Ice cream buyers like Lana Bradley of Champaign, Ill., say he's right to be wary of price-conscious customers. She shopped Thursday at a Schnucks grocery store in Champaign with a list full of sale items on a clipboard. Her ice cream, a seasonal flavor she really likes, wasn't among them, but she said the price — almost $5 a half gallon — was about as much as she'd pay.
"It is quite good," the retired grandmother said, nodding toward the carton in her cart. "(But) I probably wouldn't buy it if it went up any higher than it is now."
High-end ice creams, however, have carved out a niche for themselves during the recession and now-stalled recovery, said Larry Finkel, the food and beverage research director for the market research company Packaged Facts in New York. The products represent a form of affordable luxury, a treat that stands in for more expensive indulgences, such as travel or electronic toys.
"I think of Graeter's ice cream," Finkel said, referring to the 141-year-old Cincinnati company that only recently started selling nationally. "They use premium ingredients and they charge a good healthy amount of money for a pint of ice cream — and it becomes a good healthy kind of planned indulgence."
But even companies that charge a premium for their pints say they aren't making much money. Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams runs just shy of $10 a pint, but CEO John Lowe said much of that goes toward the ingredients.
"Grass grazed cows," Lowe said, explaining where some come from. "We direct ship in from Uganda these amazing vanilla beans."
The cost, he said, adds up. But the Columbus, Ohio-based company won't bet customers will pay more.
"We have worked hard not to raise prices and in the last year have not done so," he said, explaining that Jeni's has tried to save money elsewhere, on transportation in particular. "But the increase in commodities and fuel does impact the bottom line. We joke that we work in not a not-for-profit, but a low profit."
Back at the Schnucks grocery in Champaign, most shoppers in the ice cream aisle said they look for sales these days and buy based on price. Most said they'd probably give up ice cream if the cost went up too much.
But when pressed, a few reconsidered and said even a sharp price jump wouldn't change their habits.
"Usually every week, we usually get some vanilla or something like some mint-chocolate chip," said Randy Rowe, 53, of Champaign. He paused to think about whether he'd skip ice cream. "Probably not."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.