Operations

Unilever is testing on-demand ice cream delivery

The company's latest ice cream innovations explore instant delivery, and warmer freezers.

A Robomart store on the road

Robomart will deliver Ben & Jerry's. (Courtesy photo)

Welcome to Near Future. In this weekly feature, The Current spotlights innovations powering the next wave of commerce.

When ecommerce successfully enables an item's fast journey from order to door, it can feel like magic. But for the humans making it all work, there are many problems to solve to get there.

One area that requires lots of innovation involves figuring out how to send items that don’t seem to be natural candidates for shipping and delivery.

Take frozen foods, like ice cream. Keeping the sweet treat cold during transport is the difference between a pint of joy and a melted mess.

However, one should never underestimate how much people love ice cream.

Ice cream ecommerce exists.

One of the companies at the forefront of this area is Unilever. The consumer goods company also happens to be the world’s largest ice cream company, per its own data, with brands in its freezer including Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers, Good Humor, Magnum and Talenti.

The company saw at-home ice cream sales rise 26% over the first months of the pandemic in 2020. And even before lockdown, Unilever was exploring new ways to get ice cream to doorsteps, from an instant delivery service called Ice Cream Now that piloted drone delivery service to a partnership with software company Deliverect that helped it connect with delivery platforms.

This summer, Unilever has a new way to bring the ice cream store to the doors of Los Angeles residents. It is partnering with Robomart, a store-hailing startup that sends a store on wheels to people’s homes, to deliver ice cream.

The companies will stand up a virtual storefront called The Ice Cream Shop on Robomart’s marketplace, where users can order ice cream via app. In turn, a fleet of ice cream-only Robomarts will be at the ready, available to deploy to a location when hailed. When one arrives, a customer swipes their app to open a van door. Then, they can pick out ice cream and walk away.

Think of it as a new version of the ice cream truck, minus the music.

“Putting a spin on the classic ice cream truck by bringing it to consumers on-demand, we have pioneered a new way for everyone to get their favorite ice cream treats in as little as two minutes,” Ali Ahmed, Robomart CEO and cofounder, said in a statement. “This rollout brings to life the original vision my cofounder and I had over a decade ago while working at Unilever to create ‘The Everywhere Store’ – the fastest and most accessible way to get all your essentials.”

Founded in 2017, Robomart launched in West Hollywood in 2021, and has a patent on “one-tap grocery ordering” technology. The ice cream Robomart will join pharmacy and snacks-focused mobile stores in the company's line. It says it is finding loyal customers, as users hail a store 2.3 times a week, on average.

The company said it has delivered items in as little as two minutes. It's an evolution of the quick commerce models popularized by Gopuff and Gorillas. Instead of sending one person out to deliver a few items, Robomart brings the store to its customers.

For Unilever, working with the startup on a pilot holds the promise of “making it even faster to get our beloved brands to our ice cream fans,” said Russel Lilly, general manager of North American ice cream at Unilever, in a statement. “What better way to shop for your favorite ice cream than just a few steps from your front door?”

Raising the temperature

With a separate pilot initiative, Unilever is innovating with ice cream at the freezer level.

The company is set to explore how lowering ice cream freezer cabinet temperatures can reduce energy consumption.

It comes at a time when mitigating climate change is focal point of the operational plans at many companies. For its part, Unilever wants to get to zero emissions for its operations by 2030.

Freezers have a big environmental impact. Unilever said emissions from its retail ice cream freezers account for 10% of the company’s value chain greenhouse gas footprint.

Current industry standard calls for ice cream to be kept at -18°C (right around 0° Fahrenheit). The company is setting a target to raise the temperature to -12°C (about 10° Fahrenheit). Pilots in Germany and Indonesia will help to determine how to get there. If successful, the company plans to warm up its last-mile freezers through a phased-in approach.

"These pilots will provide valuable information on how much energy we can save and how our ice cream products perform in warmer freezers to ensure we deliver the same great-tasting ice cream,” Matt Close, president of ice cream at Unilever, said in a statement. “We’re actively seeking to collaborate with partners from across the ice cream and frozen food sectors to drive industry-wide change, so the collective positive impact is far greater.”

With the temperature a little higher, perhaps ice cream delivery will get a little easier, too.

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