How Ice Cream Can Buck “Less Desserts” Trend

July 27, 2015

Herbs, spices, liquor and Latin American flavors to add diversity to stores’ ice cream offerings.

The ice cream case is losing sales steam to the healthy eating trend – as makers of ice cream, frozen yogurt, custard, ice milk, sherbet and sorbet aim to warm consumers to new flavors and local sourcing.  

They’re holding onto a high $6.3 billion perch, with dollar sales up 1.3% in the 52 weeks ended March 28, 2015. Though higher than last year’s $6.2 billion when sales grew a bare 0.3%, this year’s 0.9% slip in unit sales seems more telling. The story is similar in novelties: dollar sales edged up 0.7% to $4.4 billion, while units slid 1.0% this past year.

This Nielsen data for all outlets combined (including convenience stores) capture the packaged side of retail ice cream sales, but they don’t reflect the upbeat integration of ice cream and summertime lifestyles – such as the post-dinner walk to the dipping shop, or kids scrambling to the sound of the arriving ice cream man.

The more that supermarkets and ice cream makers capture the emotions of ice cream eating, the more light-hearted their image, the more fun they’ll project, and the freer-spending they’ll encourage customers to become, says Facts, Figures & The Future (F3). Publix held ice cream social tasting events at all of its stores for four hours on a Saturday earlier this month. The chain sampled three private-label frozen desserts - one a frozen yogurt, one an organic premium ice cream, and a third a decadent flavor of ice cream.

No plain vanilla in sight on those days – even though Nielsen data show vanilla reins as the most popular flavor in America. Its sales were $525.1 million in the 52 weeks ended June 27, 2015.  That’s down 0.8% after consecutive declines of 2.5% and 3.3% in the two prior years. Chocolate is the #2 seller at $253.1 million, up 1.4%, and butter pecan is #3 at $190.6 million, down 0.9%, reports Nielsen.

Here’s the scoop on eclectic ice cream flavor trends generating excitement in independent shops in 2015: Boozy blends such as absinthe, rum, wine and brandy. Latin American tastes such as churro, cilantro, prickly pear and sweet potato. Herbal and spice notes such as anise, chipotle and jalapeno. All were part of this year’s forecast from the National Ice Cream Retailers Association.

This matters because “the most common retail purchase driver for ice cream/treats in the United States is flavor (nearly 70%),” says Mintel. Much of this innovation comes from smaller brands that are high quality, regionally distributed and increasingly locally sourced. This artisan appeal brings diversity to the ice cream case, which stores can leverage along with limited edition flavors, team licensed brands, and branded ice cream machines for consumers wanting to craft their own at home, notes F3.

We urge retailers to extend the aura of ice cream to help slow down a bigger trend – the reduction of dessert-eating at home. According to NPD Group, just 12% of dinners at home include dessert today – down from the 24% peak in 1986 and 15% in 2005.