We All Scream for Ice Cream (and retailers reply)

BOOM: We All Scream for Ice Cream (and retailers reply)

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The summer is upon us, and many people are seeking ways to cool down. Although the old-fashioned neighborhood ice cream truck is a rarity, multi-location (MULO) ice cream and frozen dessert retailers show no sign of melting.

Although the category has declined slightly from time to time, it still represents $5.5B in revenue in the U.S. The average American eats an average of four gallons (20 pounds) of ice cream annually.

The first ice cream parlor opened in the 1700s.  Ice cream soared in popularity during prohibition, when people sublimated their booze cravings with frozen treats.

Fast-forward to the 1940s, when the novelty ice cream shop emerged. The Baskin-Robbins brand became known for its vast array of flavors. Today it has 2,400+ U.S.  locations, which are locally owned and operated.

In addition to flavor variety, some of the other category trends we’ve seen over the years are:

  • Mix-ins and other “experiential” ice cream stores: The now-defunct Steve’s Ice Cream allowed customers to personalize their treats, watching as servers created their “smooshed-in” creations on marble slabs. Cold Stone Creamery has about 900 locations and uses Steve’s mixing method of adding toppings while the consumer watches. Today, Creamistry (30+ locations in the U.S.) used liquid nitrogen to entertain patrons as they watch their selections being made.
  • Premium products: Companies like Ben & Jerry’s (about 200 locations) and Haagen-Dazs  (also about 200 stores) proved that the market will invest dollars and calories in full-fat options. Ben & Jerry’s has updated its brand by naming flavors after trending topics and celebrities.
  • Local brands that went national: Jeni’s and VanLeeuwen started small and have grown to multiple locations and grocery store distribution. McConnell’s is a local (California) brand that opted to stay regional, but their products can be found in-store and raving fans can search “near me” to find their fave flavor. (Watch this space in the weeks ahead for more about how consumers perform product-specific brand searches.)
  • Novelty treats: Gelato came to the U.S. in the 1770s but was slow to catch on. It’s now part of many stores’ offerings. Frozen ice, sorbet, and custard are other sweet alternatives. Rita’s has more than 500 stores today.
  • Healthier frozen options: Franchises and chains like Menchie’s and 16 Handles give consumers alternatives to full-fat desserts.

What can other multi-location (MULO) brands learn from the ice cream industry?

  1. Even the simplest categories can be disrupted and expanded by introducing new products and consumer involvement in the manufacturing process (to add an element of entertainment and personalization).
  2. Regional brands can develop a national following over time, and word-of-mouth (as well as grocery/convenience store distribution) can facilitate expansion.
  3. Consumers are willing to pay premium prices for premium (or perceived premium) products.
  4. Despite the boom in gourmet ice cream,  basics never seem to go out of style. Baskin-Robbins, for example, is alive and well, and Dairy Queen and Carvel still rank high in the national list of chains.
  5. Once you’ve established a strong brand reputation and fan loyalty, selling your products in other locations can be a smart strategy.

“Ice cream near me” is expected to be a strong search as the temperatures soar. Meeting consumer demand this summer — and all year round — means that local search strategy must be part of every smart retail marketer’s “mix-ins!”





Nancy A Shenker, senior editor with Street Fight, is a former big brand (Citibank, Mastercard, Reed Exhibitions) marketing strategist and leader. She has been featured in Inc.com, the New York Times and Forbes.