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    FRESH FOOD: Cheese: A better mousetrap

    Giant Eagle's evolving cheese shops use sharp assortments to lure customers.

    The American palate is decidedly changing, and fresh-focused retailers are responding by wielding the power of cheese. The proof lies in the sophisticated stages many supermarkets are now setting to take customers on new journeys toward more adventurous sensory experiences, via expanded cheese presentations that rival what was formerly reserved only for the finest specialty shops.

    Cheese now pleases more Americans than ever before, with total per capita consumption at an all- time high of 31.2 pounds, up eight-tenths of a pound from 2003 and almost 20 pounds higher than the 1970 level of 11.4 pounds, according to USDA's Economic Research Service.

    A number of forces are fueling the public's affinity for more diverse cheeses, and a variety of progressive grocers are more than happy to accommodate, Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle among them. Americans aren't only eating more cheese; they're also gravitating to higher-quality, more flavorful varieties of all types and price levels, according to Voni Woods, deli director at Giant Eagle.

    The regional chain's well-timed investment in specialty cheeses has proved to be a decidedly better mousetrap than the conventional approach most retailers relied on just a few short years ago.

    Giant Eagle's expanded cheese program leads with 22 full-service cheese shops and a larger selection of cheese, to varying degrees, throughout the other 191 corporate and independently owned stores. Those spearheading efforts are supported by 223 certified cheesemongers companywide, says Woods.

    Livin' on the wedge

    The chain's resident specialists are primed to help customers learn about the dozens of varieties and countries represented, says Woods. The 22 full-service cheese shops, which also feature a wide variety of store-made signature items -- think pecan-and-caramel-topped brie, proprietary Jarlsberg, gorgonzola spreads and dips, and raspberry-infused fromage -- are currently found in what Woods refers to as the chain's "A and A-plus" demographically ranked stores, with more on tap for other locations.

    The 30-year Giant Eagle veteran declares the dedicated cheese shops to be "a distinct point of difference." But even better than their role as a competitive differentiator, she adds, is their unequivocal popularity with customers, "who are viewing the cheese shop as a very valuable department" that rounds out an overall satisfying shopping experience.

    "Our full-service cheese shop locations are not based on the size or volume of the store, but on targeted customer demographics," she points out, noting that the strategy "represents a significant investment on Giant Eagle's part."

    The efforts pay dividends on both ends, says Woods. "People are really responding. It's one thing to slice the cheese, put it out, and invite customers to serve themselves. But it's quite another thing to add the investment of the time and energy spent to train a cheesemonger who can speak directly to the specific qualities and attributes of particular cheeses." After all, she quips, many specialty cheeses "don't just jump into a shopping cart on their own."

    A world of its own

    Giant Eagle's evolving cheese strategy follows a natural progression of ongoing developments already underway at Giant Eagle, says Woods. "Timing is everything. I noticed a huge resurgence after 9/11 regarding people's buying habits, with more at-home eating and entertaining, which continues to be the case. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but that's when the boom started, and [that] was when we really stood back, took notice, and determined that this was something we wanted to do."

    Reflecting on progress to date vs. original expectations, Woods says that in creating a subdepartment of the deli, "it was our vision to have cheese in its own world." As such, establishing a clear delineation for customers, "that when they leave the deli world, they have now entered the cheese world," was a top priority.

    The initial goal has subsequently been achieved, and then some, notes Woods. "We've exceeded expectations, but only in sales, because we've sold cheese forever and always knew there was a good market for it. But as far as people embracing some of the fun things we're doing with our own value-added items, it's just been spectacular."

    While the average number of varieties hovers in the neighborhood of 400, Woods says a certain percentage of Giant Eagle's cheese lineup changes frequently. "We're always looking for the new and very cool items," she says, citing the Iowa-made Maytag blue that Emeril often uses, "or the very trendy California-made Point Reyes Blue California that you just can't pass up."

    Nevertheless, Woods observes: "You have to be more selective these days because you simply can't have all of them. We read everything out in the trades, and we follow the Food Network," which Woods says has "a very huge" influence on what people are looking for. "When we know something's going to be promoted on the Food Network, we want to have it out there for our customers, at the very least in our [top] stores."

    Restaurant cheese courses are also spurring more people to seek out new varieties, as is a more sophisticated traveling public. "There's a huge fascination with strong, bold, new cheeses that are out on the market," says Woods. "They want the real deal and are not willing to settle for substitutes."

    Ditto for a knowledgeable, well-trained front-line staff. "If you're going to be cheese-focused, you have to have somebody on the floor that's going to talk cheese, and training is a huge part of the process," notes Woods. Giant Eagle began its four-step, 16-hour certified cheesemonger training about two and a half years ago, she says, noting that the company also offers advanced training for certified cheesemongers two times per year.

    Customers are introduced to the chain's cheesemongers through informational signage at the service cheese case. The signs tell customers what it means to be a certified cheesemonger. "You have to let people taste things and ask questions, and help them learn that things that might not look good or smell good taste just fabulous."

    Sharing the excitement

    An avid observer of cheese departments, Woods never ceases to be amazed by the many types of consumers who share her passion, including bikers, bankers and everyone in between. She thus cautions fellow retailers to refrain from jumping to conclusions about prospective buyers based on traditional stereotypes. "I have seen the least likely type of people picking out an exquisite morbier or mimolette, which is something you would just never normally expect. But it just goes to show that cheese is so exciting."

    She duly lauds consumers for taking such an active interest in cheese, which she considers to be both inspiring and enlightening. "They're teaching us, because while we think we're experts, we certainly don't know every single cheese that's out there. I learn something everyday," says Woods, who recently attended CIBUS 2006 in Parma, Italy, a biannual event that ranks as one of the largest and most complete displays of European food specialties.

    In addition to an aggressive sampling program, Woods singles out Suzanne Hasbrouk, marketing manager and resident "cheese foodie," as an instrumental part of Giant Eagle's successful cheese flight. "She's really helping us bring to fruition all of the things we're trying to communicate to customers, which ultimately better helps our customers enjoy the cheese shops by giving them a reason to slow down, linger a little longer, and hopefully pick up and enjoy something that piques their interest."

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