Pint-size lures in ice cream

July 18, 2011

Great things come in small packages in this category with year-round appeal.

The strong association of ice cream with summer belies the truth that consumers buy this treat year-round without extreme variations in demand – at least by the sales measure of pints and near-pints in U.S. supermarkets. These package sizes of 14 to 16 ounces typically get prominent display because many are super-premiums with rich, appealing flavors and popular cookie and candy ingredients. Though they draw higher prices per ounce than larger bulk containers, these indulgences stay on shopping lists.

These packages indexed no higher than 114 in the warmest months of 2010, compared with 84 in frigid January 2011, according to Nielsen data in U.S. food stores (reporting $2 million and over in sales), excluding supercenters. 

Popular specialty shops and the ubiquitous neighborhood ice cream trucks of summer probably do rob supermarkets of potential sales of pints and near pints – and curtail what could be greater peak performance in supermarkets.    

Yet F3 feels shoppers buy pints and near pints to satisfy different eating occasions and different taste expectations than the larger bulk containers or ice cream purchased on the go, and these reasons recur regularly throughout the year. Think of a brief respite from day-to-day pressures, celebration of a small success, a birthday or a simple occasional taste treat – all with a degree of portion control. Consider that ice cream appeals broadly to U.S. consumers, with an 83.9% household penetration and an average $4.60 spent on it per purchase occasion. By romancing the superior taste and ingredients of select pints and near pints, supermarkets could capture these dollars in play – not only in July, which is National Ice Cream Month, but practically any time of year, as unorthodox as this approach may seem.

Dollar sales of ice cream in these package sizes rebounded in the latest 52 weeks ended June 11, 2011. According to Nielsen data tracking prepackaged, UPC-coded products only in U.S. food stores ($2 million and over in sales), excluding supercenters, 14-16 ounce ice cream performance rose 2.4% to $543.6 million. This followed three straight difficult years in which dollar sales were up a bare 0.3%, then down 3.7% and 2.7% in successive annual periods. The current segment recovery could be due to 40.1% of sales occurring on deal, or pent-up demand, or both.

Other promising figures appear in Nielsen LabelTrends data for the same channel and time period, which track packages bearing specific health claims. ‘Natural’ is the largest segment; after three years of downturn, its dollar sales rose 1.8% to $384.6 million, albeit on a 1.1% equivalized unit volume dip (EUV 16-ounce basis), which was a far smaller drop than in the three prior years.

All other health claims attract a far smaller dollar base. This package-size segment is about taste, after all. Yet ‘fat presence’ dollar sales rose 31.1% to $5.9 million after three years of declines. ‘Gluten-free’ jumped 116.4% to $3.0 million, following a 17.3% drop the year before. ‘Sweetener presence’ was up 19.1% a year ago and 79.9% in the most recent 52 weeks to $2.8 million. ‘Lactose presence’ soared 646.0% to approach $1 million in dollar sales, the LabelTrends data show.