Though low-fat and no-fat ice cream products are hot, sales of regular-fat ice cream are not melting in the presence of these healthy alternatives. Retailers, quick to recognize the importance of the overall ice cream category to the success of the frozen food department, don't want to get caught up on one segment of the category. "[Ice cream] is about 20% of my business," said Sam Ciardi, frozen food and dairy supervisor of Village Super Market, Springfield, N.J. "It keeps frozen food in business."
Given the nature of the category, retailers are being careful not to remove too many regular-fat products -- the old favorites that still account for the bulk of the $2.6 billion category.
"Some people are becoming more health-conscious, but the majority of our sales are in good old-fashioned ice cream," said Larry Miller, grocery buyer and merchandiser at John C. Groub Co., Seymour, Ind.
If one area is being hurt by the health craze, retailers reported, it's the superpremium segment. Indeed, category leaders Ben & Jerry's and Haagen Dazs experienced slight dips in sales for 1995, with decreases of 2.4% and 1.9%, respectively, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.
However, steady sales of premium and private-label products prove that many consumers still allow themselves to indulge in all the fat, sugar and calories of traditional ice cream, retailers told SN.
"People are willing to pay the difference between private-label and the premium, but they're not willing to go that extra step and pay for the superpremium," according to Roger Burks, senior vice president of The Mad Butcher, Pine Bluff, Ark.
Though retailers cited competitive pricing as something that enables premium ice cream to hold its dominant position in the market, they said introduction of new flavors in that segment is also beneficial.
Burks of The Mad Butcher said Blue Bunny's Critics Choice flavors -- a new flavor is rotated into stores every four weeks -- are popular with consumers. The new flavors, Burks said, add a little spice to the department.
The sheer size of the premium segment is another advantage it holds, retailers noted. Barbara Page, consumer and public relations manager of Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., told SN the premium segment accounts for 30% of the chain's ice cream sales.
New products are being added on the private-label level as well.
John McCabe, vice president of procurement at P&C and Quality Markets of upstate New York and Insalaco Markets in Scranton, Pa., cited the World Classics line now carried in those stores as a successful addition to the segment.
Retailers said new products have not been as common in the full-fat portion of the superpremium level, something they think is a must if the segment is going to stem the tide toward healthier alternatives. Frozen yogurt products not reduced in fat are also in jeopardy, they noted.
"A lot of people were using yogurt as an ice cream alternative, but then when the reduced-fat and fat-free ice creams came out, people went for those," said Rod Boni, grocery merchandiser at Pay Less Supermarkets, Anderson, Ind.
Even though other ice cream segments are holding their own, retailers told SN of the need to reconfigure their sets to accommodate no-fat and low-fat items.
Bob Annand Jr., frozens and dairy buyer and merchandiser at Roche Bros. Supermarkets, Wellesley Hills, Mass., is tightening both his superpremiums and yogurts because sales have shifted in the wake of the no-fat, low-fat craze.
One upscale Midwestern chain has added a light section to highlight all the fat-free and low-fat ice cream and reduced the number of frozen yogurts it stocks, according to its ice cream buyer.
Other retailers have undertaken more extensive changes to their ice cream sections. The Mad Butcher worked on a space analysis with Wells Blue Bunny, Burks told SN. Based on the analysis, the retailer reset all its cases and, as a result, realized increases in its premium sales.
Mort McKillop, director of procurement at G&R Felpausch Co., Hastings, Mich., told SN his company cooperated with its wholesaler, Country Fresh, on the schematics for its ice cream section and recently added gravity-fit cases and shelving to enhance product displays.
Honolulu's Foodland chain has just finished a category review with The Pint Size Corp., Aiea, Oahu, Hawaii's Haagen Dazs distributor.
"For all 30 stores, I had a report done to show the movement of each [segment], so I'm allocating accordingly," said Craig Yoneshige, Foodland's assistant director of grocery operations. Apparently, the efforts have not gone unrewarded: ice cream sales are growing across every segment of the category at Foodland, Yoneshige told SN.
Most retailers told SN they promote ice cream all year long, not just in the summer months.
"We promote heavily," said Peter Marino, frozens director at Genuardi's Family Markets, Norristown, Pa. "We usually put a half gallon on sale every week."
But with summer on the horizon, retailers will be pulling out all the stops to ensure that ice cream sales grow in the warm weather.
From Memorial Day until Labor Day the International Dairy Association will conduct its annual Ice Cream for America promotion. This year's theme, "America's Ice Cream Parlor," will tie in seven complementary brands -- Nabisco Comet Cones and Chips Ahoy! Cookies, Betty Crocker Parlor Perfect Ice Cream and Dessert Toppings, Reddi-wip Whipped Toppings, Smucker's Toppings, Maraschino Cherries and Solo Bowls -- to encourage consumers to buy more ice cream. McKillop of Felpausch and Marino of Genuardi's said they have seen their ice cream sales rise during previous campaigns.
According to ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., ice cream volume grew by 1.9% during 1995's campaign. But several retailers told SN that they were unfamiliar with the Ice Cream for America promotion. Instead, they told SN, they've planned summer ice cream promotions for July, ice cream month. That promotion, however, is part of the Ice Cream for America campaign.
Most retailers contacted by SN have planned demos and cross-promotions to ensure that ice cream sales rise along with the temperature. Both The Mad Butcher and the Midwest chain will conduct in-store demos to entice customers to buy more ice cream during the summer. But the upscale Midwestern chain will also cross-merchandise with the beverage category to create root beer float demos for its customers.
Cross-merchandising with other departments certainly provides an opportunity to capture new sales: cones, toppings, fruit and carbonated beverages are all natural companions to ice cream. But finding the right placement for these items can be a challenge for retailers.
"If we have a bunker that will hold the temperature, we'll put out pies or cakes or frozen cobbler outside the ice cream section; but it's tough for us to do," said Groub's Miller.
"Depending on the store, the product can be on the end of the aisle or it can be over the top of the case if there is shelving that's attached to it," said McCabe of P&C.