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What’s Churning in the Ice Cream Category?

Shoppers balance value and flavor choices as peak consumption season arrives
Lynn Petrak, Progressive Grocer
Ice cream pail
Dollar sales of ice cream pails grew 35% on a year-over-year basis, reports 84.51°.

Grocers promoting ice cream at the pinnacle of summer and prepping for National Ice Cream Day on July 21 can optimize sales by leaning into some of the category’s top trends and manufacturers’ own campaigns. To be sure, ice cream remains a perennial consumer favorite: According to the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), U.S. ice cream makers produced more than 1.3 billion gallons of the frozen dessert last year. 

[RELATED: Takeaways From 2024 Summer Fancy Food Show]

While consumption – perhaps not surprisingly – peaked during the comfort food-focused pandemic year of 2020, sales have remained steady. New data from 84.51°, the retail data science, insights, and media arm of The Kroger Co., shows that ice cream sales are up slightly less than 1% compared to the same period in 2023, led by gains in dollar sales per unit and per trip.

Inflation contributed to sales growth and has also led to some shifts in purchasing. 84.51° reports that pail containers experienced the most significant growth, with a 35% boost in dollar sales and a 38% increase in units. “The notable increase in sales of the pail size for the second year in a row suggests a continued shift towards buying in bulk, likely to save money,” the researchers concluded. 

As for the scoop on what today’s ice cream buyers are looking for besides value, 84.51° found that the top three flavors in ice cream pails are the classic varieties of vanilla, chocolate and Neapolitan, in that order.

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Jeni's Fly By Jing
Jeni's Spendid Ice Creams is getting in on the sweet-spicy flavor trend with a new collab.

That said, adventurous consumers are spooning more interesting varieties. In a new article on ice cream, The Hartman Group highlighted the “swicy” (sweet-spicy) trend evident in products like Spicy Peanut Butter Caramel, Aztec Chocolate and Vanilla Chai offerings from Marco Sweets & Spices. Another flavor-forward example is a Maple Cardamom Candied Pecan variety from Alec’s Ice Cream.

Limited-time flavors are another way to deliver on the quest for swicy flavor experimentation. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, for its part, has teamed up with Chinese food company Fly By Jing to create Spice Cream, a sweet and spicy flavor featuring Sichuan chili. 

Other manufacturers are promoting their non-dairy ice creams as demand for alternatives continues to expand. Unilever’s Ben & Jerry's brand, for example, is embarking on a seven-city summer tour to promote its oat milk ice creams. Last fall, the ice cream maker transitioned nearly all of its non-dairy flavors to a new oat milk base.

Some ice cream brands are already looking ahead to winter. This week, Häagen-Dazs announced that it purchased a spot for a commercial to air during Super Bowl LIX in 2025, the first time in the company’s history that it is investing in the Big Game. "This is a momentous occasion for the brand and an iconic cultural moment that brings us together through food," said Rachel Jaiven, head of marketing at Häagen-Dazs. "We're proud to be a part of the Super Bowl for the first time and shine a new light on our indulgent and growing portfolio."

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