By Saabira Chaudhuri 

When the weather outside is frightful, ice cream can be delightful. At least that's what the world's largest ice cream maker is hoping.

Unilever PLC, which owns Ben & Jerry's, Magnum and Breyers, has for years sought ways to make its frozen desserts more popular during the coldest months of the year. That effort is getting a new boost from the company's push to keep selling ice cream to customers who would previously have bought cones at the park, beach or movie theater but have instead stayed home because of the pandemic.

The U.K.-based company, whose other brands include Klondike and Popsicle, is rolling out more collection points to meet stand-alone orders from consumers on the couch for its pints and ice-cream bars via delivery apps like Uber Eats. It has also been striking deals with restaurant chains like Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and Pizza Hut to get its treats on delivery menus.

It is shifting its marketing and production lines to focus more on at-home consumption, researching formulations that are less likely to melt in transit and encouraging drivers to use insulated bags when delivering ice cream alongside hot pizza.

"We have to go to where people are and not expect people to come to us," said Matt Close, Unilever's global head of ice cream, in an interview.

"Deseasonalizing" ice cream, as the industry puts it, to make sales less lumpy has been a Unilever priority for years. Ironically, the company's nearly 100-year-old ice cream business started as an effort to offset slumping meat sales in the summer months.

A 1% increase in temperature results in a 1.2% rise in the demand for ice cream in the U.K., according to estimates from Lancaster University. In the early days of Ben & Jerry's, the company's founders tried to boost offseason sales by telling fellow-residents of Burlington, Vt., that eating ice cream on a cold day could make them feel warmer because it would narrow the difference between their body temperature and that outside.

Unilever's current pitch: Homebound consumers can order and eat ice cream with little regard for the weather. "It is the simple thought that it's always 20 degrees [Celsius] on your sofa," said Mr. Close. That is equivalent to 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Hoping to appeal to consumers stuck in front of the TV, the company earlier this year launched a Ben & Jerry's flavor called Netflix and Chill'd: peanut butter ice cream with pretzels and brownies.

Unilever's out-of-home ice cream sales dropped 13% in the third quarter because of the pandemic but its at-home sales rose 16%. Without disclosing the two businesses' dollar values, the company said they are roughly equal in size.

The company noticed a jump in online ice cream orders in China after Covid-19 hit, said Mr. Close. As it became apparent the illness was spreading globally, he and other executives strategized about how much production capacity could be diverted away from products intended for parks and movie theaters, toward pints and multipacks typically ordered for the home. Factories switched up shift patterns and packaging machinery and changed the way they ran mix plants.

The company also rapidly expanded a global unit set up four years ago to get ice cream to consumers at home, ideally within 30 minutes. Ice Cream Now uses spare freezer space in convenience, liquor and gas-station stores to fulfill orders placed on delivery apps.

Americans see the locations listed on Uber Eats, DoorDash, Grubhub and Postmates as "The Ice Cream Shop." In the U.K. they're listed as "The Dessert Shop." Unilever provides stores with freezers if necessary. The most popular time for orders is after 10 p.m., so locations must be open late.

That program now has 6,500 collection points -- mainly in the U.S., China, Australia and the U. K. -- up from 2,000 at the start of the year.

The business is also targeting consumers at parks and beaches who might not be near a vendor, and executives want to push the service as a way for people to send ice cream as a gift in the way they might cupcakes or flowers.

Rivals are also seeking to sell more ice cream to consumers at home. Nestle SA, which owns the Haagen Dazs brand in Canada, Latin America and Asia, has partnered with food-delivery apps and in some countries is selling directly to consumers using its own trucks.

However, Halo Top International, which sells its lower-calorie ice cream in over 25 countries outside the U.S., is skeptical of Unilever's attempt to use available freezers to get closer to customers. It is a capital-intensive way to reach the small number of consumers who might place a stand-alone ice cream order, said Chief Executive Doug Bouton, who also questions whether delivery times will satisfy consumers.

"The true impulse transaction of wanting ice cream immediately and being able to get it immediately, we're not in that world yet," said Mr. Bouton.

Instead, Halo Top is focusing on increasing its online presence in supermarket chains that offer home delivery. Mr. Bouton said the company is also trying to get its pints on pizza chain delivery menus but that several already have an exclusive arrangement with Unilever.

Executives say online delivery of ice cream has lagged behind groceries and takeout food overall.

To address that shortfall, Unilever has also struck deals with independent restaurants. Many have turned themselves largely, or even entirely, into takeout locations through the pandemic, according to Mr. Close.

"There are places we wouldn't have been able to get in with otherwise if it weren't for Covid," he said.

Unilever has also targeted retail chains like 7-Eleven and Walgreens so its ice cream is offered on their Uber Eats or Postmates delivery menus.

Many people worry their ice cream will arrive melted, according to surveys Unilever has conducted. When Liz Sczudlo placed an order for two ice cream shakes in August through a delivery app, they arrived over an hour later like "warm milk soup." The delivery driver had made several stops to drop off other orders before getting to her.

"I would order again online only if I had more understanding of the journey the ice cream was going to take to get to my home," says Ms. Sczudlo, a 35-year-old television writer in Los Angeles.

Ice cream online can also be expensive. While Unilever is banking on consumers being willing to pay extra to satisfy their sugar cravings conveniently it's also negotiating promotions with companies like Uber Eats to offer free delivery when consumers add one of its cream products to a larger order.

Unilever has spent years working to improve its ice cream's ability to withstand temperature fluctuations before melting. That was partly motivated by its large business in emerging markets like India and Brazil, where temperatures tend to be hot. Now, executives say the global ramp up in home delivery is giving them a fresh incentive to further that research.

"My gut reaction a few years ago was the last thing you want to do is stick a pint of Ben & Jerry's next to a hot Chinese takeaway," said Andrew Sztehlo, who heads ice cream R&D for Unilever.

He's looking for ways to avoid the unappetizing effects of refreezing melted ice cream.

"It takes a different form," Mr. Sztehlo explains. "You lose air. You've destroyed your product."

He's trying to develop better versions of the matrix of sugars and plant-based stabilizers in ice cream so that even if the product melts, it refreezes in the same form.

From start to finish the preoccupation of an ice cream maker, said Mr. Sztehlo, is "taking care of this product that wants to lose everything about itself."

Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at saabira.chaudhuri@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 11, 2020 11:23 ET (16:23 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.