Retail Cheese Sales Increase…and some thoughts on the artisan cheese market

According to the Cheese Uncut section of the Jan 2012 edition, Speciality Food magazine:

‘Retail cheese sales increased by 5.2% to £2.56 bn in 2011.  Extra mature cheddar is the most sought after variety, with mild and mature cheddar falling slightly.  Cheddar sales, which account for 55% of the total volume of cheese sold, have grown by 2.4%, slightly more than the category as a whole.  57% of consumers tend to buy whatever cheeses are on offer and 52% actively look for stronger tasting varieties.’

Matured Natural Rinded Wensleydale

Matured Natural Rinded Wensleydale

Whilst cheese stats are always interesting, this is not our market, though I found it interesting that 57% of shoppers buy whatever is on offer and that 52% are actively looking for stronger tasting cheese.  I experience this latter buying trend when I work in the shop: people, often men, come in asking for our strongest cheese, so I give them our Matured Natural Rinded Wensleydale which is a strong, aged, hard yet crumbly farmhouse style Wensleydale.

We make speciality cheese, in small batch production, by hand, which adds quite a large overhead cost to our total production cost.  I can’t help feel that 2012 is going to be a very difficult trading year for all of us small specialist artisan cheese producers.

Whenever I receive our copy of the Speciality Food magazine, I always turn to the Cheese section and read George Paul’s commentary.  In the January edition, his column is titled: A Challenging Year in Prospect.  I admire George Paul as he has achieved great things with tremendous experience and is a man who is worth listening to, so I read his column with much interest and have to concur with his thoughts on the years ahead.

I agree that this economic downturn will be more severe and will last longer than those of previous years because of an increase in a loss of jobs, a fall in public confidence in the state of the economy, partly caused by European problems and the euro crisis, rising energy and fuel costs.  George uses a term I had not come across but I think it is extremely relevant to small artisan producers like us: ‘feel bad’ factor which he applies to the better off who buy speciality cheese, whose buying habits may be squeezed or may experience the ‘feel bad’ factor and change their buying habits.

Cost is always a constraining factor.  The largest part of our cost is the price of milk, which is an input we have no control over. For this reason I envy cheese makers like our friends at Mrs Kirkhams who have their own animals.  I’ve thought it over, but it really is not an option around here: no-one wants to look after goats, let alone milk the 500 odd we would need to take care of our requirements.

Standing still is most definitely not an option, as that is almost going backwards, if you know what I mean and if George is right, and cheese consumption will decline, and the appetite (sic) for new and innovative products will be curtailed, even if only temporarily, what can we do?  George discusses absolute cost control which I know we have been doing for quite some time (we cannot afford not to, being such a small cheese maker – every penny counts) and which occasionally makes me look like a real modern day Yorkshire Scroogette.

We have diversified in that we now have our Little Cheese Shop, on the high street in Hawes, but we too, like all the retail outfits in Hawes have a lean time during the off-season when there are no tourists around.  We have changed our working methods to be more efficient both in terms of energy usage and make the most of production efficiencies.  We now make chutneys which are beginning to grow in sales, but it’s a slow burn, though shop sales of our chutneys are very good.  It is a continual battle to cut costs and our consumption of materials to the bone, but it has become a way of business.

If there is a decreasing market for artisan cheese because there is less money about and the feel ‘bad factor’, and we as producers try to keep our prices down which in some cases is not possible when the price of milk, fuel and energy increases, what else can be done?  Is it a question of product differentiation?  To try and make our product different and better to similar products or is it about raising profile and product awareness so that consumers automatically reach for your product over others, which perhaps is part of the same differentiation principle.  Of course, we are biased, we think we make super cheese that is far better than our competitors, but equally, I am sure that our competitors think this too!  There are some fabulous artisan cheeses around.

It’s not often I am at a loss for an answer, but in this case, I do not know what the answer is, other than to be prepared, always think of alternative business options, to cut costs, talk to customers, negotiate the best possible prices and seek more customers.  Although we suffered this time last year from the collapse of Bruce Oliver, we have over the last 12 months picked up a few new accounts ranging from small and local to large national.

I would be very interested to know what others think about the state of the artisan cheese market.

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