The cheese category is an opportunity for retailers to offer their customers something different and take their slice of high margins

Cheese lovers are spoilt for choice at Heath Stores, in Horsmonden, Kent. The shop has a 2.5m deli, of which 1m is devoted to cutting cheese. Then there’s a chiller with pre-cut cheeses - local and speciality - on two shelves, amounting to another 2m. This means customers can get everything from everyday Cathedral City to Stinking Bishop or Applewood Smoked.

Kate Mills, who runs the store with her husband Andrew, says the pre-packed cheese sells itself. “It’s exceptionally easy as we buy it in, pre-cut and labelled, and it’s supplied sale or return. We have Cheddar, but the more farmhouse-type cheeses and local cheeses.

“I made the decision to stock just local and English cheeses as we have some brilliant cheese here in the UK. There are the obvious ones such as Stinking Bishop and Applewood Smoked, as well as less obvious ones - we have a Kentish stilton from a nearby village and Ashmore from Canterbury - but these cheeses do need to be sold so we do tastings on a regular basis. We find that if you put cheese out to taste it will sell. If something is selling slowly we do this and it sells quickly.”

Kate is a real foodie and loves her cheese; she is also keen to embrace occasions in the store, whether that’s a ‘food weeks’, a national day, or another occasion - it will always include a cheese. “For Burns Night we had Scottish cheese, and we’ll have the appropriate cheeses to celebrate St David’s, St Patrick’s and St George’s Days. Doing this does take some effort, but when you are making 40-50% profit on the cutting cheeses it’s worth it,” she says, adding that it’s these celebrations plus the range of cheeses that bring people into the store.

“It makes us different from the supermarkets and from other convenience stores,” explains Kate.

“Cheese is a core part of a deli and I always let people try them, even if they are not part of our tasting activity. I can recommend a creamy one or a strong one, or a chutney to go with a particular cheese.

“If you’re going to sell cutting cheese you have got to be prepared for this as it won’t sell itself.”

Heath Stores typically has one food or another available to taste every day, but Kate admits you do get some people who will take the mickey and try to get a free lunch. “But we recognise certain people and as soon as we see them come into the store we take away the tasting tray to refresh it,” she says.

“We also do homemade sandwiches every day and we put cheese in them. So people can get a local cheese and chutney roll - again it makes us different. But I have made mistakes in buying cheese - and those ‘mistakes’ have been put in the rolls!”

Kate’s advice to any retailer thinking about adding cutting cheese to their range is to start off with a local cheese - and to 
find a distributor who can get 
you a local product. She uses Anthony Rowcliffe & Son in Paddock Wood, Kent.

With high profit margins, it’s obvious that the cheeses do not come cheap, but Kate insists people are not put off by the prices, as they want the quality and provenance.

And Heath Stores doesn’t just carry premium lines. In the chiller you’ll find Cathedral City for those who want it, but Kate says it’s a slow seller for them.

“Philadelphia is a good seller - people know it and use it. It’s recently been on promotion but it sells well, full stop.”

Philadelphia is a ‘must stock’ line thanks to its position as the UK’s number one soft white cheese brand (Nielsen), worth more than £105m. Brand owner Mondelez International has been promoting it with launches designed to “unlock new usage occasions”. These include Philadelphia Duo Cremoso - a dual texture product with creamy Philadelphia on the outside and a ‘whipped core’ inside, with specially selected flavour combinations (garlic & fine herbs, vine-ripened tomatoes and cracked peppercorn).

What is more, the product comes wrapped in paper so it’s ready to lift out and serve at the table as an indulgent evening treat.

Mondelez International trade communications manager Susan Nash says: “We believe we’ve created a truly delicious and unique product to revolutionise the soft white cheese segment. Philadelphia Duo Cremoso has been driving incremental growth through new evening snack and dinner table consumption occasions.”

Back at Heath Stores, they also have goats’ cheese and Boursin, as well as pre-packed Manchega and Parmesan. “And we stock mascarpone and ricotta,” says Kate. “They are slow sellers, but we have to have them because if a customer needs some for a recipe they expect us to have it. We lose out on these two lines as they don’t always sell, but we more than make up for them in the other lines.”

Cheese is a big seller at the award-winning Spar Parkfoot forecourt in West Malling, Kent, too. Ann Charman says: “It’s quite amazing really as some weeks I feel like nobody has bought any cheese, but we get to the end of the week and I see it’s all gone.” She says that one called Black Bomber is very popular.

Like Kate, Ann has cheese for cutting on the deli as well as pre-packed lines - speciality and everyday - in the chiller. And she does taster days, too. “We recently put out a couple of waxed cheeses - Pickle Power and Ruby Mist - for people to try.”

Ann loves her cheese, but she too admits to having made mistakes when buying. “I have bought some cheese then tried it and thought it was absolutely awful and said I’ll never buy it again. I love cheese so if I think it’s awful then other people will, too.”

She says a retailer’s range will very much depend on your clientele. “We can afford to try new lines because we have so many customers who are willing to try something new, but if yours is a smaller store it might not work.”

Although the store specialises in speciality cheeses, Ann says there are some delicious cheeses in the Spar own-brand range. “We did tastings for them in the beginning and they are very good cheeses at much lower prices,” she says.

Both Kate and Ann report that customers are becoming more adventurous in their choice of cheese.

Rich Clothier, managing director at Wyke Farms, agrees: “An increasing interest in our Old Smokey and Vintage lines, for example, would certainly suggest this. We also engage with more than 40,000 people on social media every day who often share the ways in which they are using their cheese. It’s great to see cheese as the centrepiece to so many different meal variations.According to Mintel, 65% of people see cheese as part of a healthy diet and 47% report that its health benefits outweigh the disadvantage of high fat content. Furthermore, 65% of cheese users think that cheese is a good way to get protein in their diet.

Cheese takes a slice of the snacking opportunity

Cheese as a snack is big business. Indeed, Nielsen data states it is a £195m category, while Mintel reports that some 23% of cheese users now eat it as an alternative to other snacks/treats such as chocolate or crisps.

Adam Mehegan, shopper marketing controller at Dairy Crest, reckons this highlights a real opportunity for retailers to promote adult cheese snacks as a relevant snacking solution. “Cheese offers a nutritious alternative to more traditional snacks such as crisps and cereal bars, as well as playing to demand for natural products,” he says.

Clare Bocking, sales director for convenience at Kerry Foods, agrees: “Shoppers are moving away from purchasing cheese to consume only as part of a packed lunch or fridge staple, and it’s becoming a multi-snacking opportunity throughout the day through new and innovative formats.”

Kerry Foods’ range includes LowLow snack packs for adults. These comprise low-calorie LowLow Cheddar, multigrain toast and a choice of three relishes.

Mehegan says growth of cheese snacking products is particularly strong in the convenience multiples, where the Cathedral City Selections brand is performing well, achieving 3.7% growth year on year (IRI data).

Meanwhile, Cathedral City Chedds offer kids a more interesting way to enjoy real Cheddar, while at the same time reassuring mums that they are getting a 100% natural product with no colours, flavours or preservatives. All Chedds products come in single-serve portions, perfect for snacking or lunch box occasions.

And sales of Chedds Cheese & Toasties - single packs comprising six slices of mild Cathedral City Cheddar and six pieces of Melba toast - are booming, with Nisa stores reporting growth in excess of 60% in value and volume.