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Increasing Your Ring: Ideas to Boost Sales in 6 Departments

Date: 07/01/10 | Source: Specialty Food Magazine | Author: Julie Besonen
Categories: Industry Operations; Retailers
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Increasing Your Ring: Ideas to Boost Sales in 6 Departments

Make the most of your key departments—and improve customer satisfaction—
by implementing ideas from these successful specialty food stores.

By Julie Besonen

In this economy of tight margins and careful shoppers even a small boost in sales can improve your bottom line. These imaginative retailers share their tips for increasing purchases in cheese, chocolate, wine, produce, deli and bakery departments.


Personal service, cross-promotion and creative merchandising of scraps and leftovers help boost sales.

In San Francisco there’s no shortage of great cheese shops or big cheese selections in grocery stores. Ray Bair, the owner of the five-year-old Cheese Plus, has managed to sharp-elbow through the fray, making his cheese shop a true destination. Sales are up 22 percent from 2009, something he attributes to enhanced customer service and selection (mostly American artisanal with a strong emphasis on Northern California cheeses). “We have designated cheese counter personalities who can tell the stories of the producers,” Bair says. Staff members introduce themselves to the customer and are empowered to sample anything at will to make the sale, including shelf-stable products like olives.

But the first and foremost way to boost sales, Bair notes, is to suggest add-ons. “You need crackers with that? A chutney?” He’ll ascertain if customers are buying for a party or a picnic, which might mean they’ll also need printed napkins, a special serving utensil, some salami from his charcuterie station or perhaps a bottle of wine with a screwcap if they don’t want to worry about a corkscrew. “People forget,” Bair notes.

Cheese Plus does not do much cost promoting or put items on sale but offers a range of prices. Bair keeps a close eye on spoilage, theft and waste by selling scraps of leftover cheese in an odds-and-ends bin. “It’s an adventureland,” he says. “Customers are intimidated to buy a piece of cheese they don’t know for $4-$5 at the counter, but they’ll try it for 75 cents or $2. “They shuffle through the bin like they’re at a used bookstore,” he says. Another way to use up odd bits of cheese is to make a special grilled cheese sandwich of the day. “The only downside,” Bair notes, “is that customers will want that same sandwich again and you might not be able to do it.”


Focused service, surprising cross-promotions and sales-specific marketing can push revenues.

“Come at them with enthusiasm and passion and excitement,” advises Andy Hall, the wine department manager at Surdyk’s Liquor and Cheese Shop, a large Minneapolis liquor store that’s been in business since 1934, soon after Prohibition was repealed. He tries to make the shopping experience fun for the customer, such as asking if the wine is a gift and trying in some way to match the recipient’s name with one of Surdyk’s 5,000 SKUs. “If it’s for a party I might steer them toward a more attractive label or present them with a niche-oriented wine that nobody’s ever heard of,” he says. “You want them to leave the store with a product they’ll be proud to give their host.”

Just like at Cheese Plus, it’s important that the staff can speak authoritatively about what they’re selling and answer any questions the customer might have. “Our wine consultants are pretty well-seasoned professionals, people who love talking to customers about wine,” he notes.

Tasting is a major part of that knowledge, with the staff trying anywhere from ten to 50 wines a week. Hall’s found that his staff won’t push products they don’t believe in, which instills trust from customers.

Frequent tastings of at least a dozen wines at a time are also offered in the store at multiple stations. Hall thinks sampling is a helpful way to give customers the confidence to buy. Cross-promotions with cheese or a chocolate tie-in that works well with wine are other tactics.

Because Surdyk’s also sells cigars, meats and sandwiches, people have a reason to get in their cars and drive the extra distance rather than make a convenience stop at their local liquor store. “We haven’t suffered the economic effects of the catastrophic downturn,” Hall notes, “and I believe our diversification is a big part of our success.”

Email blasts announcing sales is another promotional tool in Surdyk’s arsenal. “If we have a modest deal, people respond to it,” Hall explains. “If we offer a big deal, they come in waves.”


Unusual merchandising, cultivating a connoisseur base and a bit of showmanship gets customers spending.

The aha! moment is what Store Manager Matt Caputo is looking for when converting new customers to the fine chocolates he carries at Salt Lake City’s Tony Caputo’s Market & Deli (Tony is his father). Growing up, Caputo had been perfectly happy with Hershey’s, but in 2006 he had a chocolate epiphany at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. Tasting the terroir of actual cacao beans and unadulterated vanilla, he was “absolutely in love from there on in,” he says. “Now I live and breathe this stuff.”

Four years later, he has built up a collection that is reportedly the largest selection of quality bars in the world—325, to be exact. The once negligible assortment now adds $400,000 a year to the store’s coffers, with cheese, charcuterie, olive oil and vinegar being the other top sellers. Caputo estimates that filled chocolates bring in another $65,000 a year. How did he do it?

“We created a diehard connoisseur base,” Caputo says. He has 200 of the 325 bars open for sampling at any given time. They are kept in their own separate little bags in a chocolate file, arranged alphabetically, which anyone can rummage through. “If we see someone meandering it’s our job to walk up to that person and make him aware of the chocolate file,” Caputo explains. “If they have the time we give them a full tutorial.”

Those who are willing to put in more time can enroll in Caputo’s monthly chocolate tasting classes. He offers two-hour beginner, intermediate and advanced sessions for $25 per person. Anywhere from 30 to 80 students attend and it’s also become popular for corporate events. “My class wakes people up from a false understanding of chocolate, shatters preconceptions and myths,” Caputo notes. By making participants think about the flavor profiles of beans and their origins as the chocolate melts on their tongues, he proves that all cacao beans are not created equal. “Some people have told me it’s literally life changing, the best night of their lives,” he continues.

Every new employee must take Caputo’s class within two months of being hired. Calling himself a “geek,” the store manager translates his encyclopedic knowledge to his staff at every opportunity.

Caputo’s is the exclusive wholesale purveyor for the renowned Chocolatier Blue line, another aspect that sets it apart. Chris Blue is a former pastry chef at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and now a sought-after chocolatier in Berkeley, Calif. He painstakingly handcrafts exquisite gems made with first-rate Amedei chocolate, raw, high-fat butter from 5-Star Butter Co. in California, pistachios from Sicily and raw produce from local markets. Every chocolate has a pinch of Camargue fleur de sel, considered by many to be the best sea salt in the world. To showcase these eye-catching bonbons, Tony Caputo agreed to let Matt construct a 15-foot-long beveled glass display case, which debuted in 2008. When a customer wants a taste before committing to a box of chocolates that costs $2 per piece, Caputo brings out a blow torch. He flames a knife so it will slice through the chocolate like butter and at the same time slightly warm the ganache. “It’s an expensive proposition but it’s certainly paid dividends,” he notes.


Prepared fruit, value prices, surprising selections increase sales.

“I try to think of things that are outside the box,” says Bob Valencour, produce manager at Kowalski’s Market in Eagan, Minn., the newest of the Twin Cities-based chain of nine gourmet markets. For example, “We’ve got a whole newly designed line of prepared fruit that includes coconut chunks and strawberries. We’re working on another [line] that will have pineapple, strawberry and coconut in one three-compartment container, something that most people don’t think of when they’re looking for a fresh cut item,” he adds.

Kowalski’s Markets have long been known as upscale but the produce departments have shifted to showing tremendous value, charging $1 less than their competitors. At the same time, the entire chain is specializing in produce that not every grocery store carries, such as Meyer lemons, ugli fruit (a mix of grapefruit and tangerine), rambutan, kumquats, pepino melon and lychees.

Kowalski’s Eagan branch has maintained a commitment to organics, which do well in the affluent suburb. This summer, Valencour’s produce department is partnering with Gardens of Eagan, a local organic farm, to address customers’ interest in buying locally. The Eagan store is also stepping up the selection of more varied fruit and vegetable trays to capture sales for open houses and graduation parties.


A high-profile carving station, grab-and-go dinners and special senior citizen pricing bump up the ring.

Fred Baram had been managing the deli department at Eden Gourmet in South Orange, N.J., for a few months when he noticed a carving station referred to on the computer system. “I worked here and didn’t even know it was here,” he says, amazed. And if he didn’t know about it, customers certainly wouldn’t know about it either. To remedy the situation, he located the carving station, set it up prominently in the deli and has turned it into a goldmine.

Here’s how: On any given day the carving station might feature housemade brisket, corned beef, spiral ham, prime rib, roasted turkey or pastrami. Baram makes up a menu for each day of the week that lists the protein he has for grab-and-go dinners, and the customer gets to handpick two side dishes from the deli’s bounty of American-Mediterranean-style potatoes and vegetables, all for the price of $7.99. He prints the menu on a blackboard and also hands out weekly menus to customers so they can come in and get their favorites on certain days, similar to an old-time school lunch program. “Now we promote these dinners instead of it being something lost in the background,” Baram says. “Our business is up 25 percent since we started doing it a few months ago. It’s not about what you’re trying to get rid of. It’s giving [customers] what they want.”

Jerry Turci of Jerry’s Gourmet in Englewood, N.J.. has also found that combining his deli department’s offerings into takeaway dinners has been a popular draw for customers. His staff cooks 50 Italian-style dishes fresh every day and if something’s left over when the store closes, it’s refrigerated and assembled the next day as a complete, well-rounded dinner for one, selling for $6.99 before 4 p.m. After 4 p.m. senior citizens line up when the price is slashed to $2.99.


Smaller portions, new ingredients and sophisticated flavors boost sales.

To bring the best value to her bakery customers at West Point Market in Akron, Ohio, Manager Apryle Griffith is thinking smaller while working hard not to lose quality. “Even if people are giving up expensive cuts of meat or fancy cheeses, they can still afford a small, really good bakery item,” she notes. Sales of single cookies and slices of cake have increased so the bakery has amped up what it carries. She and her staff will also perpetually introduce new products to keep customers interested. When the cheese department was recently running a goat cheese promotion Griffith and her staff matched it by developing a tangy, tender goat cheese cookie as well as crisp goat cheese crackers dusted with sea salt and cracked black pepper. Free samples helped them fly from the case.

Famous for rich, killer brownies, West Point’s bakery now sells more “halfsies” and “babies,” which are scaled down one-fourth. Five-inch cakes have gained in popularity over eight-inch cakes. “People used to worry that they wouldn’t have enough if their guests wanted seconds but now they’re making do and buying exactly what they need,” Griffith notes. To that end, customers are also buying more half-loaves of bread than whole loaves.

Griffith estimates that the bakery is doing 25 percent more, dollar-wise, in smaller items. “We’ve been able to shift our focus and have held up better than some of the other departments,” she explains. “Nothing ever stays the same and if you can’t change, you’re left behind.” |SFM|

Julie Besonen is the food editor at Paper magazine and writes a weekly restaurant column for

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Increasing Your Ring: Ideas to Boost Sales in 6 Departments

Make the most of your key departments—and improve customer satisfaction— by implementing ideas from these successful specialty food stores.

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