Dairy queen

Decadent flavors and enticing variations, coupled with stellar sales, solidify ice cream’s position as the royalty of the frozen food aisle.

When the proprietors of Elden’s Fresh Foods, a one-unit independent based in Alexandria, Minn., embarked on a major expansion in 2012 they added an entire aisle—26 doors—of ice cream. Yet, at times that still does not seem to be enough.

“We carry just about any brand and every brand,” says Elliot Christensen, president, rattling off a list that includes Kemps, Prairie Farms, Blue Bunny, Edy’s, Breyers, Land O’ Lakes, Mars, Gusto Bello Café gelato, Häagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerry’s, North Star novelties and Cow Belle Creamery, a new line of premium control-label novelties from Skokie, Ill.-based Topco Associates. “Cow Belle is the highest premium ice cream that we carry,” Christensen says. “It is 13% butterfat.”

The aisle’s doors are constantly being opened and slammed shut as shoppers take out a pint, “scround” or box of novelties, making it easy to see why a category so cold is so hot, even in the face of rising prices.

“Outside influences, like the drought in 2012, have impacted all manufactured foods, and in particular, the drought has led to rising dairy commodity costs for ice cream manufacturers,” says Scott Ortega, vice president of marketing, Wells Enterprises, the Le Mars, Iowa-based manufacturer of Blue Bunny and other brands.

According to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm, for the 52-weeks ended Nov. 4, sales of the total ice cream/sherbet category in the supermarket channel were $4.25 billion, a 2.9% increase from the previous 52 weeks. For the same period, frozen novelties were $2.49 billion, a 1.2% increase.

“Consumers are looking for the fun and nostalgia that ice cream offers,” says Timothy LeBel, vice president of sales, grocery/value/military, for Mars Chocolate North America, based in Hackettstown, N.J.

Mars’ ice cream portfolio consists of a mix of bars, cones, sandwiches and pints under the Milky Way, Snickers, Twix, M&M’S and Dove brand names. “We see shoppers buying smaller packages or fewer packages at one time,” LeBel says. “As part of this trend, consumers are choosing our “mini” sizes, which are available in Snickers, Twix, Milky Way and Dove varieties.”

Mars is one of the many manufacturers that has been steadily working to improve the quality of its ice cream. In July, its Dovebar Vanilla Ice Cream with Dark Chocolate earned an “excellent” rating from Consumer Reports and its Dovebar Vanilla Ice Cream with Milk Chocolate won a taste test in “America’s Test Kitchen” for Cook’s Illustrated. In December, three new flavors of Dove Ice Cream pints were introduced for 2013: Dove Unconditional Chocolate, Dove Vanilla with Chocolate Chunks and Dove Mint Chocolate Chunk. “We’re always looking for ways to extend our delicious candy brands in ice cream,” LeBel says.

Shoppers scream for innovation
Shoppers are driving much of the innovation, manufacturers say.

“We are definitely seeing increased consumer awareness of what is going into their products,” says Colin T. Wright, senior trade relations coordinator, at Turkey Hill, based in Lancaster, Pa. To that end, Turkey Hill is relaunching its All Natural Ice Cream line in January. Made with simple ingredients such as milk, cream, sugar and natural flavors, the line is available in seven flavors, including Sea Salt Carmel and Vanilla Bean & Chocolate.

“We have had an all-natural line for the last 12 years, but are finally calling it to the consumer’s attention with a revamped package and bold new statement,” Wright says.
Turkey Hill isn’t the only one calling renewed attention to its ice cream—so are many supermarkets.

“We are seeing more supermarkets trying to differentiate and make their private label ice cream as good or better than the brands,” says Eva Balazs, marketing and contract manufacturing manager, for Perry’s Ice Cream, a fourth-generation family-owned ice cream manufacturer in Akron, N.Y., that in addition to its own Perry’s brand also offers co-packing, contract and private label. Perry’s will be introducing five new flavors under its flagship brand this spring.

“Supermarkets are looking for unique flavors and more upscale offerings that are more indulgent and less value offerings,” Balazs says. “Quite a few chains have multi-tiered ice cream programs now, where they’ll have a value offering, a mid level and then an indulgent or premium ice cream.”

While innovation is important, new flavors will not catch on if no one tries them. Sampling can provide a major boost to ice cream sales, say industry observers.

“Since we know that people are so loyal to their favorite flavor and are reluctant to try new ones we do a lot of sampling,” says Kelly Mohr, assistant manager of PR shenanigans, at South Burlington, Vt.-based Ben & Jerry’s Homemade. This past summer a Ben & Jerry’s truck tour hit the streets of San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, New York, Miami and other cities offering tastes of Ben & Jerry’s new Greek Frozen Yogurt. “They were able to taste samples of our new flavors: Strawberry Shortcake, Raspberry Fudge Chunk, Banana Peanut Butter and Blueberry Vanilla Graham and the response was ‘Greekin Good,” Mohr says.

One way Ben & Jerry’s, a division of Unilever, is promoting its brand is through the recently launched Capture Euphoria, a global program through the social media platform, Instagram. “Through Capture Euphoria Ben & Jerry’s will choose the photos with the ‘#captureeuphoria’ tag that best capture that euphoric feeling,” Mohr says. “These photos will then be featured in ads as a way to thank the photographer for being part of the Ben & Jerry’s community.”

This year Wells Enterprises is celebrating its 100th anniversary by teaming with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to grant wishes to 100 seriously ill children. “We are celebrating our 100 years and marking the occasion with a gesture of gratitude,” says Mike Wells, president and CEO.

Wells is also marking the anniversary with a slew of new products, including “new and improved” Blue Bunny ice cream sandwiches “with the perfect ratio of cookie and ice cream by increasing the ice cream by 30%.”

Wells also manufactures the Weight Watchers brand and is introducing several new products in 2013, including Weight Watchers Chocolate Smoothie Frozen Yogurt Bars, Weight Watchers Blueberry Swirl Greek Frozen Yogurt Bars, Weight Watchers Peach Swirl Greek Frozen Yogurt Bars. Company officials also say they are reformulating the Weight Watchers Cookies & Cream Dessert Bars and Weight Watchers GIANT Latte Bars.

“Many people who are trying to lose weight or manage their weight think they have to give up ice cream altogether, but our Weight Watchers ice cream products are a better-for-you ice cream option that easily fits into a balanced diet,” says Jill Feuerhelm, senior marketing manager.

But the fact that Americans are watching their waistlines has not cut into sales of super premium ice creams. If anything, super premium ice creams are increasing in popularity, say observers.

“You look to what people are looking for, and our quality is great, the creaminess is great and we use natural ingredients,” says Patricia Thomas, regional sales manager for Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream, based in Skowhegan, Maine. Thanks to the purchase of Gifford’s of Maryland (no relation) in 2011, Gifford’s has been able to expand its distribution up and down the Eastern Seaboard. “We are a five generations family-owned company. We have won a number of awards for our vanilla, chocolate and blueberry ice creams and in 2012 we won for our vanilla bean,” Thomas says. “It is always great to get accolades from other people in the industry.”

Muddy boots
One of Gifford’s hottest flavors is L.L. Bean Muddy Boots—vanilla ice cream with caramel swirl and brownie bites—created in 2012 for the Freeport, Maine emporium’s 100th anniversary. “We started off by giving it to the L.L. Bean stores for their customers, but they wanted to know where else they could get it,” Thomas explains.

Thomas says one of the drivers of premium ice cream sales is milkshakes, or frappes as they are called in New England.

Shakes have become so popular that astute retailers might consider putting displays of electric drink mixers in the middle of the frozen food aisle to capitalize on cross-merchandising possibilities.  “A lot of our clients are using our product to make their frappes with unique flavors,” Thomas says.

“Many consumers consider the crème de la crème of ice cream to be Graeter’s, which has been hand-crafted in two-gallon batches in Cincinnati for 142 years using the French pot process. “I really think ‘super premium’ as an ice cream category has been overly commercialized and we’re now kind of in a category of our own, which I call ‘craft’ ice cream,” says Richard Graeter, president and CEO of Graeter’s Manufacturing Co.

Graeter says other craft companies merchandise “adventurous” flavors, while Graeter’s sticks with the tried-and-true. “To me artisanal ice cream is not about strange flavors; it is about what your grandparents would have experienced,” he says. That includes Vanilla, made with Madagascar Bourbon vanilla bean extract as well as whole vanilla beans. “Most other people who use vanilla beans in their ice cream are using spent beans after the flavor has been extracted. It looks nice, but might as well be sawdust,” he says.

But Graeter’s most popular item is its signature flavor—Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip. “Some people try to copy it, but you just can’t. After Smucker’s we are the largest user of black raspberry puree in the country,” Graeter says. “But what we are really known for is the chocolate chips that we add to our ice cream. They are large chocolate chunks that will melt in your mouth because we use top-shelf gourmet chocolate­—the same kind of chocolate that we use in our confectionary for our fine boxed chocolates.”

Graeter employs a team of 50 who operate 32 French pot machines. “The pots are electric, but each pot has to have an operator and it takes 15 minutes to make two gallons,” he says. “Everything else at the plant is modern. We even have a bundler and a robot that palletizes them, but there is no way to replicate our process. We are beyond super premium. It is truly a craft product,” he says.

Frozen Yoplait

Moove over ice cream! Yoplait yogurt is making its way into the freezer case. Yoplait manufacturer, General Mills, has teamed with Wells Enterprises to market a line of Yoplait frozen yogurt pints and bars.

Yoplait frozen yogurt contains live and active cultures, real fruit and uses natural flavors. According to the manufacturer, all flavors are low fat and a good source of calcium, with the Greek flavors also containing twice as much protein as regular frozen yogurt.

Yoplait Original Frozen Yogurt Pints are available in Strawberry, Harvest Peach, Strawberry Banana, Cherry Orchard, Mountain Blueberry, Vanilla and Mixed Berry flavors, while Yoplait Greek Yogurt Pints are available in Honey Caramel, Strawberry, Blueberry, Peach, Black Cherry, Raspberry Fig and Vanilla. All have a suggested retail price of $3.99.

Yoplait Original Frozen Yogurt Bars are 1.75 fl. oz., available in Strawberry Banana and Harvest Peach varieties, and packaged in boxes of 10. Yoplait Greek Yogurt Bars are 2.65 fl. oz. and available in Honey Caramel and Raspberry, and packed in boxes of six. All have a suggested retail price of $4.93.

“Frozen yogurt is already emerging as one of the next big trends in the aisle, and is certainly already there in out-of-home experiences,” says Jill Feuerhelm, senior marketing manager, at Le Mars, Iowa-based Wells Enterprises. “While there have been a variety of products from ice cream brands that identify themselves as frozen yogurt, the vast majority have been highly indulgent yogurt versions of traditional ice cream flavors like cookies and cream. We believe there has been a large group of consumers whose frozen yogurt needs have been mostly unmet.”

Retailers should merchandise all of their frozen yogurts together, suggests Michael Harms, director of marketing, at Wells Enterprises. “We believe the best opportunity for retailers is to create a destination for frozen yogurt in the freezer aisle,” he says. “A frozen yogurt destination would create the opportunity for shoppers to find frozen yogurt options in one place instead of searching the aisle to find all the options.”

For more information, visit www.yoplait.com.

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