KANSAS CITY — Few practices in the grocery fresh perimeter were hit harder by COVID than product sampling, and cheese sampling was no exception.

Now, with the pandemic receding, retailers are once again starting to tap into a merchandising tactic that has traditionally played a crucial role in educating consumers —and turning that knowledge into sales.

Heading into summer, most of the retail partners of Green Bay, Wis.-based BelGioioso Cheese were still taking a wait-and-see attitude on sampling, due not only to COVID regulations but also to staff shortages.

Sean Moran, BelGioioso’s vice president of sales, said that should change soon, however.

“We’ve heard from several of our retail customers that they intend to resume instore sampling,” Moran said. “But it will vary by retailer.”

Some, he said, intend to reintroduce sampling as it was pre-COVID, while others will bring it back with new precautions added.  Some retailers are looking for individually wrapped samples, like BelGioioso’s snacking cheeses. The company is finding that they’re a popular option for sampling, because each .75 or 1 oz piece is individually wrapped.

Other retailers will have the demo person pack the cheese individually to hand out.

Back, but different

Publix, Winn Dixie and The Fresh Market are among the retailers that have started to provide cheese samples on request, said Michael Landis of Michael Landis Food & Beverage Educational Services.

One cheese-related marketing go-to, however, has yet to make its return post-pandemic, Landis said.

“I haven’t seen the cheese domes out yet.”

And those retailers who are doing sampling, Landis said, have adopted some different techniques. Many, for instance, are using cover sampling cups with the cheeses inside them.

“I haven’t seen any cheese handed over the counter.”

For retailers who haven’t resumed sampling, Landis’s message is clear: what are you waiting for?

“We have run a safe sampling program for years in the stores and there’s no reason that we can’t continue,” he said. “Our sanitation has always been exceptional, as we are working with products that need to be handled with the utmost care.  So product sampling is already steps ahead in customer safety.”

During the pandemic, the fate of instore cheese sampling was comparable to that of salad bars, hot food bars and other self-serve parts of the fresh perimeter, said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator for the Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA).

And the bounce back from COVID, he said, is following a similar pattern.

Some have been open since last fall, others that have been under stricter measures, often due to local food ordinances, still haven’t,” he said.

A retailer in Madison, where Richard lives, provides one example of the many ways in which cheese sampling is coming back.

Instead of the traditional table with a platter of cheese cubes with toothpicks sticking out of them for consumers to grab, the Madison store had a plastic screen over the table, and the deli clerk was handing out the samples to consumers individually.

The cheese wasn’t prepackaged, but that doesn’t mean other retailers won’t go the prepackaged route, Richard said.

Raising awareness

Whenever sampling does come back on a large-scale basis, and whatever forms it takes, can’t come soon enough, Moran said.

“We believe sampling is an important component of creating awareness and familiarity with specialty cheeses,” he said. “We continue to hear from consumers that flavor is the number one attribute they look for in specialty cheese.   Consumers want to buy specialty cheeses that taste great.”

The best way to introduce new cheeses, he said, is to give consumers the opportunity to try it instore.

Richard agrees with Moran on the importance of instore sampling.

“It’s still a very important piece of the puzzle when it comes to cheese,” he said.

BelGioioso works collaboratively with its retail partners to sample the company’s family of cheeses. 

“We believe that those who try our cheeses, will buy our cheeses,” Moran said.

BelGioioso’s roster of snack cheeses retained its popularity during the pandemic, he added. Even with more people stuck at home and fewer people “on the go,” the company found that consumers saw its snack cheese as a wholesome and satisfying snack to eat between Zoom calls.

Much uncertainty surrounding cheese sampling remains, but IDDBA believes the overall forecast is a positive one.

“There’s a lot of factors, but we’re definitely headed in the right direction,” he said. “I think we’re definitely getting back to where we were pre-pandemic when it comes to sampling.”

One COVID-related change that will likely remain post-pandemic is suppliers working with retailers to include sample-sized products free with online orders.

“It’s a great way of getting the product out there, and I think it’s something we’ll continue to see, regardless of where we are with vaccinations and with COVID in general.”

Another option some retailers may choose is to hold samplings outside, which turns it into more of an “event,” Richard said.

“We haven’t seen it in action but we’ve definitely heard of it,” he said.

Prepackaged is also a viable option, but Richard said that can be difficult to do successfully because impulse sales are so important in the instore cheese category. If you don’t open the prepackaged product until you’ve left the store, chances are you’re not going to take the time to go back in to buy it.

Even without sampling, Richard pointed out, cheese had a good year in 2020. Retail sales totaled more than $22 billion last year, and more than $8 billion of that came from deli sales — up 16.6% from 2019.

Much of that was due to stuck-at-home shoppers desperate to try something new. Going forward, retailers won’t be able to rely on that, and sampling will again play a vital role in boosting instore sales.