The tricky business of selling ice cream online

Ice cream sales are up, but it’s not easy to get this frozen comfort food into the hands of online shoppers. How do ice cream brands do it?

Ice cream brand Jeni's guarantees that orders placed online will show up at customers' doors still frozen


You might have thought 2020 would have been a bad year for people selling ice cream. But while ice cream parlors around the world have spent many months shuttered, consumers are buying more ice cream than ever to eat at home.

In February, Unilever reported that while its ice cream brands’ out-of-home sales (at cinemas and other venues) had fallen by 20%, it managed to make up most of the deficit thanks to a 17% boost from in-home sales.

Meanwhile, Nick’s, a smaller Swedish ice cream brand, quickly pivoted to selling online. Launched in the U.S. in 2019, it managed to sell $10 million worth of ice cream across the country in 2020. That’s a lot of pints.

How brands sell ice cream online

Consumers are looking to get their hands on comfort food – but selling ice cream over the internet isn’t easy. It’s so difficult, in fact, that one brand Thingtesting contacted for an interview replied: “I’m going to refrain from participating … I don’t want to make life easier for our competitors or new entrants.” Frosty.

The main challenge, of course, is ensuring the ice cream doesn’t show up at customers’ doors with a consistency that’s more soup than soft serve.

Ice cream sold online is typically shipped out in insulated cardboard boxes filled with dry ice pellets. The exact amount of dry ice used depends on two factors: one, how far the ice cream has to travel, and two, the structure of the ice cream itself.

Brands like Nick’s, Dream Pops and Sunscoop, for example, need to take into account the fact that their products contain less sugar than the average ice cream (sugar lowers the freezing point of ice cream, while also keeping it soft). If shipped too warm, the ice cream will melt; too cold, and it will turn rock solid.

“By calculating our ice creams' melting points, delivery time and the time until the dry ice melts, we can be pretty accurate,” says Pierre Magnusson, head of e-commerce at Nick’s. “But of course not a single person on earth, including FedEx, is perfect. If a customer is unlucky enough to be one of the small percentage that receive perished goods, they will get sent [a replacement].”

A spokesperson for Jeni’s told Thingtesting that the company uses enough dry ice to keep its products frozen at precisely -109.3°F in transit. Jeni’s also guarantees frozen delivery, that means on the off chance an order shows up melted, it will be replaced.

Guaranteeing that ice cream doesn’t spend too long in transit can be expensive because it means brands often need to set up multiple fulfillment centers. Nick’s works with two that specialize in delivering temperature-controlled products (one in Nevada and another in Ohio). This setup allows Nick’s to deliver to 92% of U.S. consumers within two days.

Dream Pops also offers a two-day delivery window, and says that five pounds of dry ice are needed per day the product spends on the road.

Scooping the freezer aisle

There is, however, one advantage to selling ice-cream on the internet: it’s easier to make it look appetizing online than it is in a supermarket’s fogged-up freezer section.

“[In stores], sampling has been a large part of our strategy,” says Magnusson. “Online, we focus on taste in our creatives, photos and videos. It needs to look as yummy as it will taste.”

A trend among the online ice cream brands is that their websites tend to focus on flavor. Marco provides a case study in how to communicate taste through the written word, with flavor names such as Spicy PB Caramel, Vanilla Chai, and Turkish Mocha, and descriptions that tap into the experience of trying new foods while traveling. Others, like Miiro, focus on getting the “better for you” message in front of customers as quickly as possible, touting the products’ vegan or planet-friendly qualities.

So long as the ice cream arrives unthawed, the unboxing experience is also much nicer than unpacking groceries. “We view getting our ice cream in the mail like receiving a gift,” says a spokesperson for Jeni’s. “Orders arrive in our signature orange box, with a bulletin about what makes our ice creams special. We want [seeing] a Jeni’s package on your doorstep – whether you sent it to yourself or are receiving it as a gift – to feel like the highlight of your day.”

Is the future of ice cream online?

While brands are finding success selling ice cream online, not everyone is convinced it’s worth the trouble.

Dream Pops’ founder David Greenfeld says in-store retail is the brand’s biggest sales channel. “Our direct-to-consumer platform is really for our loyalists,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong – you can run a decent business [online], but I would argue that the margins are going to be major thin. Our first year, I went all-in on direct-to-consumer. But when I understood what it was going to cost from an infrastructure standpoint, I had to pivot.”

Nick’s acknowledges that it’s going to be difficult to scale its direct-to-consumer deliveries beyond what it supports now. While the brand has made good progress in the U.S., it still doesn’t offer a home delivery service in its home country of Sweden. “Fulfillment is more developed in the U.S., and it’s probably been pushed to its limits by Amazon,” says Magnusson, adding that in some parts of Europe, e-commerce deliveries can take up to a week.

For ice cream sales to really take off online, Greenfeld says, it’ll be a matter of cracking the last-mile conundrum and using local grocery stories and cloud kitchens as fulfillment centers. “There are customers that do regularly want to stock up their freezer,” he says. “But I’d be more excited about people ordering it on Postmates, UberEats or Doordash versus ordering in bulk.”

What is Thingtesting?

Thingtesting is a database of internet-born brands. We’re building the un-sponsored corner of the internet where consumers can come together to talk honestly about new things. Read more about Thingtesting here.

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