Every year, European dairy companies alone produce above 10 million tons of cheese, of which fresh cheese counts for 35%, medium-hard cheese stands for 25% and another 20% is hard cheese. Half of the EU cheese is also exported within the EU whilst trading outside accounted for only around 8%, which will change significantly now UK being not part of the EU anymore.

Înfographic EU trade in cheese (source: ec.europa.eu)

The UK is traditionally one of the biggest cheese importers whilst Germany, Netherlands and France are the biggest cheese exporters. In turn, Switzerland produces the biggest chunk of cheese, which is imported to the EU.

Even though product preferences and consumption patterns differ across countries and regions, cities, catchment areas, we see similarities in general shopping behaviours. As for other categories, shoppers tend to require:

  • sufficient (but no) overwhelming choice (brands, types, flavours…)
  • logic segmentation (sub-segments together)
  • ease in orientation (category and sub-segments)

As in many other FMCG categories, the width of selection is relevant but to find the ideal mix between depth and width is a challenge. Category Managers and Buyers are struggling with this for “centuries”.

The value of brands in the aisles or the service counter

In a category with a relatively high share of private label products, strong brands’ value becomes evident when looking at the way people shop the category. The cheese shopper navigates towards the category within the store and navigates within by looking at the products itself. As the cheese category tends to be more cluttered than other categories (e.g. small packs, different shapes, …), shoppers use brands to navigate the dairy shelf. Hence, well-designed primary and secondary packaging does impact this environment and helps customers make a faster decision. This counts for traditional brands but also private label.

Additionally, navigation signs can help shoppers find the products faster, but the most impactful way is to keep sub-segments in one place to ease the search phase. As shoppers tend to get an overall orientation in a horizontal matter while searching specific products vertically, the subcategories should be placed in intuitive blocks.

Importance of building intuitive blocks like in other categories (e.g. drinks)

The occasion influences in-store behaviour.

As also seen in other categories, the consumption occasion influences the behaviour at the point-of-purchase. The concept of consumption occasion describes the when, where, how and with or from whom the product will be consumed.

A shopper expecting guests or preparing for a romantic evening (special need) tends to navigate towards the service counter or speciality cheese in the shelf. In contrast, a stock-up shopper in Central Europe aims towards the sliced and pre-packed cheese, let’ say Gouda.

Whereas the special need shopper might later stop by in the wine section and search for a good wine match and heads towards the cashier, the stock-up shopper continues to buy dairy products before moving on to the next category noted down on the shopping list.

Example of addressing a specific consumption occasion “cheese alongside …”

As a result, the occasions are one of the main factors for the shopper’s in-store journey. We assume that only every fifth makes use of the majority of the shop floor whilst one out of ten shoppers go in and out in the fastest possible way using very little floor space. Four out of ten shoppers use shortcuts, they know what they want, and they know where they get it.

Once the shopper is about to choose, the following factors might influence his or her choice:

  • added values (lactose-free, bio/organic, reduced fat/fat-free, plant-based/vegan …)
  • brand, non-brand/private label
  • frequency of purchase the (sub-)category
  • preferences (goat, cow, cured, fresh, smoked …)
  • provenance (local/regional, fresh-from-the-farm, DOP, …
  • price (economy, mainstream, premium, promotion)
  • sub-segment (hard, soft and semi-hard cheese, blue cheese, cottage cheese, and cream cheese/spreads…)

Their importance differs across countries and regions, retailer and shop types, individual shoppers, shopping mission, and even product types but it is crucial to start understanding subtle differences by observing shopper behaviour. Observing shoppers in-store, we recognized the following:

  • Shoppers checked the freshness of products like Camembert or Brie by slightly squeezing or sniffing at the packaging.
  • Cottage cheese was occasionally checked by shaking the pack to assess the product’s consistency and creaminess.
  • Shoppers tend to spend more time shopping for a premium, or luxury cheese than a daily consumed cheese, like a sliced cheddar or gouda.

Autopilot versus Pathfinder

As observed in other categories, the frequency of buying a specific subcategory does influence the time spent in front of the shelf or the service counter. Whereas the decision to buy the standard gouda brand and pack size is made in split seconds (“same as always”) the decision to buy a certain speciality cheese will usually take more time as the shopper is searching for more information, compares descriptions and eventually ingredients.

indicative: level of cognitive decision-making vs frequency of purchase

In the first example, the decision making is on auto-pilot with little to no conscious processing. A retailer or producer can influence decision making by offering special deals that motivate shoppers to buy more of the same product.

On the other hand, less often shopped sub-categories can be brought into the focus by highlighting or framing them to make them stand out in the shelf. Alternatively, clear communication of the consumption occasion can increase the products’ relevance, stimulating additional purchases (e.g. grapes, wine, salty snacks, ham).

Generating and applying such simple but powerful insights allow producers and retailers alike to develop better packaging, category navigation and in-store communication. Using Mystery Shoppers, retailers can benchmark their offer with their relevant competitors in the catchment area while in-store and online research can be used to determine the category’s role, improve the price and promotion communication and can become the icing on the cake to your activation strategy – or as the Romans say “Come il cacio sui maccheroni“.