best, in a way that only a store as small and nimble as theirs might be able to accomplish.

“We have a few things in mind for this year,” says Jimmy Bonaminio, director of creative services for the specialty store, which boasts over 1,400 cheeses from around the world. “We’re putting our marketing campaign together right now actually, and we’re really excited to re-introduce these awesome trays — and all of the fantastic and delicious choices customers will have — to everyone over the next couple of months. We offer cheese trays year-round, but we’re always on the lookout for new products, so if anything interesting pops up, we’ll see it and try to create something fun, appetizing, and interesting.

“We love creating trays to meet more traditional needs, but Jungle Jim’s is all about the funky and weird, so if we have the opportunity to play that up, we’ll take it. Sure we could just do cheese, but we love creating interesting combinations for some of our other departments and their events, like beer and wine tastings, and using those as a basis for new concepts.”

As an international specialty store, Jungle Jim’s rivals the major chains in Ohio with their exclusive imports and thoroughly educated staff, but though Bonaminio says that they’re “a strange beast, and still learning every day,” what really gives Jim’s the upper hand is their relationships with vendors, and that’s something that a store of any size can work on.

“We’ve built such tremendous relationships with not just big-name brands, but with all the local and regional, quirky and unique brands that we can,” he says. “It gives us a certain edge, and we love that. You see it on our shelves every day, and we certainly think that comes through in the trays that we are able to put together. And, since we only have two locations, the amount of traffic that each location sees means that we can move a lot more product a lot faster — which means that much of what we have is super fresh and of the moment. So the combination means we can do a lot of things other retailers can’t.”

That doesn’t mean that other, bigger retailers can’t improvise or impress their cheese tray customers, however. Skogen’s only started offering holiday cheese trays at a few of its stores last year — but to such success, they will now offer them at all 25.

“We’ve always had a specialty cheese area within our deli, but knew we were missing the boat on making things easier for the shoppers by putting something together for them,” says Michael Losiniecki, assistant director of deli at Skogen’s. “So we tried a couple of different types.

“The majority of the stores tried to keep it at a $20 price point, so we put $20 worth of retail cheese on a bamboo cutting board and cellophane wrapped it, and between Thanksgiving and Christmas we actually decorated them with a little ribbon or a bow. We even had one store that went above and beyond and did some different gift baskets that partnered not only specialty cheese, but charcuterie-type items like prosciuttos and salamis and things of that nature. And for custom baskets there was possibly a bottle of wine and some Italian specialty items like olive oils and balsamic glazes, but those had a little bit higher price point; those were $40 - $50.”

The boards and baskets were a hit, he says, bringing in upwards of an 8 - 10 percent lift in holiday revenue. So this year the chain is going to keep it up, maintaining the $20 price point that customers found so attractive as well as providing the option for custom baskets to even more of their retail locations.

“It’s going one step above, in my opinion,” he says of the trays. “It’s taking the time to make other people’s lives easier. A lot of times you’ll find that the majority of folks aren’t familiar with the large selection we offer, so they sometimes need guidance, and by offering a cheese plate or tray, you’re actually giving them suggestions.

“There’s a nice variety too, there might be four or five different types of cheese there, so you’re covering categories from something like a spreadable cheese to maybe a bleu or goat cheese. In the holiday season we typically have a brie, and then you finish it up with a nice Havarti, Gouda or cheddar, or something that’s a little bit more in the hard cheese category.

As for spreading the word on these new offerings, Losiniecki says they’ll use social media and and other digital outlets, as well as doing promotions throughout their annual Cheese Festival in November. But in the end, like Jungle Jim’s, he says that when it comes to cheese especially, it really boils down to those critical  interactions and customer service your staff has to offer for those exploratory customers we all love so much.