EXCLUSIVE: How Ice Can Be a Hot Differentiator

Beyond bagged ice, suppliers and grocers are getting inventive with a staple product
Lynn Petrak
Senior Editor
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Everett ice
Grocers can add new ice options, such as fresh ice vending machines and handcrafted ice products, to capitalize on consumer interest in different forms.

Trying to ice out the traditional competition, some companies and retailers are touting their unique ice products. During the prime time for packaged, ready-to-use ice this summer, many shoppers can go beyond the basic 10-pound bag of frozen cubes.

What’s spurring this trend? The popularity of large squares and balls of ice in bars and restaurants is one factor, as consumers get used to fancier forms for cocktails. Social media is another driver, with influencers talking up so-called “luxury ice” with creative designs.

[Read more: “Big Ideas and Trends at Summer Fancy Food Show’]

Ben Gaskill, co-owner of Everest Ice and Water Systems, told Progressive Grocer that social platforms like TikTok are changing the way consumers view and use ice, something that retailers can keep in mind. “From fancy ice cubes to iced lattes and even advice on building a successful business with ice and water vending machines, ice has been a topic of interest among TikTok creators,” he reported. “We've seen them prepare fun-shaped or flavored ice cubes from the comfort of their home to stock up their fridge. These esthetically pleasing videos went viral and started the trend of domestic luxury ice. Also, let us not forget the ongoing discussion of what the ‘good ice’ is and where to find it. The idea of ice as more than a method of cooling your beverage down but as more a social status has evolved rapidly.”

While it’s still relatively early in the trend in terms of retail assortments, Gaskill noted that demand is building this summer. “Retailers will notice a high interest among customers for ice and cold beverages,” he said. “There will be some TikTok users who will try the domestic luxury ice trend at home. Still, the average American is looking to get ice easily, while shopping at the grocery store, pumping gas at a convenience store, or stopping at an ice and water vending machine, where they can get fresh ice in less than 90 seconds.”

Many grocers are already mixing up their ice offerings. Some Whole Foods Market stores, for example, carry large bags of “cocktail style” ice cubes made with 100% pure spring water. Kroger-owned Mariano's stores in the Chicago area stock Quari Iceice products in 12-count cubes, 4-count cubes, 12-count spheres and 4-count spheres. The Chicago-based Quari uses proprietary water purification and freezing processes to make ice that melts slowly over the course of two to three hours.  

In addition to selling bagged and packaged ice on premises as they’ve done for years, retailers can get creative with ice sales, like adding vending machines that sell fresh ice. Everest Ice and Water Systems, for its part, offers an ultra filtration system that is the same one developed by McDonald’s to ensure consistency for its drinks, Gaskill said.

Southeastern Grocers is also getting creative with ice, recently teaming up with logistics from Relocalize to pilot an autonomous ice-making “micro-factory” at a distribution center near its Jacksonville, Fla., headquarters. As part of the partnership, Southeastern Grocers launched Party Cubes, a market-first hyperlocal, “plastic-negative” packaged ice that is available at of its two stores in Jacksonville.

Meanwhile, grocers with in-store cafes and coffee shops can take another look at the type of ice used in those operations. For example, another big social media trend this summer is flavored ice, as videos on flavored ice have garnered more than a million likes. Depending on a grocer's foodservice-at-retail program, adding flavored ice as a drink option can spark attention, especially among younger, social media-savvy shoppers.

Stores with onsite Starbucks locations are part of the new ice age as well. The beverage giant recently introduced new ice machines that make nugget-style ice for cold drinks. The machines, supplied by the Follett Products division of the Middleby Corp., produce a softer, chewable texture and are expected to be phased into Starbucks locations over the next few years.

Grocers that add new types of ice in their cases and cafes can use it to their marketing advantage, Gaskill pointed out. “Follow TikTok trends and try to join in on the fun. Make the videos engaging by showcasing the product, highlighting the quality of the ice, and using clever ideas on how to use the product,” he advised.

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