What’s the scoop?

Smaller portions and “better-for-you” options are driving ice cream sales.

By Craig Levitt

When summer rolls around, there are a couple givens in Amer­ican culture. The New York Yankees will contend for another World Series title and shoppers will flock to neighborhood supermarkets in search of frozen treats.

While consumers shop club stores and mass merchants for many food items nearly as often as they do grocery stores, most ice cream and frozen treats are still purchased at the supermarket. In fact, according to Chicago-based research firm Mintel, supermarkets account for 95% of retail ice cream and frozen novelty sales. That’s a pretty big scoop of an estimated $7.5 billion business.

Although not in a deep freeze, sales have taken a dip recently. According to SymphonyIRI Group, based in Chicago, ice cream, sherbet and frozen yogurt sales at food, drug and mass outlets, (excluding Wal-Mart) for the 52 weeks ended March 21, were down 1.7%, accounting for just under $4.5 billion. On the bright side, frozen novelties were up 2.9%, generating nearly $2.8 billion in sales. Frozen novelty units sales were up 6.0% while ice cream, sherbet and frozen yogurt sales grew 1.7%.

“Consumers still want to buy ice cream because it is affordable,” says Penny Baker, marketing director for Orrville, Ohio-based Smith Dairy Products Co., makers of the Ruggles and Smith’s brands. “It’s a fun food and there is value.”

In line with today’s food trends, as consumers flock to ice cream freezers many are in search of healthier and less expensive versions of traditional favorites. Manufacturers are more than happy to oblige consumers on their desire for healthier options, not only with new product, but new packaging as well.

“The new trend is that health-conscious consumers like to see nutritional information on the principle display on the front of the package,” says Colin Wright, trade relations coordinator for Conestoga, Pa.-based Turkey Hill Dairy. “So we redesigned our frozen yogurt to do that, making it easier for consumers to look at and say ‘this is what I want or don’t want.’”

Along with the new packaging, Turkey Hill has added a pomegranate blueberry chocolate chunk limited edition with omega-3 to its frozen yogurt line. Turkey Hill is also trying to grow its light ice cream sales by expanding last year’s introduction of the Dynamic Duo line. The new Dynamic Duo flavor for this year is twin mint, a mint based chocolate ice cream on one side and a mint based vanilla on the other.

Small indulgence

Switching to frozen yogurt and light ice cream aren’t the only ways consumers try to slim down. Portion control has become quite popular for snack foods and the concept is making its way to frozen desserts as well. Turkey Hill is currently test marketing 100-calorie cups.

“Most people, when they begin scooping their ice cream out, before they know it they have a full bowl,” says Wright. “That 100 calories is the average portion size as well, and the cup also gives people a better idea of what an actual portion size should look like.”

Consumers’ desire for portion control is likely why Mars Chocolate North America, based in Hackettstown, N.J., added two flavors to its Dove Ice Cream Miniatures collection. Now available are Java Chip, a creamy coffee-flavored ice cream with coffee-flavored chips coated with Dove milk chocolate, and Cappuccino, a creamy coffee-flavored ice cream coated dove milk chocolate.

While consumers will always frequent the ice cream freezer, innovation and new products are still keys to piquing consumer interest. One of the best ways ice cream manufacturers do that is by introducing seasonal and limited edition flavors. Wright says Turkey Hill’s limited edition program can also work as a “tester program” to gauge consumer interest before adding a flavor to the permanent roster.

For a smaller company such as Gifford’s Ice Cream, based in Skowhegan, Me., it can be extremely valuable to test with seasonal flavors before deciding to go full-time. The local manufacturer with distribution in New England, New York, New Jersey and parts of Pennsylvania and Maryland, is coming out with two seasonal ice cream flavors—a cherry amaretto ice cream with cherries and ripples of chocolate fudge and butter almond—and a seasonal frozen yogurt that has yet to be determined. The cherry amaretto and frozen yogurt flavor are first-time offerings, while the butter almond was offered last year.

“We have had seasonal flavors go full-time and I could see our butter almond becoming a year-round flavor in the near future,” says Lindsay Gifford, vice president of sales and marketing Gifford’s. “Sometimes it can work in reverse as well. You have a full-time flavor that is better suited as a seasonal if the sales aren’t there year-round.”

Smith’s Baker says limited edition flavors create interest and excitement in the ice cream freezer. “Consumers look forward to Smith’s peach ice cream each summer or Ruggles Premium candy cane ice cream around the holidays,” she says.

Blue Bunny, a Wells’ dairy brand, based in Le Mars, Iowa, address consumers desire for healthier, portion controlled products with an All Natural Frozen Yogurt line, no sugar added reduced fat ice cream and personal sized flavors.

“There is a steady uptick in growth for our better-for-you products,” says Jim Rossiter, senior director of retail marketing for Blue Bunny. “Traditionally, better-for-you products have been promoted less, however that is changing as more brands offer them.”

Blue Bunny’s All Natural Frozen Yogurt, available in Bordeaux Cherry Chocolate Chunk, Caramel Praline Crunch, Double Raspberry, White Chocolate Raspberry and Strawberry Banana come in 56-ounce containers. New flavors in the no sugar added reduced fat line are; Chocolate and Mint Chocolate Chip. Six new flavors in the Personals line includ a no sugar added reduced- fat Cherry Vanilla and Double Strawberry as well as All Natural Frozen Yogurt Bordeaux Cherry Chocolate Chunk, Caramel Praline Crunch, Double Raspberry, White Chocolate Raspberry.

Portion control products, as well as lower fat and lower calorie offerings continue to perform well because consumers still want to indulge—with less guilt. Thus, says Brain Manning, vice president, brand building, Unilever Ice Cream, it is not enough for manufacturers to just offer these products; they must deliver on taste as well. Unilever, based in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., has new better-for-you options for its Breyers, Klondike and Good Humor brands.

Under the Smooth & Creamy segment, Breyers has a new line of novelties, including triple chocolate chip bars and vanilla fudge brownie sandwiches, made with light ice cream and no artificial flavors or colors. Klondike offers 100 calorie and no sugar added vanilla and chocolate sandwiches and in celebration of its 90th anniversary, Good Humor classic ice cream sandwiches, bars and cones (with the exception of chocolate chip cookie sandwich) are now made with light ice cream.

“Our strategy with frozen novelties is in line with Unilever’s mission to add vitality to life,” says Manning. “We meet everyday needs for nutrition with brands that help people feel good, look good and get more out of life.”

According to Kevin George, director of innovation for Dreyer’s, a dedication to nutritional health and wellness has been fueling much of the Oakland, Calif.-based company’s growth. George says that health and wellness doesn’t only translate to lower calorie or portion control products, but simpler products as well. George points to Dreyer’s line of Häagen Dazs Five ice cream flavors, which only contain five all-natural ingredients as an example of a product that address that trend. Other Dreyer’s brands meeting these needs are Skinny Cow truffle bars, which contain 100 calories and Dreyer’s (Edy’s east of the Rockies) Slow Churned Cups, offering half the fat with a lower entry price-point.

“We will continue to extend these offerings with new flavor varieties to meet the assortments desired for shared households with many different needs, as well as continue our commitment to the wellness trend—without having to sacrifice taste or indulgence,” says George.

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