At times, we may sell as many as seventy cheeses in our shops, and it’s common for us to display fifty to sixty on any given day. It’s always tempting to think that ‘more is better,’ but the truth is, this isn’t necessarily the case when it comes to a shop display.
Many of the cheeses on our counter are classics and new favourites, and these cheeses turn over quickly, meaning that they are always freshly-cut and in great condition. But within our selection, there are other cheeses of which we might only sell a few kilos in an entire week.
Despite our best efforts to trim and care for these cheeses, by the time we reach the end of a wheel, the quality of what we are selling is no longer something that we are proud of. So what to do? As of mid-March, we are embarking on a three-month trial in our retail shops. By limiting our selection and highlighting the most exciting cheeses on the counter, our goal is to improve the overall quality and condition of the cheese that we offer. We’ve decided to take the radical move of reducing the number to forty-two cheeses, which will allow us to maintain variety while increasing our focus on the best and the brightest.
Of course, the even more difficult question arises: how to choose? We racked our minds about the best approach: Would it be best to ask the mongers to vote, or to let the directors decide? Should we look at the sales and simply keep the best-sellers? Any of these approaches seemed fraught, so we tried a different tack: we created a scoring system that allowed us to assign points to cheeses according to what matters most to us. Basic attributes such as ‘is this cheese technically accomplished?’ played a part, but so did other, more philosophical aspects: Is the cheese made on a farm, with the farm’s own milk? Is the cheesemaking itself capable of showing off the unique personality of the milk rather than the ingredients that are added as the milk is processed? Do we add value to the cheese through our maturing work here in London? And finally, and perhaps most importantly, does the producer show a desire and the capacity for continual improvement?
Our reduced retail selection is the result of that analysis. We will continue to sell most of the cheeses that have been taken off the retail counter through our wholesale and export departments, which means that we can be dynamic. If one of the cheeses that has been taken off the counter shows renewed promise, we can switch it out for another cheese on the counter at short notice. What began as a way to improve the condition of the cheeses on our shop counters has taken on a deeper meaning as we have explored this decision-making process.
We have long recognised the power of our retail shops as testing-grounds for new and exciting cheeses. They are a place where we and our customers can taste cheeses together and where the very best are rewarded with better sales. Just as importantly, the shop counters give us a way to encourage cheesemakers who are working hard to improve. By getting their cheeses out on show and gathering feedback from customers, we can provide them with honest feedback that helps make the cheeses better.
For over thirty years, we have been on a mission to improve British cheese. Focusing our sales on the cheeses that epitomise the best of what Britain and Ireland have to offer, and those that hold the most promise to be future stars, is the most powerful and meaningful way we know of to promote that evolution.