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Gourmet cutlery assortments reflect a shift towards block sets and traditional styles.

Cutlery, while serving an inevitably pragmatic purpose, is not immune to innovation and development as consumer demands create change and growth in the marketplace. In mass channels, for instance, more colorful blades, metallic coatings and dipping pricepoints under private label brands are filling the space for the category.

In gourmet housewares, however, quality and tradition continue to rein supreme in the segment, store owners told GOURMET INSIDER®. And because the space in the knife case is limited, making adjustments to the category can be an arduous process that requires analysis and thought, more so than for other core housewares categories.

For that reason, Nancy Schneider of Chef’s Shoppe in Edwardsville, IL, made sure she broadly spaced out her knife case when she re-arranged her assortment last year. She started by skimming down to just one German brand, Wüsthof, and then merchandising all of her forged knife brands together, adding Kyocera ceramic knives to the case as well as putting lower-priced Zyliss and Kuhn Rikon knives together.

“This new arrangement caters to our customer base, which ranges from college students to first time home buyers to customers with more established kitchens,” Schneider said.

And with more space, she was able to add a new line this spring: Robert Welch. After being introduced to the line at the International Home + Housewares Show in March, Schneider said the unique, stylish design of the knives paired with a block that has a built-in sharpener as well as goods at an approachable pricepoint ($69.99 for an 8-inch Chef’s knife) caters to the Millennial consumer.

Conversely, Tony Curtis-Wellings of Faraday’s Kitchen Store in Bee Cave, TX, didn’t bring in the Robert Welch line this year. However, he did note that the 8-piece block set with built-in sharpener for $349.99 did catch his attention since knife blocks have seen a growth in business at his store. To make sure he doesn’t miss an opportunity, Curtis-Wellings is looking to round out his assortment — in which he currently offers sets in the $299 to $599 range — as well as add a $999 option.

“We’re in an area where we can sell that pricepoint; in 2008 and 2009 we pretty much only sold open stock pieces, but now that things are getting better economically, we’re starting to see consumers invest more in the full assortment,” he said.

Don Leonard, owner of Ketchum, ID-based Ketchum Kitchens, said sales of knife blocks in his store have been up 20% during the last six months.

“This seems to be a sign of the economy turning around and consumers having more spending money,” he noted. “Instead of buying one $80 knife, customers see they can spend $299 and get eight knives.”

Chef Shoppe’s Schnieder hasn’t seen quite as much of a spike in her fully stocked blocks, however, that’s not her clientele, she said. Instead, building up her collection of unfilled blocks was a goal she had when attending the most recent trade show in Chicago. At the show in March, Schneider said she found and purchased a Cherry block from Wüsthof that fit the bill.

“That seems to be a trend for us. Instead of accepting the blades that are in a set, consumers are looking to build their own,” Schneider said.

To further the process, and also to add the extra touch that consumers expect from the gourmet housewares experience, Schneider said that she offers a steel and shear set to anyone who purchases an unfilled block. “This way when they buy an empty block, they have the shears and steel to fill those slots. It’s not free; we hike the price up just slightly, but the emphasis of the sale is really on the block,” she said.

Ketchum Kitchen’s Leonard also goes above and beyond to ensure that customers get the extra gourmet store experience. While his store offers professional knife sharpening, he said that he also trains his sales associates to recommend a steel with every knife purchase.

“We use the dentist analogy: You can use the honing steel on a regular basis — like a teeth cleaning — to keep them sharp. Or, you can ignore them, and then you’ll have to come back later for major work,” he said.

Honing steels at Ketchum Kitchens range from $9.99 to $70, and letting the customer know that they last a lifetime, like the knives if cared for, often helps close the sale.

While Schneider may not sell a sharpener with every cutlery purchase, it does bring in return traffic, she explained. Once customers see the signage for professional sharpening services and see the store’s sharpener assortment, it gets them to think about the process of caring for knives properly, she said.

“We may not sell them a sharpener that day, but they’ll usually think about it and come back later on,” she said.

Sharpening has been a focus for Curtis-Wellings as well. During the last six to nine months, he said that add-on sales in the cutlery category have grown primarily due to an increase in sales of knife sharpeners — a benefit to any gourmet store that sells cutlery designed to last a lifetime. He, too, attributes the rise in sales to associate training.

“We’re getting better as a team and are making sure that if someone buys a knife or block set, they don’t walk out the door without a sharpener,” he said.

And while the category is picking up, he noted that he currently does not have plans to expand or add to his sharpening assortment. His existing assortment consists of both electric and manual sharpeners, and the manual end is what’s seeing the most the growth, which Curtis-Wellings said is driven by the techniques of the sales staff.

“We push manual sharpeners because you can put it in a convenient place, like a gadget drawer, so every time you use tongs or a peeler, you see the sharpener and get a reminder to use it,” he said.

For Faraday’s core cutlery business, Curtis-Wellings said he is sticking with tradition by expanding business with his current suppliers, of which include Zwilling JA Henckels, Wüsthof, Messermeister, Victorinox, and Shun Sora.

When thinking about bringing in new lines, he noted that one key strategy is to cater to customers looking for individuality and unique style — a trend he is seeing across his store. Olivewood and black walnut handles from Messermeister and the Ikon line from Wüsthof are two lines he is adding because both offer unique handle styles that attract “younger consumers who want uniqueness all across their homes,” Curtis-Wellings said.

Ketchum Kitchen’s Leonard said he, too, isn’t looking to make any major overhaul’s to his knife case this year, however, he is looking to add additional lower-priced, unique-function and uncommon cutlery pieces to his assortment, such as a potato knife or deli knife, he noted.

“The strategy here is that once you get a quality knife, even if at a lower pricepoint, into the customer’s hand, they’ll want to upgrade,” Leonard said. “A one-off knife is great because once you have an uncommon knife, customers will usually come back for more in that brand.”

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