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Guest Columns

Perspective:
Cheese Marketing

Keep cheese demand momentum going with shopper engagement

Jeremy Johnson

Jeremy Johnson is vice president of education for the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association. He is a guest columnist for Cheese Market News®.

The events of the past few months have been challenging in the food industry. From shopping surges that resulted in empty shelves and aisles to closures of in-store cheese and deli departments and now, potential disruptions in the food supply chain due to temporary plant closures, food retailers and producers, like all businesses, are facing unprecedented market conditions.

While the food industry has faired better than most other business segments, the unknowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are making it challenging for cheese producers and purveyors to plan for and gauge consumer shopping and eating trends, both now and in the future. Sales trends show that consumers continue to seek out and consume cheese. The demand for the product is there; the key now is ensuring convenience and variety for consumers, who are making stock-up trips and purchasing cheese for at-home meals for their families and themselves.

• Cheese sales up, consistent with recent food sales trends

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States in March, sales of cheese and cheese products, both in the refrigerated case and the in-store deli, have increased from a year-over-year rise of 73.8% for natural cheese in the dairy case and 47.5% in the deli for the week ending March 22, to a rise of 22.1% and 5.2%, respectively, for the week ending April 19. (The International Dairy Deli Bakery Association posts COVID-19 Impact reports weekly on its website. To access the reports, visit www.iddba.org/research/industry-research/covid-19-impact.)

The figures are reflective of the trend the retail food industry experienced storewide: a sudden wave of panic shopping, followed by a gradual leveling off of sales as consumers shop less often but purchase more during their stock-up trips.

As many Americans are now working from home and meal prep within the household is now the norm, much of the cheese purchased is most likely being eaten as part of a sandwich or as a meal ingredient or topping.

However, cheese no doubt also continues to serve its role as a snacking option, as individuals try to replicate their pre-pandemic work schedules, which oftentimes involved eating cheese as a snack during the workday.

And let’s not forgot about the entertaining factor. While many Americans are still abiding by stay-at-home orders, that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy cheese and wine with your significant other. In fact, it can help create a greater sense of normalcy.

• How to engage more with the consumer

In-store cheese and deli departments have been impacted more by the pandemic that other areas of the retail store. Many retailers have had to limit staffing, department hours, and even temporarily close these departments. This makes consumer engagement as vital as ever. Here are suggestions for engaging consumers, both in-store and online:

• Pre-packaged options: While some in-store delis have been able to remain open and fully-functioning, others have had to reduce hours of operation and close completely. Additionally, even if retailers are operating their in-store delis at full capacity, some consumers may be hesitant to interact with anyone outside their home, which could include store associates slicing or cutting cheese to order. Also, many consumers are looking to complete their shopping trips quickly and would prefer not to wait in line at the deli counter.

To ensure that consumers still have access to the cheese they’re seeking, consider offering a variety of pre-packaged cheese options. This could be deli-sliced cheese, blocks or wedges, or bite-sized offerings suited for snacking (and which could also include other items such as deli meats and nuts). Don’t forget to offer several size and weight options (i.e., one-quarter pound, one-half pound, etc.) as well, knowing that consumers may be shopping for a family of five or just for themselves.

• Offer recipe ideas that include cheese: Most individuals are preparing most of their meals at home now and are looking for new recipes. Help guide them by posting recipes that incorporate a variety of different cheeses in your stores’ online and social media channels. If your company or store has an existing prepared-deli and meals program, identify popular dishes that can be prepared at home, as well as new ideas from your corporate chefs or foodservice teams.

• Encourage virtual entertaining: In the food world, cheese is synonymous with entertaining. And in the present COVID-19 world, entertaining in the true sense of the word is challenging. However, just as cheese and pairing options like wine, beer, cured meats and crackers are still readily available, so too are online video chat services, which many of you already use daily. Encourage consumers to create pairing lists (or better yet, create sample lists for them) and schedule pairing and sampling events online with their friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers.

• Continued focus on online purchasing options: With consumers trying to limit their travel and exposure to others, online shopping, pick-up and delivery has experienced a significant boost over the past few months.

As stated by IRI during a recent IDDBA webinar, 23% of shoppers are ordering online due to the pandemic.

Browsing a cheese island or ordering sliced cheese from a counter may not be feasible for some consumers at the moment, but ordering product online is. Depending on your staffing and logistical restrictions, consider adding a variety of cheese varieties and types, as well as different size and weight options. Keep in mind that online options will almost certainly become more popular post-pandemic, so an investment in this service now will most likely see traction long-term. According to IRI, 35% of consumers said they’re very likely to continue purchasing online after restrictions have been lifted, while 49% said they were somewhat likely to.

Consumers’ shopping patterns may have changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but their desire for cheese has not. Making it simple and convenient in purchasing the cheese they enjoy — as well as providing stay-at-home ideas for cooking and entertaining — can help retailers continue to drive sales of, and interest in, their cheese selection.

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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