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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 11, 2020 11:23 ET (16:23 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.