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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Wysome

Unfreezing Innovation

One of the curses of a life in retail is the compulsion to assess any store you walk into – especially your own.  As a store developer, I will most likely head straight to see if recent initiatives have been executed.  Less generously I also tend to sniff out whether the store is/isn’t top of things (still stocking King Charles Coronation shortbread?).  In both cases the instinct is to scan beyond the familiar in search of the exceptions.

Casting a critical eye on the familiar (the 90%+ of stuff that’s been a comfortable part of the furniture for a long time) tends to be less instinctive.  Once an offer is in and ticking along it’s rare to find too many inside a retail business wanting to change it.  Upsetting customers by taking things away, risking an unproven replacement offer, the cost of making any kind of estate-wide change are just 3 regular reasons why inertia is often preferred to action.  However, the consequence can often be turning a blind (or at least half closed) eye to areas where innovation has stagnated, and sales are in one-way decline.

Service counters in UK supermarkets are a case in point.  The number of customers actually using them has been shrinking for as long as I have been in retail but for most of that 20+ year window nothing really changed.  Buyers and Suppliers weren’t too fussed as long as the decline in counter sales was offset by the growth in pre-packed alternatives.  Retail teams absorbed the labour cost as they always had and a small but important subset of loyal customers continue to prize the offer highly.  Outside of the occasional redesign, nothing about the offer itself ever really changed.

However, throughout this time external factors were impacting in a way that demanded attention.  Discounters (who never had the cost of counters) became increasingly influential in the market and growth in skilled independent and local offers (especially in markets and farm shops) set new quality benchmarks in the customer’s mind.  The counters became less necessary and less admired at the same time.  It took Covid (where the lengthy shutdown of counters broke the habits of loyal customers) to provide the excuse needed for their removal after many had been underwhelming and unprofitable for decades.  Without Covid, I suspect a lot more counters would still be in place.

So the other day I decided to take a look at the “furniture” within a convenience store I use regularly.

This is a store that generally moves with the times and has a strong overall convenience offer.  Hot (Costa Express machine) and cold drinks (Tango Ice Blast and F’real) are also catered for, the range of bread from local bakeries is excellent and the ever-broader click & collect offer very popular.  So – not a store full of aging cash cows on their last legs.  However, just inside the entrance in prime impulse position, is that a possible piece of old furniture I spot?

In common with 3 million other outlets worldwide, the impulse ice-cream offer in this store was presented from within a Walls “maxivision” freezer.   And therefore in common with those other 3 million outlets we impulse ice-cream customers are choosing from a range of Magnums, Cornettos and Calippos along with a few other bits and pieces.

Now I do have a bit of “form” with these units.  Unilever have always been delighted to hand them out to anyone prepared to find a space and a plug socket.  As a result, us Store Developers get to play an ice cream themed version of “whack the rat” once a buyer has agreed to allow a bunch of free freezers full of Magnums to pop up throughout the estate.  Almost every summer at Waitrose I gave someone in Store Development the job of finding, then losing or moving them sufficient to mitigate their impact on our carefully designed store interior.  The unit was an aesthetic challenge to absorb during the summer and a downright crime in the winter – especially once an entrepreneurial store manager had filled it full of frozen vegetables.

However, as a consumer I hold no grudge.  I do confess I find Magnums a tad disappointing – one of those treats that’s better in the anticipation than the consumption and the famous strapline “Just one Cornetto” broadly applies to the number I’ve eaten in the last 30 years.  However, I can be partial to a Calippo as was my Dad, as was his Dad, and for all I know his Dad given that it was invented in 1951 (Cornetto followed soon after in 1959).  Magnum is the youngster here, having been launched in 1989 and it still sells a billion units a year thanks to a constant influx of range extensions.  But the offer here is genuinely old – 3 products with an average age of 58 albeit with regular tweaks to make them feel a little more youthful.  All of us in our 50s can attest to the need for that occasionally.

Nonetheless, the control of distribution through provision of freezers can only be admired as a long-standing piece of genius and the introduction of the “maxivision” freezer 20 years ago provided the brand distinctiveness seen in 3 million places today.  However, this highly profitable strategy has had the usual monopolist’s downside in the form of suppressed competition and by implication the amount of market innovation customers might expect.  An impulse treat surely has to surprise and delight.  Churning out the same old hits has to eventually be a risk when some of your products pre-date the Beatles.

So I guess the question is whether the world is still as happy with their boomer ice creams or have the external factors (as with supermarket counters) begun to move things on?  Well, we had a new ice-cream store open near us just over a year ago and how it’s doing is best summed up by a recent Facebook post…

So, similar to the rise in premium butchers and delis, here is the world moving on.  In addition to the product being beyond delicious, this store delivers for customers on many things that matter to them today – fresh product hand-made on site, non-UPF ingredients and the use of excess stock from the local food hub for example.   The net result is a wonderful store selling as much as they can produce at double the price point of a Magnum.

It’s no surprise to see freshly served ice-cream appearing more frequently in innovative convenience retailers in Ireland (average rainfall 28% above even England) – either with franchise or own-produced offers.  In particular, Musgrave Centra nail this with Moo’d.  Sharing many of the attributes of the store above they are equally recognising the opportunity for an ice-cream treat in 2024 to be at a much higher quality and price point.

And of course, globally there’s no shortage of great ice cream – but in many places the market remains nowhere near as saturated as for other “affordable treats” – coffee shops or burger restaurants for example.  It’s also a market that surely will want to become fresher and more premium to succeed in a food world increasingly defined by food related illnesses and the drugs being designed to mitigate them.

So finally, getting to the point – after 20 years of relying on the maxivision unit there have to be opportunities for the new generation here!

  • Which retailers will be brave enough to move to a fresher, healthier ice-cream offer in convenience and who will supply it?

  • Is there an opportunity for department stores, garden centres, farm shops to celebrate ice-cream in the way they often now do with butchery and delicatessen?

  • Could this be an offer to have available at an EV charging station? (no ICE here – just ice-cream?)

  • Who is going to produce the equivalent of a Costa Express for ice-cream?

  • Who is going to design an offer with a unit that condemns the “Maxivision” to obscurity?

  • Who is going to develop the perfect temporary fixture – one that takes up little storage space but can be wheeled out in front of a c-store every time the sun pops out?

Of course, Unilever may just answer the question for all of us with a thrilling new range of products and a more beautiful freezer.  But just in case they don’t – it’s worth beginning to think how we can all catch up on 20+ years of under-innovation.

And finally… What else has been sitting around in convenience stores for 20 years or more and could do with a poke?  What beyond an ice-encrusted freezer full of Calippos can we use as a prompt to consider what else is overdue a bit of progress?  If anyone reading this has a view, we’d love to hear of anything that comes to mind!


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