Heard among all those screams for ice cream are cries for low-fat, no-fat and other healthier alternatives. Those cries are being heard by grocers, who've moved quickly to increase the space devoted to these items.
Move quickly they must. According to the International Ice Cream Association, Washington, dollar volume of nonfat ice cream sold in supermarkets in 1995 was up 66.6% from 1994, bringing the category's dollar volume to $150.8 million.
While that's still a long way from the $1.6 billion in sales of regular-fat ice cream, that kind of growth in any category is enough to make retailers stand up and take notice. They've also taken notice of a shift in consumer preference from regular-fat to nonfat yogurt.
"We've made some adjustments," said Jim Roesner, frozen food buyer at Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa. "Each year they're coming out with a better sugar-free and a better fat-free product. So you're seeing increases on it."
"We've added many stockkeeping units on the healthy end of things," said a buyer with a Midwestern chain. "That's where the big growth is in the category. I'd say about 30% of our products are in the 'healthy' bracket now. They all seem to be doing well. It's made us review the category a number of times in an effort to make sure we have the products on our shelves that the customers want."
Martin Veeger, assistant director for economics and market research at the International Dairy Foods Association, Washington, which includes the International Ice Cream Association, said sales of nonfat ice creams are "going through the roof."
The nonfat ice creams, Veeger and retailers told SN, have benefited from labeling changes that allow these products to be called nonfat ice cream as opposed to frozen dairy dessert.
"From the consumer's perspective, that's a much more appealing image," Veeger said.
It's been an appealing image for retailers, too. Tom Outlaw Jr., vice president and director of frozen food at Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C., said his chain has just completed a category review in which nonfat ice came out looking sweet.
"It does look like the low-fats and the no-fats, the healthy side of ice cream and yogurt, is increasing in sales," he told SN. "We're increasing the space. We've taken a hard look at regular yogurt and cut the space there. That's where a lot of the space is coming from to go to fat-free ice cream and fat-free yogurt."
The buyer from the Midwestern chain told of a similar scenario. "A big part of the changes we've made in space allocation on the shelf has come in yogurt," he said. "Regular yogurt is out; nonfat is in. It seems to be mirroring what's going on in ice cream."
Jim Corrigan, ice cream buyer at Rotelle Inc., a West Point, Pa.-based frozen food distributor and a division of Richfood Inc., Mechanicsville, Va., said it's important to look at regular-fat yogurt and nonfat yogurt as separate entities.
"I think the consumer used to look at yogurt as a healthy way to eat -- without looking at the fat content, sugar content and calories. Once they were made aware of that, they [started] switching to the no-fat, no-sugar ice creams and the nonfat yogurt.
"Regular-fat yogurt is definitely being cannibalized by the no-sugar, no-fat ice creams and yogurts," he added. And retailers are adjusting, he noted. "A lot of the new setups [in stores] are incorporating a greater percentage of the area to the healthy trend," he said.
IICA's Veeger said dollar sales of nonfat frozen yogurt in supermarkets were up 11%, while regular-fat frozen yogurt sales were down 12%. Another healthy item, sorbet, is also seeing exceptional gains, with sales jumping nearly 150% in 1995, according to Veeger.
"All the numbers show the growth of the healthy segment," said a frozens buyer at a Mid-Atlantic chain. "There's no looking past it. We've had to reconfigure our space to get these items some more room. If the trend continues, which I think it will, then we'll make some more changes."
Outlaw said Ingles is continuing to review its assortment.
"We're reviewing our private-label ice cream program and taking a hard look at that, maybe taking from regular yogurt and giving probably to fat-free or low-fat. We're also looking at our novelties because some of the novelties are fat-free. We're exploring some possibilities about how we can tell our customers about that; so we're looking at a promotion or maybe some changes in the department."
Looking at nonfat novelties is a must, Veeger noted. "It's still a very small segment of the overall category, but it's growing at triple-digit rates."
One chain that has made some changes in its ice cream aisle is Smitty's Super Valu, Phoenix. Through a program designed by Dreyer's/Edy's Grand Ice Cream, Oakland, Calif., Smitty's ice cream aisles have been redesigned to make distinctions between ice cream types. Signs in the aisle list what ice cream products are in the doors below. The various sections of the ice cream area -- healthy, novelties and premium -- have different-colored signs.
"I'd say our ice cream sales are up 15%," said the frozen food manager at one Smitty's store. "We've only had it in place for about two months, but we've seen a jump. I've heard shoppers say how easy it is to find products. If they want healthy, they go to the area with the green sign. It's really pretty simple."
The manager added that the new merchandising method has made it easier to manage the category, something on the minds of many retailers.
"My view this year is more or less getting into a little more category management with [ice cream]," said Clemens' Roesner. "There's more product and you get caught up with everything. I'm just trying to pick my best out of each segment. You can only have so many fruit bars and so many sorbets and this and that, and I'm looking at picking one or two of the best and going with it."
Roesner's concerns are warranted, said Veeger, who stressed the need to monitor the entire category.
"You're still seeing strong premium ice cream sales as well. Some consumers are watching their fat intake, others still seem to want to indulge with something rich and creamy that may have a higher fat content. It's almost a schizophrenic market."