Category Review: Cheese - Just Say Cheese

April 15, 2008
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Few other foods are as ubiquitous as cheese. The 5,000-year-old dairy favorite tops pizzas and sandwiches, enjoys main attraction status on party trays, and serves as the starting point for creamy sauces and dips.

But perhaps the most amazing thing about cheese is not its versatility, but instead its ability to earn a spot on annual food trends lists across the country - year after year (albeit, with changes in terms of hot varieties and usages).

Retailers looking to capture a portion of those trends for their private label sales will find plenty to choose from.

According to the Madison, Wis.-based Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), sales of Hispanic cheeses continue to rise, increasing 25 percent in dollar volume during the first quarter of 2007 compared to 2006. These cheeses include varieties ranging from Queso Blanco and Fresco to Asadero and Cotija.

Consumers also have been gravitating toward non-Hispanic specialty and artisanal cheeses, WMMB says, often in retail store “cheese centers” that are stocked with compatible foods and beverages.

“Leading supermarket chains are developing private label programs to give their cheeses a unique edge,” says a WMMB statement. “Lowes Foods, for example, has its own branded line of Wisconsin selections. Kroger recently initiated a program to feature the label of Murray’s Cheese Shop, the well-known and reputed New York City cheese purveyor.”

In its “What’s in Store 2008” report, the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA) notes that sales of natural cheese rose 10 percent between 2001 and 2006 (after adjusting for inflation), citing data from Chicago-based Mintel International. At the same time, consumer interest in processed cheese declined, with sales dropping 9.1 percent. Locally produced cheeses are gaining importance as cheese marketing begins to mirror what’s long been done in the wine category, the association adds.

Although general trends can help guide private label product development, it’s important to note that specific cheese preferences vary consumer to consumer.

“Your hard-core cheese consumers are an older demographic,” says Steve Fay, executive vice president, sales for Dakota, Ill.-based Berner Foods. “For your more specialized and unique and emerging varieties of cheese, it’s often the younger consumer. ... For other categories like processed cheeses and things like that, you’ll also run to a younger demographic.”

On the cottage cheese side, the demographics skew toward the “more mature” consumer - for both the national brand and private label products, says Penny Baker, director of Marketing for Smith Dairy Products, Orrville, Ohio. However, more consumers are developing preferences for healthful foods, she says, and cottage cheese is a low-fat way for consumers to get their needed protein and calcium.

Innovating for Health

As health and wellness concerns continue to wield a greater influence on consumer purchasing decisions, the market for reduced-fat cheeses and fortified products is expected to grow.

“Regular [4% butterfat] cottage cheese continues to dominate the [cottage cheese] category,” Baker says. “Sales of low-fat cheese are showing moderate growth, due in part to consumer focus on healthier lifestyles.

“Probiotics are one of he major trends in branded cottage cheese,” she adds. “Again, it’s back to great-tasting products that can deliver specific health benefits.

Health benefits also are becoming a selling point outside of cottage cheese. In 2007, Kraft introduced the LiveActive brand of cheddar cheese - which contains probiotics that are associated with digestive and immune system health.

And Fay points to the new the area of omega-3 fortification as another bright spot for natural cheese fortification.

“I think it’s an important step in balancing some health issues and concerns,” he says. “It definitely [presents] an opportunity for private label.”

Of course, the cheese category still is more about flavor and variety than it is about health. And varietals such as brie and camembert have been part of discussion centering on the “Europeanizing of the American palate” for the past 15 to 20 years, Fay notes.

“I think the sophistication of the American palate for different varietals of cheeses has definitely increased,” he says.

Beyond Store-Brand Mozzarella

On the cheese side, private label penetration is moving into the high 30s, percentage-wise, says Fay, with some of the largest retailers looking at 50 percent-plus. The impressive percentages likely can be linked to a well-informed consumer base.

“Consumers are aware of the fact that there are relatively stringent standards of identity for each specific variety of cheese,” he says. “It’s pretty hard to buy a bad piece of cheddar cheese.”

For these commodity-type cheeses - and for cottage cheese as well - consumers are looking for a good value, Baker says. That means competitively priced products equal to or better in quality than the national brands.

But retailers can carve out private label opportunities outside such commodity items as well, in specialty and value-added cheese products.

“I’m seeing an expansion out from what you’d call the core items,” Fay says. “For example, I think it would have been unheard of to see a crumpled blue cheese in a private label package [a few years ago], but not there are several retailers throughout the country that are branching out those core items - the cheddar, the Swiss, the Monterey Jack. You’re seeing a good deal more in what would be considered more specialized varietals.”

Retailers might find that the timing is ripe, too, for a private label cheese expansion, as well as promotion.

“With the economy in the doldrums, people usually switch or try private label because of the retail price difference,” stresses John Angiolillo, a spokesperson for Icco Cheese Co. Inc. “Now is the time to promote private label. If you have a quality product and impress the new consumer/customer, you will have a customer for life. It benefits the retailer as well as the supplier.”

On the merchandising and promotion side, recipes work well to move products as versatile as cheese. Moreover, displays that combine the other private label ingredients required for said recipes can further boost sales.

Recipes and meal planning suggestions that include cottage cheese, for example, not only “inspire the consumer to pick up that container,” Baker says, but also make his or her life easier. She suggests cross-promoting cottage cheese with fruit in the produce aisle to suggest a “healthy, nutritious snack or side dish.”

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