Just-in-time gains a new meaning when you’re rushing online orders of frozen treats like almond-coated Magnum ice cream bars to consumers before they melt.
As restaurants shut down during the pandemic, crimping out-of-home sales, Unilever stepped up to the challenge of accepting customers’ orders at the click of a button and getting Ben & Jerry’s tubs to them before they liquefy.
Unilever’s Ice Cream Now online business, started about three years ago, is now in full gear, delivering flavors such as Ben & Jerry’s Netflix and Chill’d. The Anglo-Dutch company has been forming partnerships with the likes of Domino’s Pizza and Deliveroo to build a wide network of e-commerce avenues. As heat waves spurred demand in recent months, Unilever could quickly adapt to changing consumer behavior because it had the online ice-cream business ready.
That helped Unilever defy analysts’ expectations that second-quarter revenue would slump because of lockdowns. Growth in at-home consumption offset a 35 percent drop in on-the-go sales of ice cream. Online sales helped because they typically command prices higher than at supermarkets. The shares rose as much as 8.6 percent.
"One of the things we’re observing is e-everything,” Chief Executive Officer Alan Jope said in an interview. "A lot of the growth that we’ve seen in ice cream is people enjoying ice cream at the end of a meal as part of a home-delivery service. That’s a trend that we would expect to continue.”
Ice cream joins a list of improbable candidates for e-commerce success. In the past decade, Nestle SA and Danone have built businesses responding to online orders for baby formula from Chinese mothers who wanted to buy abroad after health scares in local milk powders. Cat litter has also been an online hit, with producers such as Mars Inc. catering to clients who don’t want to lug a heavy bag from the supermarket.
Unilever is the world’s largest ice-cream maker, with brands such as Klondike and Breyers. In recent years, it’s expanded into more upmarket gelato items, such as Talenti and Grom. As upstarts such as Halo Top have bit into its market share, Unilever has sought to tap into fast-growing trends, with vegan Magnum bars and a probiotic flavor called Culture Republick.
Ben & Jerry’s has its own online store, and the flavors are also available through food-delivery specialists such as Grubhub and DoorDash that have enjoyed a surge in demand during global lockdowns as people tire of cooking extra meals for their families. The dessert arrives in a cooler with dry ice that keeps it at about -110 degrees Fahrenheit (-79 Celsius), cold enough to stay frozen until the evening of the delivery date, according to the website.
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