Online efforts aid cheese sales

Jan Shepel
Correspondent
In 2020, sales of Westby Cooperative Creamery's products rose 950 % percent over 2019 sales.

WESTBY – One small creamery in western Wisconsin made tremendous gains in online sales over the last year. Even before the pandemic reared its ugly head, Westby Cooperative Creamery in Westby had been making strategic plans to ramp up its online sales.

Now, when they look at the sales figures for 2020, they have gone up by an “unbelievable number” says Emily Bialkowski, the creamery’s Sales and Marketing Manager. She reported that sales rose 950 percent over their figures from 2019. “That is not an error,” she told us.

Boosting online sales was in the plans, she said, even ahead of the challenges posed by the pandemic. “We knew we had an opportunity to grow online sales and it was part of our annual strategic marketing plan.

“The bottom line is that it’s not enough to have a great website. There’s a lot of strategic planning that goes into it,” she said. “It doesn’t happen by magic. There’s the timing of the rollout, digital planning and the purchase of ad space on digital platforms like Facebook. There’s also effort and planning on things like graphic design.”

One small creamery in western Wisconsin made tremendous gains in online sales over the last year. Even before the pandemic, Westby Cooperative Creamery in Westby had been making strategic plans to ramp up its online sales.

Online sales are “just a piece of the pie” for Westby, she added. The other prongs of Westby’s business include retail, private label and bulk sales of their products. Those bulk sales involve other food manufacturers purchasing their products in bulk as ingredients for their own products – like tzatziki, a Greek cucumber yogurt sauce, for example. A lot of sour cream made by Westby goes into other products like that for its customers.

“We found that the digital marketing aspect draws a lot of attention to what we have to offer and that allows us to concentrate on other areas where we have strengths,” she said.

Westby’s holiday promotions began in late October 2020 and ran through December. When they were approached by the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (DFW) marketing team and asked if they wanted to be featured in their cheese marketing campaign, which ran through February, Bialkowski says they readily agreed.

“That partnership allows us to reach a greater audience which we otherwise wouldn’t have access to,” she said. The DFW marketing campaign allowed digital visitors to the DFW website to link to Westby’s website, Bialkowski said. However they don’t have a way of knowing how many of the hits they got were because of that linkage to DFW. It’s just not possible to separate them out, she said.

Westby Cooperative Creamery made astounding gains in online sales in 2020, as the result of strategic planning and some online linkages with other groups. One of the items they sold was this Farmers Cheese Box that features seven varieties of cheese and a pound of butter.

One of their featured items is a “Farmers Cheese Box” for $50 that includes shipping, which seems to be an important distinction, she said. That box includes seven varieties of cheese and a pound of butter.

 The Westby Cooperative Creamery includes 175 farmer-members and 75% of them follow organic farming practices. Bialkowski notes that despite that fact, the dairy products are not marketed as organic. In 2020 the cooperative processed and marketed 165 million pounds of member milk.

Westby Cooperative Creamery’s facility produces several kinds of Cheddar cheese and Colby cheese. The creamery is also quite famous for its cheese curds.  They also produce string cheese and butter. All of those products lend themselves to boxes that can be shipped to customers who order online.

Every year around the Christmas season, Westby’s cheese store hires “an army of part-time elves” who help pack all those cheese boxes and then load and distribute them. This year those elves were in overdrive to help with that additional sales volume from online sales. Bialkowski noted that online cheese box orders went “all over the United States. That was the same as we’ve done before, it was just that there was a lot more of it this year.”

Online sales are “just a piece of the pie” for marketing Westby Cooperative Creamery's products. Other prongs of Westby’s business include retail, private label and bulk sales of their products.

Westby is also known for cultured products – cottage cheese, sour cream and dips, she said. However, those products aren’t able to ship to online buyers as they wouldn’t make the trip like cheese and butter can.

It’s those cultured products that make up other parts of Westby’s business. Retail sales of their own-label products, private label production of some of these products and sales of things like sour cream as ingredients in other manufacturers’ products make up their bulk sales.

The linkage with the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin helped with the online sales because the DFW has some “really wonderful connections,” Bialkowski said. “We are a small creamery and they have links to TV programs and other groups, their website is great and their reach is really far. That cooperation with DFW was one spoke of the wheel that allowed our online marketing campaign to take off.”

The checkoff-funded Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (DFW) created what they call an “omni-channel marketing campaign” built around the love of Wisconsin cheese that lasted from National Cheese Lovers Day (Jan 20) to Valentine’s Day (February 14.) Oh, and by the way, the Super Bowl falls right between those two dates. The multi-faceted effort – called “For the Love of Cheese” or FTLOC – included retail efforts, public relations that got free coverage in numerous markets, social media and food service as well as steering people to purchase cheese online – like the Westby Cooperative Creamery’s site.

The goal of the DFW team was to generate public relations and media attention, build social engagement and drive sales in Wisconsin, across the United States and online.

They had over 135,000 page views during the campaign. Their busiest day was January 24 – two days after the campaign was featured on movie star Drew Barrymore’s daytime talk show. They got 846 hits from Drew Barrymore’s website as well.