Beyond the Basics

April 14, 2010
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Few foods can match cheese when it comes to versatility. Top a cracker with a bit of Brie, and you have a savory snack. Add a slice of aged Cheddar to thinly sliced turkey and artisan bread, and you have a flavorful sandwich. Sprinkle shredded Pepper Jack over a baked potato, and you have a zesty main dish.

Thanks to its ability to multi-task, as well as its availability in a mind-boggling array of tasty varieties and formats, cheese continues to be a food favorite among consumers.

“Because of the relative value of cheese as a satisfying option for both enjoyment and nutrition, it continues to be a staple for almost all consumer demographics,” notes Steve Fay, executive vice president and sales team leader for Roscoe, Ill.-based Berner Food & Beverage.

Although data from Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. (IRI) show dollar sales declines of 3.4 percent and 6.8 percent for the total natural cheese and processed cheese categories, respectively, during the 52 weeks ending Jan. 24 (thanks, in part, to rock-bottom pricing throughout much of 2009), volume sales actually remained strong. Here, IRI data show 6.2 percent and 1.2 percent sales gains for the total natural cheese and processed cheese segments, respectively.

And private label unit sales were even more impressive, rising 13.1 percent in the natural cheese category and 10.9 percent in the processed cheese category during the same timeframe (supermarkets, drugstores and mass merchandisers, excluding Walmart).

Specialty Soars

When it comes to choosing sides, more and more consumers are opting for natural cheese selections over their processed cheese counterparts, notes Marilyn Wilkinson, national product communications director for the Madison, Wis.-based Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB).

“Natural cheeses have been a trend over several years now,” she says. “And there’s really no stopping that trend.”

But the trend toward natural has become more refined of late, Wilkinson adds, with consumers demonstrating greater interest in specialty cheeses - particularly in products produced in small batches by smaller local cheesemakers. She notes that more than 100 of Wisconsin’s cheesemakers now are able to participate in private label specialty cheese programs.

David Freedheim, sales consultant for the California Milk Advisory Board, South San Francisco, Calif., agrees with the skew toward specialty, noting that the trend is not limited to the national brands.

“We’re really seeing a rise in specialty, high-end private label cheese products and an expansion of varieties in the cheese and dairy case,” he says. “We’re especially seeing a rise in European-style products.”

Freedheim explains that consumers are becoming better educated and more adventurous - and want to duplicate, at home, the flavors and foods they find at their favorite restaurants. But they also want to do so in an affordable way, and that’s where private label comes in.

“The changing economic landscape has deeply affected consumer attitudes; they are learning to trust private label products more and more, drawn in by competitive pricing and kept by product variety and availability,” he says.

Fay agrees, noting that the growing sophistication of the American palate is translating into higher demand for artisanal-style cheeses.

“It is a safe statement to say that the majority of supermarkets now have varietals of cheese that would have been virtually unknown to the average consumer outside of some large urban markets even 10 years ago,” he says. “Many of those unusual varietals are being converted via cut-and-wrap converters into store label items and are furthering the image of many top-tier retailers as having every angle regarding store brands covered.”

But That's Not All

Specialty cheese might be winning the popularity contest, but it’s not the only trend in town. Also commanding some attention are health-minded cheeses that boast a little less fat or salt, but still taste great, says Kathryn Kingsbury, education information specialist for the Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA).

“Better-for-you cheeses are a slow but steady growth segment across cheese categories,” she says.

But consumers will sacrifice only so much in the name of health.

“When looking to cut fat, consumers seem most interested in light and reduced-fat cheeses, which have grown steadily over the past few years in both the processed and natural categories,” Kingsbury says. “But consumers have not increased their purchases of low-fat and fat-free cheeses, which generally have lower fat content than light and reduced-fat cheeses.”

As for salt reduction - a trend in many other categories as well - it is easier to pull off in processed cheeses than in natural cheeses, Kingsbury says, because salt plays such a crucial role in the development of natural cheese flavors.

And today’s health-minded trends are not limited to the reduction of less-than-desirable ingredients. Consumers also are clamoring for probiotics to enhance their digestion and overall health.

“Probiotics are a buzzword in many food categories, and they are a natural fit for cheeses, which depend on beneficial microbes to transform them from liquid milk,” Kingsbury explains. “A number of manufacturers are offering snack cheeses enriched with probiotics, and such cheeses are increasingly found in private label programs.”

And snack cheeses go hand in hand with yet another current cheese trend - that toward portion control, notes Terry Steinmann, president of Green Bay, Wis.-based Winona Foods. He points to ¾-ounce cheese sticks, combo packs of cheese cubes or slices, and single-serving cups or flexible bags of cheese sauces and dips as popular portion-control options.

As for flavors, they are trending bolder and ethnic, Kingsbury notes.

“This can mean anything from a super-aged cheese like Asiago or seven-year Cheddar to a spreadable cheese blend featuring jalapeno peppers or hot ginger,” she says.

And restaurant-quality flavor is all the rage on the cheese dip/sauce side, Steinmann adds. Here, Queso-type items are picking up steam, as are, to some extent, unique items with a gourmet spin (such as a new cream cheese/caramelized walnut concept from Winona).

A true cheese taste also is in high demand for sauces.

“We have been in pursuit of the ‘holy grail’ of a cheese sauce that tastes like cheese for years,” Fay explains. “Processing stress has, for the most part, relegated most cheese sauces to nothing remotely similar to their natural cheese cousins. Over the last year, we have been integrating a new technology that allows for us to add back in heat-surviving dairy notes that have taken the cheese taste of our products to new heights. It is the most exciting thing I have seen in 20 years.”

Winona, too, has been working to up the “cheesiness” flavor - in this case, in an aerosol cheese product featuring 100 percent real cheese as the main ingredient. According to Steinmann, the product not only tastes extra cheesy, but is better than national brand equivalent in terms of quality.

But no matter how great the cheese, dip, sauce or spread, value still rules. And that’s where private label truly can shine.

“I think people basically are shopping more for price point,” says Steve Cilento, director of sales for Biazzo Dairy Products of Ridgefield, N.J. “They really want to leave a store and think that they still have money in their pocket or their purse.”

When it comes to value, packaging plays a role, too. Steinmann notices a trend toward smaller package sizes in shoppers’ carts.

And smaller also is better sometimes on the specialty side of cheese as well, Wilkinson notes. Although many consumers are not willing to shell out $12 for a half pound of a cheese they have never tried, they might be willing to take a chance on a smaller $5 package.

Kingsbury agrees, noting that convenience is critical as well - whether that plays out through a prepackaged assortment of smaller samples, a resealable package or even packaging designed for serving ease.

“One manufacturer has started producing Brie in a log shape so that consumers can easily slice it into discs that fit perfectly on round crackers,” she says.

As for the packaging itself, Fay notes that most of today’s “great retailers” now boast a quality that is equal or superior to the national brands.

“Many of the brands have a diminished presence in the case and often do not cross into all areas of the case,” he adds. “Meanwhile, some of the great retailers have bannered their brand across the entire case, making a compelling statement to the consumer. … Most brands just no longer have the kind of breadth necessary to accomplish that.”

Set the Stage

Still, product and packaging quality go only so far to sway shoppers into a sale. “Historically, retailers have not had the best track record as marketers,” Fay says. “With such a huge share for store brands in this category, it behooves them to step up to the challenge.”

Demos can be important tools in that marketing arsenal, Cilento says.

“Demos are really good for specialty cheese,” he adds, “because these cheeses have a higher price tag and people are afraid to pick them up. If you demo them, then it becomes easier.”

Wilkinson notes that recipes and usage suggestions also go a long way to encourage trial of specialty cheese. And Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers working on the private label side often are willing to sample their own cheeses within retail stores.

“This is wonderful for consumers,” she says. “They are very interested in meeting people who are actually making the food and talking to that person about his or her story.”

And don’t underestimate the power of suggestion, Cilento maintains - a knowledgeable staff can shine here.

“It’s like when you go into a department store and buy an outfit,” he says. “The salesperson will say, ‘You know what would go great with that? A nice chain; check this one out. And here’s a ring to match.’

“You can do the same in the deli counter,” he continues. “’You know what would taste great with that? Brie. And you can’t have Brie unless you’re having great crackers …’”

Displays that cross-merchandise various cheeses with ingredients for special-event recipes or complementary products also work well to boost sales of own brand cheese, Cilento adds.

Finally, organizations such as WMMB and the California Milk Advisory Board can help support retailers’ overall cheese programs, as well as their private label components (eligible to wear the authentic Wisconsin Cheese logo or the Real California Cheese seal). Both organizations offer an extensive retail promotion program incorporating demo assistance and much more. PLB

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