Ice Cream Innovations Keep Category Growing

Limited-edition and seasonal flavors, along with plant-based options, are seeing greater consumer interest
Bridget Goldschmidt
Managing Editor
Bridget Headshot
a cup of coffee
Taste, texture and indulgence must remain at the forefront of future offerings, along with new value-added ingredients and functionality.

Pop Up Grocer, an innovative retail concept that brings a carefully curated selection of products to cities across the United States, carries a range of categories that appeal to consumers regardless of age, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, including ice cream and novelties.

“Consumers, broadly, are looking for in frozen treats what they’re looking for elsewhere in the grocery store better-made versions of the products that bring them joy,” notes Emily Schildt, founder of New York-based Pop Up Grocer. “So, in an ice cream, they want simple ingredients they recognize and understand: milk, cream, sugar. If they follow a nondairy diet or are just looking to explore these options for something different, they might look for a coconut or banana base, or something totally original like Eclipse’s cassava, potato, oat and corn blend. Even [our] diet-friendly options offer higher standards, like Cloud & Joy’s ice creams with organic, sustainably sourced ingredients, and less than 100 calories per scoop.”

Sacred Serve, a Chicago-based maker of plant-based gelato, is one of the emerging brands featured at Pop Up Grocer during its sojourn in the Windy City this month.

“Taste and texture are always king in this category, but now, more than ever before, we are seeing consumers looking at indulgence through the lens of health and wellness,” asserts Sacred Serve founder Kailey Donewald. “As consumers are becoming more educated around ingredients and the health benefits of a plant-based diet, we are seeing a massive shift in buying behavior. Plant-based/nondairy alternatives are popping up quickly to meet this new demand. In both dairy and nondairy sets, there is a continued preference for clean-label, low-sugar and less processed ingredients. Ice cream remains the most popular segment today, but with double-digit growth being seen in the nondairy segment, I anticipate that to flip rather quickly.”

According to Donewald, the brand has “found success in pairing temporary price reductions on shelf with geo-targeted digital ads and influencer marketing. We’ve also seen success cross promoting with other brands in-store using instant redeemable coupons on each other’s packaging to catch consumers walking down different aisles of the store and directing them back to frozen. As a wellness brand, we believe our core consumer is often not even walking down the frozen desserts aisle, as they are more focused on the perimeter. Anything we can do to get placement or messaging in fresh will be tremendously impactful.”

Even at more mainstream grocers, this segment of frozen desserts has experienced strong growth. “Plant-based and nondairy continue to be on trend, and we have seen an increase in fruit bars, nondairy desserts and better-for-you ice cream,” affirms Linda SanGiacomo, VP marketing at Mansfield, Mass.-based Roche Bros., which relies on digital promotions, in-store end caps and its weekly ad flier to spur sales of ice cream and novelties. 

a cup of coffee on a table
Roche Bros.' new premium, locally made private label ice cream comes in 48-ounce containers.

At Williamsville, N.Y.-based Tops Markets LLC, “the novelty category is showing the most growth,” observes Tracy Strauch, category business manager frozen foods at the northeastern regional grocer. “While all novelty segments are growing at a similar mid-20 percentage rate, the adult novelty segment has a slight lead with growth, at 33%. Part of the growth is due to bringing in incremental items during our reset, Yasso being a good example.  Their new chocolate-covered [Greek yogurt] bars bring the best of both worlds -- better for you with a bit of indulgence.” She attributes the dramatic increase “to more people being home, leading to greater snacking.” 

However consumers like their frozen desserts in a bowl, straight out of the package, on a stick or in a handheld format sales of these cold comforts have risen amid the stress of the pandemic, with shoppers often opting for greater quantities of their favorite frozen indulgences.

“We have seen sales across the category grow versus year-ago,” says SanGiacomo. “As consumers have remained at home throughout COVID, they have looked to ice cream as a way to treat themselves and their families. In doing so, there has been a shift to purchasing larger sizes (48 ounces) versus pints. We saw this especially during the first six months of COVID.”

Her company anticipates “continued growth of the category, with a main contributor coming from our new Roche Bros. private label ice cream. This is a locally made premium ice cream built on the Roche Bros. quality name, available in a 48-ounce container.”

“As far as ice cream goes, the super-premium subcategory is the strongest,” notes Strauch, adding that “Ben & Jerry’s expansion of their nondairy varieties has contributed to the growth.” Tops draws attention to its ice cream and novelty offerings with end cap displays to inspire extra impulse buys, or by offering additional incentives, such as Buy 4, Save $4 instantly or inclusion in a gas points program, to provide incremental lift over a traditional promotion.

Like SanGiacamo, Strauch believes that the category’s gains are here to stay. “While more consumers may be comfortable going out, many will continue to stay home,” she points out. “Therefore, we expect sales to remain strong, but at a slightly lower level than we saw during the height of the pandemic.”

By the Numbers

What’s occurring at Roche Bros. and Tops is in line with national trends. As Julie Henderson, VP of communications at the Harrisburg, Pa.-based National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association (NFRA), notes: “Traditional regular-fat ice cream still holds the largest percentage of category sales. As consumers normalize indulgence, seeking balance and happiness over sacrifice, super-premium offerings are driving growth.”

Continues Henderson: “Ice cream is still the largest category in the frozen food department, accounting for $8.041 billion in sales for the 52 weeks ending March 27, 2021, according to Nielsen. Frozen novelties is also a top category, with $5.991 billion in sales for the same time period.”

What’s behind such impressive figures? “In general, ice cream is associated with a higher spend,” says Henderson. “Customers buy it because they like it; it’s new and different; and they don’t mind spending more. Categories like ice cream and novelties saw growth during the pandemic as people were seeking out familiar and comforting foods.”

She believes that “limited-edition and seasonal flavors have the opportunity to create interest and boost sales, as well as plant-based options, which are driving innovation in the category.”

a close up of a can
Plant-based NadaMoo! has launched a nosugar-added frozen dessert line specifically for consumers seeking to lower their sugar intake.

The Scoop on Summer and Beyond

Unsurprisingly, ice cream and novelty sales are highest from Memorial Day to Labor Day, according to Henderson, although novelties sales start to spike earlier and see a bigger sales lift during the summer. NFRA’s Summer Favorites Ice Cream & Novelties promotion, which runs throughout June and July, provides retailers and manufacturers with marketing tools and PR opportunities to promote ice cream and novelties and engage consumers in-store and online.

Among the products that retailers can promote during that time frame are innovative items from the following manufacturers.

The No. 1 ice cream brand in the Northeast, Turkey Hill has launched three brand-new lines in its novelty portfolio: single-serve Layered Sundaes, featuring mix-ins and sauces in a variety of crowd-pleasing flavors; Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches, offering premium ice cream packed between two soft, chewy double chocolate chip cookies; and Fruit & Cream Bars, made with milk, cream and fruit.

“While our core business is 48-ounce ice cream, we know consumers are seeking unique experiences and ways to enjoy ice cream,” observes Kriston Ohm, VP, marketing at Conestoga, Pa.-based Turkey Hill. ”We crafted our new novelties based on the fan loyalty of Turkey Hill classic flavors like Vanilla and Cookies & Cream, and reimagined them in delectable flavors.”

Ohm adds that this summer, the new novelties “are being marketed with a full integrated plan, including video, social media and PR. Our advertisements will run on TV, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and across the web.”

“Our top-selling items are the flavors with mix-ins, swirls and chunks,” notes Michael Shoretz, CEO and founder of Bronx, N.Y.-based Enlightened, whose ice cream bars and pints include low-calorie, keto and dairy-free flavors. “It’s apparent that customers are going to the ice cream aisle looking for indulgent flavors that offer sound nutrition without compromising on taste and texture.”

The company’s recent introductions include Light Caramel Fudge Pretzel, Keto Ice Cream Cake and Light Salted Caramel Cookie pints; a Mango + Boost Fruit Infusion bar; and, just this month, a Keto Vanilla Double Dough bar.

a close up of food
Turkey Hill, the No. 1 ice cream brand in the Northeast, has added to its novelty portfolio three product lines building on the enduring popularity of its classic flavors.

“This spring, our team launched our very first product line outside of the original core product line,” says Daniel Nicholson, president and CEO of Austin, Texas-based nondairy frozen dessert maker NadaMoo! “It is a no-sugar-added product, which delivers on all the taste and texture, without all the calories and sugar. There are four flavors: Mint Chip, Chocolate, Vanilla and Strawberry. ... Sugar intake is always an issue in our country and globally, so it’s important to us to provide a winning solution to serve the customers who seek to lower their sugar intake.”

Building on the success of its aforementioned bars, Boulder, Colo.-based Yasso has recently launched Yasso Sandwiches, offering frozen Greek yogurt between two chocolatey wafers, and its first-ever snackable item, Yasso Poppables (see this issue’s Editors’ Picks, page 97). However, the pandemic has made marketing the new products more difficult, admits Yasso CEO Craig Shiesley.

“Without traditional tactics like sampling and demos available this past year to drive trial, we’ve relied on optimizations to our packaging and creative that work hard to communicate our best-in- class taste and nutritionals,” he says.

What’s to come in the ice cream and novelty category, once this summer has melted away?

“Traditional ice cream will remain strong and continue to grow as Millennials age,” predicts Tops’ Strauch. “As manufacturers continue to innovate with better-for you ice cream/nondairy/novelty items, improving on taste and providing a better mouthfeel will also lead to success and growth of the categories.”

“The focus must continue to be on taste and texture and indulgence, with new value-added ingredients and functionality,” advises Nicholson. “If we do not continue to focus on indulgence, though, none of the added value or functionality will matter long-term.”

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