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Copyright 2001 Industry Standard Communications Inc.
The Industry Standard.com
June 18, 2001
LENGTH: 800 words
HEADLINE: Online Screams for Boutique Ice Cream
BYLINE: Anita Chabria
Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby is old hat. Godiva's Chocolate Raspberry Truffle is long in the cavity-riddled tooth. Haagen-Dazs? Please! That's so 1980s.

Ice cream aficionados are turning to the Internet to find new favorites. And a handful of boutique creameries are finding their way online - usually as a way of augmenting existing sales or serving loyal customers who have relocated - scooping up electronic sales of pricey pints that are packed in dry ice and delivered right to the gourmet's front door.

It's not big business. After all, ice cream is heavy and perishable, making it expensive to ship. And a trip to the local ice cream parlor, where watching the waiter scoop out the ingredients for your cone (c'mon guy, just a little more!) is part of the whole sweet experience. Buying over the Web is for the connoisseur, not for the standard grocery store buyer.

How big Net sales of ice cream are is anyone's guess. Sales records are spotty and no organization represents the industry. But the market for gourmet brands is growing. In 1999, Americans spent about $1 billion on specialty flavors, out of a $3.4 billion market, according to Jerry Dryer, president of dairy consultancy JDG Consulting.

Dryer says that although total ice cream sales have remained flat during the past few years, there has been a strong trend away from low-fat alternatives such as frozen yogurt and an upsurge of interest in high butterfat blends such as Ben & Jerry's. And because consumers are shunning standbys like vanilla and chocolate, in favor of more exotic concoctions, many aficionados are hunting out specialties on the Web.

"We're not selling chocolate and vanilla on the Web," promises Bharatkumar Joshi, proprietor of Pennsylvania-based Nuts About Ice Cream. The specialty store also runs Nutsabouticecream.com, where a Web surfer can order hand-packed batches of Mexican chocolate ice cream.

Ice cream is a product that inspires loyalty, and Dryer says he isn't surprised by the growing number of people who are willing to pay upward of $100 to have a half-dozen cartons of favorite flavors shipped to their homes, especially if they have moved out of state and can't get their just desserts any other way. "We focus all our attention on Ben & Jerry's and Haagen-Dazs, but there are literally dozens of mom-and-pop ice cream makers out there that have a huge following in their city," he said.

Jay Blossom, owner of IceCreamSource.com, agrees, pointing to one of his top sellers, Blue Moon: a Froot Loops-flavored melange that is a favorite of Wisconsin natives. He says former residents of the state can't seem to live without the bright blue pints, and many are willing to pony up $59.94 to have six pints shipped to places as faraway as California and Florida.

For Jon and Jeff Tunberg, owners of Whitey's Ice Cream (Whiteysicecream.com), it's their all-natural sugar-free creation that lures people online. Recently approved by the popular low-carb Atkin's diet, the ice cream also is OK for diabetics to indulge in.

Despite growing interest, most online ice cream vendors keep scanty records of their sales and consider their e-commerce ventures to be sidelines. For Nutsabouticecream.com's Joshi, starting Internet sales was almost a lark.

"I was reluctant for a long time," remembers Joshi. "Who is going to take $60 of ice cream and spend $40 for shipping? I said nobody would do that." But his Web-designer son offered to build the site, so Joshi went ahead. Since their launch in November, he says the site averages two to three orders a week at $110 for six half-gallons delivered by second-day Federal Express. While the numbers aren't huge, Joshi says the sales are significantly higher during holidays such as Christmas, when his business needs every extra dollar it can find because local residents don't buy as much during the cold months.

"I probably could justify opening another factory that did just mail order," adds Richard Graeter, executive VP of Graeter's Ice Cream (Graeters.com). His family owned business, which operates 12 outlets in Cincinnati and nine in Columbus, Ohio, makes super-rich French pot ice cream. He says that Web sales have grown from four or five orders a day five years ago to 50 to 80 a day now. During the holiday season, orders jump to about 500 a day. Graeter's charges $70 to ship six pints. This year, he expects to ship 6,000 gallons, or about 4 percent, of his company's total production of 150,000 gallons.

Although prices for home delivery might seem high, the costs of shipping ice cream won't dissuade consumers with a penchant for that special flavor, Dryer says. For impatient sweet tooths, "waiting a day for delivery might be a bigger barrier," he says.

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