AI helps retailers keep Unilever ice cream in stock

  • January 3, 2023
  • Steve Rogerson

UK consumer goods giant Unilever is using smart technology to help its ice cream retailers replenish stock around the clock.

This helps ensure bestsellers are always in their freezers and they can enjoy discounts based on real-time data-driven insights.

According to insight from Bestway Wholesale, which serves business-to-business retail stores, half of ice cream sales are made outside the summer months. And while its research finds good weather remains the most popular reason for purchase, at 63% of sales, having products visible for consumers to see in-store is a strong second.

Making sure every retail freezer cabinet in every location is stocked with Unilever ice cream brands –so shopkeepers get their sale and consumers get their ice cream – is the job of Unilever’s out-of-home ice cream sales teams.

Until recently, the way ice creams were sold to retailers had seen little change in sixty years. Orders were generated through visits from distributor reps or telesales and stock was delivered a few days later. Even when this system worked well, it had its flaws.

The success of visits was often at the mercy of the store’s relationship with the rep. Sometimes sales were lost because store owners didn’t have the cash at hand to make the order. And it was up to the distributor whether data were shared with Unilever or not, often leading to low-value orders and offering little room for generating new ones.

In a retail world where e- and quick commerce are a given, this route to market was ripe for change. And with the help of smart sales teams and smart tech, change has happened, and fast.

Unilever’s new business model for serving out-of-home customers is smart, seamless and digital.

The ice cream ERTM electronic route to market ecommerce app offers every retailer stocking Unilever ice cream the ability to place an order whenever and wherever they see fit.

“That’s the app’s big unlock,” said Emma Carrera, Unilever’s director of digital selling. “It’s 24/7. Our Wall’s brand is known for delivering smiles through ice cream. With this new digital route-to-market we can deliver smiles and sales 24/7. For Unilever’s out-of-home’s sales team, data also mean we are able to manage our category better. We can talk to our customers directly and send reminders that keep us top of mind.”

This can range from a WhatsApp chatbot message with a timely prompt to restock core products to a recommendation for appropriate stock levels of products that can help increase sales.

“As well as real-time data insights on transactions and sales, we can also see what products our consumers have shown an interest in and act to serve them,” said Carrera. “And those data can be used to serve the customer tailored offers or product recommendations that might lead to new orders for us and new sales for them.”

Having the ability to order electronically when it suits their business’s needs is proving popular with the small supermarkets, restaurants and convenience stores that make up the team’s business-to-business customer base.

Retailers can order stock from the app at a time that suits them, transfer the payment electronically, stay on top of stock that sells, and browse new offers and discounts.

“We’re seeing order values and frequency of purchase increase,” said Carrera. “This is because retailers can purchase 24/7. And there is also a reduction in stores running out of stock. That reduction of out of stock, plus the possibility of pushing our core products more effectively, is seeing the average order value increase.”

To date, almost 40% of Unilever’s total out-of-home customer base are equipped with the ice cream ERTM app.

“If you compare our digital stores using the app with our non-digital stores, we are growing much faster in digital channels where we can sell and engage with customers directly,” she said. “It’s why we are working hard to have more than thirty markets and 80% of our customers globally on board on the platforms by 2025.”

And while the app’s roll-out continues apace, the team’s search for more agile, intuitive and automated routes to market continues.

Smart freezer cabinets are being piloted. These can capture products that are out of stock in the cabinet and send a push message to the store that suggests a quantity that can be ordered and sent automatically, reducing the chance of running out of stock.

In Mexico, the sales team has worked to provide businesses with the same express delivery that its ice cream teams deliver to consumers.

Estefania Lupercio, Unilever’s digital transformation director in Latam, and her team used location data to see which customers they could reach within a set distance of a warehouse distribution point.

The pilot saw 1200 trade customers offered the opportunity to make orders through a virtual sales rep via WhatsApp at any time of the day. Once the order was placed, a team at the distribution hub got it prepared in an average of sixty minutes. It was then delivered in backpacks with special cooling zones in less than four hours – a system that guaranteed product stability.

By the end of the trial period, sales had risen more than 25%, thanks to increased frequency of delivery and drop size.

“An intrinsic part of disruption relies on listening and understanding customers so we can provide something they might not know they want yet,” said Lupercio. “Our customers were not specifically asking for express delivery, but they were asking for new ways to help them maximise their revenue. And that’s exactly what we did.”

A pilot that looks to use data to digitise the entire value chain is also underway in Turkey.

“The journey begins with consumer apps and social media channels, which serve customised offers to the mobile phone user with the aim of triggering an impulse purchase of ice cream,” said Ibrahim Gulec, Unilever’s head of data-driven execution.

Devices such as in-store smart freezers can then track the success of the offer for the consumer and remind the store-owner to replenish stock.

Data can also assess which offers and products are the most attractive to store customers and provide more targeted points of sale to increase the chance of an impulse for ice cream turning into a sale. And when retailers re-order, their deliveries are fully optimised and tracked by AI and live devices to ensure a smooth service without disruption.

“This new business model means that we not only help our retailers understand their sales trends better,” said Gulec, “we can also help them increase sales by delivering more smiles to their shoppers.”