The Cold Truth

They say when one door closes, another opens. That?s exactly what happened at Pennsylvania convenience store chain Rutter?s Farm Stores in the ice cream and frozen novelties category.

The York, Pa.-based retailer with dairy and farm roots made the tough decision over a year ago to shut the door on its open-air or coffin cases that held frozen novelty items up at the front of its stores by the checkout area. (There are still a few cases remaining in some stores, but they will be phased out as they die out).

?The novelty cases were getting old and they were in disrepair. The cost to keep them running was weighed against other merchandising opportunities and we decided a new tradeoff was worth it,? recalled Dave Lau, merchandising manager at Rutter?s.

Removing the novelty cases made room for promotional counter racks that now house lighters, energy shots, gum and candy ? all categories that have good margins and are year-round consumables, Lau explained. ?Maybe if we were in Florida, we?d look at this differently, but up here where our ice cream season is shorter, this just makes more sense.?

After shutting the door on the open-air cases, Rutter?s moved to a new upright freezer door for frozen novelties, right next to the two or three upright freezer doors that house ice cream pints and other take-home ice cream sizes.

?When we first took the coffin cases out, it had a dramatic impact ? it drastically hurt our novelty sales,? Lau admitted, adding that for the most part, customers stopped buying frozen novelty items on impulse because they weren?t right in front of their faces.

While sales of novelties have not picked up to the high they once were, they have improved. But more importantly, pints of ice cream ? specifically Ben & Jerry?s ? have now become the new novelties, thanks in part to Rutter?s merchandising and marketing strategy.

?For a lot of people, the pints are an ice cream novelty. I can eat an ice cream pint in one sitting for dessert,? Lau said. ?For construction guys, a pint is no more than a novelty bar to them.?

And so, Rutter?s frozen doors are now big on ice cream pints. There are about six to eight SKUs of Edy?s pints; eight to 10 SKUs of Häagen-Dazs pints (which are actually 14 ounces instead of the full pint); and a whopping 35 to 40 SKUs of Ben & Jerry?s pints.

?Ben & Jerry?s pints have, by far, the most ice cream space in our stores and is the best-selling item,? Lau reported. ?We take all the latest SKUs [from the brand] ? if Ben & Jerry?s has a hot [new] flavor, we will have it.?

One of the key ways Rutter?s gets its pint (and other ice cream) messages out is through an abundance of signage. This includes in-store messaging, as well as the use of nozzle talkers and pumptoppers at the forecourt.

Like many promotions at Rutter?s, ice cream pints are frequently offered with a special ?twofer? price ? a single pint is always sold at the regular price, but two pints can be purchased at a value. In the case of Ben & Jerry?s or Häagen-Dazs, it is typically two for $8. Take-home containers (48 ounces) of Edy?s or Jack & Jill ice cream are also offered on promotion this way, typically two for $7.

Other best practices Rutter?s is currently utilizing to grab more ice cream sales are:

  • Rely on an ice-cream-savvy wholesale supplier. For Rutter?s, that is Jack & Jill. ?They help keep us current with flavor selection and the right mix of all the brands. Salespeople come in the stores at least weekly, facing out the product for codes and rotation, and then within a couple of days, the driver comes in with fill-in,? Lau said. ?They do a great job with knowing what sells and keeping it fresh.?

Beyond that, it takes the pressure off store clerks who ?like to spend as little time in the freezer as possible,? according to Lau. ?It?s a cumbersome category; the fact that we can minimize that with a full-service program is a big deal.?

  • Don?t forget the spoons. With pints now being the standout ice cream item at Rutter?s, spoons are even more important to customers who plan to dig in immediately. As basic as it sounds, keeping spoons readily available is imperative. At Rutter?s, spoons can be found individually wrapped nearby in the fresh to-go foodservice area.
  • Test new cross-merchandising ideas. Borrowing a tactic from the grocery channel, Rutter?s is taking on a door merchandiser from Hershey?s that will place eight of its 24-ounce Hershey?s chocolate syrup squeeze bottles on a high visibility suction-cup rack on the ice cream doors where the large take-home containers are sold.

?I?m excited to see how this works,? said Lau. ?We?re testing it in 10 stores at the start of the season.?

  • Be ready to extend the promotional season if weather permits. ?August and when kids go back to school pretty much ends the ice cream season, but Mother Nature can extend it a month or so, and we keep watch on that,? Lau said.
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