Hot Time for Cool Treats
By James Dudlicek
Less is more for consumers seeking indulgence, economy and portion control.
It appears that the historic upturn in sales of ice cream and frozen novelties heading into the summer season is already well under way, as many regions of the United States experienced a relatively mild winter and a significantly warmer-than-average spring.
That's good news for retailers as they plan their promotions for June (National Dairy Month) and July (National Ice Cream Month). "Heading into the summer months, packaged ice cream is trending in a positive direction through year-to-date," observes Dave Marcus, category manager at Tyler, Texas-based Brookshire Grocery Co., a supermarket chain that also manufactures its own branded ice cream products. "Indulgent ice cream is growing at a faster pace than better-for-you, and novelties are also trending in a positive direction."
Traditional ice cream manufacturers are seeing this trend as well. "The full-indulgent ice cream category is growing steadily, and we will continue to follow and contribute to this trend throughout the year," says Carl Breed, director of marketing for Blue Bell Creameries in Brenham, Texas. "Our health-claim category is more than holding its own, and we will continue to push our no-sugar-added, light, frozen yogurt and sherbet lines. Our frozen novelty business is seeing some nice increases in sales. Almost all of our novelties items sold more in 2011 … and this trend seems to be carrying forward for the first quarter of 2012 as well."
Blue Bunny sees growing consumer interest in the indulgence of real ice cream with portion-controlled sizes, says Scott Ortega, VP of marketing for LeMars, Iowa-based Wells Enterprises Inc., noting this year's launch of Blue Bunny Cadbury ice cream bars. "These snack-sized bars are sold in 8-packs, providing everyone in the family a fun way to enjoy a premium, chocolaty treat that is true to the promise of real ice cream."
Timothy LeBel, VP of sales-grocery/value/military for Hackettstown, N.J.-based Mars Chocolate North America, confirms the impact of the unseasonable weather. "This spring, we are seeing strong sales in single ice cream bars," he notes. "People may be indulging in impulse ice cream snacks since temperatures have been warmer than usual."
Dollars and Sense
Meanwhile, sales of total frozen novelties for the period rose 2.7 percent to nearly $2.46 billion, according to Nielsen data, the fourth consecutive year of modest growth for this period. Unit sales for the most recent period are down almost 2 percent after growth of more than 5 percent in each of the past two years.
Chicago-based market researcher Mintel forecasts dollar sales growth of just 1 percent through 2016 for U.S. ice cream and novelties, as the category recovers from "recession-inspired frugality and increasing health consciousness." But it's those trends upon which frozen treat makers are building, and both enjoy a common trait: portion control.
The latest trends in ice cream continue to focus on health and taste, and suppliers continue to provide a steady stream of both to their retail partners. The newest products appear to be coming in two key areas: healthier formulations and portion-controlled indulgence.
To be sure, Marcus sees an uptick in demand at Brookshire stores for indulgent ice cream and novelties, as well as fruit bars, plus a move toward more indulgent flavors for yogurt. As such, Brookshire has added two new flavors to its Goldenbrook frozen yogurt line: Strawberry Banana and Honey Almond Granola.
"The hot ice cream items now people are looking for are the lowest-sugar, lowest-fat, all-natural products, and for those that have lactose or gluten intolerances, those attributes as well," says Brian Silver, VP of sales at Rancho Mirage, Calif.-based Clemmy's Ice Cream. "Our whole line has been taken very well by the supermarket channel. Our new line of bars that came out at the end of last year are quickly gaining lots of acceptance in stores. With only 70 calories, 2 grams of fat and 5 grams of fiber, along with being sugar-free, lactose-free and gluten-free, and tasting delicious, we have been proud of the distribution that this product is gaining."
Sugar-conscious consumers are an emerging segment that Blue Bunny is continuing to serve with its Sweet Freedom line of products, which includes novelties and packaged ice cream that contain no added sugar, and have fewer calories and carbohydrates and less fat than regular ice cream. This year, Blue Bunny has increased the line's reach with new packaged ice creams, ice cream bars, cones and fudge bars, Ortega notes, adding that "we are experiencing continued success gaining expansion of our successful Weight Watchers frozen novelties."
Blue Bell has likewise released a host of new items this year fitting the better-for-you mold, including low-fat Mixed Berries sherbet in quarts, a swirl of strawberry-and-raspberry sherbet with 120 calories and 1 gram of fat per serving.
"Our all-natural fruit bar line has been very well received in supermarkets," Breed says. "We originally started this line with only strawberry fruit bars, but quickly expanded the line to include lime and peach." They're followed this year by Coconut Fruit Bars, which contain fresh shredded coconut at 110 calories per bar.
Aimed at youngsters, Blue Bell's 6-pack of 80-calorie Cotton Candy Bars is a follow-up to the brand's successful pint flavor launched two years ago. "Sour snacks have increased in popularity over the past decade, and young consumers continue to make this a growing category today," Breed says, noting the launch of Blue Bell 6 Pak Sour Pops. The green apple-flavored treats are made with real fruit juice, high in vitamin C, naturally fat-free and have 70 calories each.
"Also, we introduced 12 Pak Banana Pops this year because we saw a demand for this flavor profile in our South and Southeast marketing areas. This refreshing water ice bar has only 50 calories and is high in vitamin C," Breed says. The launch of these three products coincided with redesigned packaging for all of Blue Bell's novelties, which enlarged the size of the bar image and made it the primary focus of the package.
Fever for Flavors
"We're seeing interesting flavors continue as a general consumer interest, as well as cooking at home," Ortega says, referring to Blue Bunny's line of Food Network chef Duff Goldman-inspired ice cream flavors – including 24 Karat Carrot Cake and Strawberries are Forever Shortcake – that "have generated exceptional buzz" in the supermarket channel. "With these six innovative flavors, our fans can provide an exciting dessert to their family with something they can find in the freezer aisle of their local grocery store."
LeBel concurs: "Consumers are excited to experiment. [They] are looking for an indulgent experience. Our taste test-winning Dove Bar Ice Cream now has more chocolate in every bar, increasing the delicious chocolate taste in every bite," he says, noting the success of Dove Bar Mint Swirl Ice Cream with Dark Chocolate. Mars also offers bar, cone and sandwich novelties with the flavor profiles of many of its popular candies, including Snickers, M&M's, Milky Way and Twix.
Blue Bell's 2012 packaged ice cream releases also address the desire for indulgence. Rocky Mountain Road – dark chocolate ice cream with dark chocolate-coated peanuts, milk chocolate-coated pecans, white chocolate-coated almonds and roasted walnuts, plus a marshmallow sauce swirl – was introduced exclusively for Blue Bell's entry into the Colorado market last year. "It sold so well that we decided to bring it back company-wide this year," Breed notes. This year's other flavors include Strawberry Banana Pound Cake and Red Velvet Cake, plus three additional SKUs to be introduced later in the year.
Blue Bell offers "a variety of promotional programs that helps reduce the retail price to further drive sales and profitability for the retailer," Breed says. "We push for end aisle displays for new flavors and products, and more importantly, for our products that are on special. The extra display space helps build trial for our new products and provides better inventory capacity for our products on sale."
Starting this month through September, Blue Bunny is launching a sampling tour featuring its Cadbury ice Cream bars that will visit 600 retailer store locations, Ortega says. "The tour will feature Mini Coopers customized to build excitement for the brand. We have also increased national advertising coverage on several product lines to help build consumer excitement and pull in support of in-store activities."
This summer, Mars' ice cream and candy divisions are teaming for a "Summer Movie Mania" event, in which consumers could win movie tickets when they buy specially marked packages of the company's ice cream and chocolate brands. The program is supported with coupons, displays, in-store signage, an FSI and print advertising.
Clemmy's encourages retailers to create what it calls a "sugar-free section" in their freezers. "By creating this section, you are putting one shelf of pints right above one shelf of novelties and truly creating this as a destination in the freezer," Silver explains. "Where most stores do separate pints from novelties, the ones that think out of the box and give this a try have seen success."
Retailers and suppliers say the outlook is bright for frozen treat sales, regardless of the economy's hills and valleys. "Ice cream is affordable and puts a smile on your face," Breed says. "It's one luxury that won't break the budget."
Ortega agrees: "In a time when economic conditions cause many to think twice about opening their wallet for big luxuries, it's the little luxuries, like ice cream, that help keep people going."
LeBel says folks may purchase smaller packages or fewer at a time, so Mars offers its frozen treats in a wide range of flavors and sizes.
"We are seeing more purchases of products on deal," Brookshire's Marcus says. "Ice cream and novelties are still feel-good food, so we anticipate steady sales through the summer months."
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