Cheese, a versatile powerhouse

Cheese, a versatile powerhouse The versatility of cheese as a snack, appetizer or center-plate ingredient keeps it central to consumers shopping for diverse eating occasions. Retailers mindful of the many uses of cheese stir impulse sales with perimeter dairy shelf displays, specialty wells, center-store shelf extenders, and frequent sampling.

At an average price per pound of $4.48, up from $4.07 three years ago and a more modest $3.98 one year ago, cheese costs far more than chicken but compares well price-wise with other meat and seafood choices as a protein source, despite its large price rise this year.

The big cheese push by retailers, along with consumers' perception of relative value, has combined to create an astounding growth year for cheese. Little wonder: cheese penetrates 96.7% of households who spent an average of $84.69 on it in 2007, according to Nielsen Homescan Consumer Facts.

After a stretch in which sales edged down by 0.7% in the 2006 period, and flatlined with 0% growth in the similar 2007 period, cheese sales soared in the latest 52 weeks ended May 17, 2008. According to Nielsen, sales rose 9.8% to $9.94 billion in U.S. food, drug and mass merchandiser stores (excluding Wal-Mart) in the latest period.

The natural cheese segments, which comprise about one-third of total cheese department sales, led the advance. Natural cheeses collectively rose by 12.5% to $3.40 billion, from $3.02 billion a year earlier. However, they achieved this while selling fewer poundsó699.6 million pounds in the latest 52 weeks, down 0.8% from 705.0 million pounds in the 2007 period.

For example, American cheddar posted the largest absolute dollar gains, up 11.2% to $1.35 billion, on an equivalized unit volume decline of 2.8% to 294.2 million pounds. Mozzarella dollar sales rose by 11.3% to $829.7 million, on a modest EUV gain of 0.8% to 165.4 million pounds. Swiss dollar sales were up 12.2% to $297.9 million, on a smaller 2.2% EUV gain to 48.8 million pounds. Colby dollar sales climbed for the first time in three years, by 11.0% to $98.0 million, on a 7.1% EUV decline to 22.8 million pounds. While muenster dollar sales grew by 20.3% to $78.4 million, its EUV gains were also significant at 7.3% to 13.5 million pounds; this continued a four-year stretch of EUV gains for muenster.

Shredded/grated cheeses were another large component that grew in dollars but slipped in units. This segment rose by 14.3% to $2.77 billion on a 0.6% EUV dip to 582.8 million pounds, the Nielsen data show. Shredded cheeses posted 88% of the segment's volume at $2.43 billion; grated, a far smaller portion, also grew dollar sales at a lesser rate.

Specialty and imported cheeses also posted strong sales in the latest 52 weeks. Dollar sales continued a four-year advance from $569.6 million in 2004 to the current pace of $825.2 million, including an 8.9% gain in the latest year. Its EUV gains also maintained an unbroken streak, though the high single-digit rises of the prior three years were more impressive than this year's slight 0.8% bump, according to Nielsen.