RALPH'S ICE CREAM WINNING AWARDS

COMPTON, Calif. -- Ralphs Grocery Co. here is winning awards with a private-label ice cream program that combines an extensive array of flavors, savvy marketing and an eye for the latest consumer trends.The chain's store-brand line swept the ice cream judging contest at the Los Angeles County Fair last September, winning almost 50 awards, most of which were gold medals.Ralphs manufactures ice cream

COMPTON, Calif. -- Ralphs Grocery Co. here is winning awards with a private-label ice cream program that combines an extensive array of flavors, savvy marketing and an eye for the latest consumer trends.

The chain's store-brand line swept the ice cream judging contest at the Los Angeles County Fair last September, winning almost 50 awards, most of which were gold medals.

Ralphs manufactures ice cream for its 165 stores at its Central Facility Creamery here, and has processed its own ice cream since 1938. An adherence to strict quality control standards has resulted in an ice cream with a quality that often exceeds the national brands, according to the company.

Ice cream plays a key role in the growth of overall frozen food sales at Ralphs.

"In terms of sales, our Ralphs ice cream has outpaced the industry growth and even the southern California market growth. And since we manufacture our own, we have very competitive retail margins," said Mark Halstrom, director of frozen food buying and merchandising.

Ralphs Central Facility Creamery manufactures ice cream under the labels Ralphs All Natural, Ralphs Old Fashioned, Ralphs Light & Lean, Private Selection superpremium and Ralphs No Fat No Cholesterol. There is also a Ralphs Yogurt line and Ralphs Sherbert.

Although Ralphs offers a wide variety of flavors in its ice cream, it does not manufacture any novelties and does not have plans to do so at this time, Halstrom said. Ralphs also shies away from short-lived seasonal flavors.

"Because of packaging and so forth, at this point we don't indulge and do a lot of seasonal flavors. The extra packaging runs

and manufacturing runs make it slightly prohibitive.

"However, we are very sensitive to trends and consumer needs when it comes to various flavors and types. When Ben & Jerry's came out with their cookie dough ice cream and cookie dough became a hot flavor, we reacted to that.

"Cookie dough ice cream was a minitrend. It is still a very viable flavor, but surely not to the vitality of a vanilla, rocky road, chocolate chip or something like that," he added.

Not surprisingly, the favorite flavor among Ralphs consumers remains vanilla, Halstrom noted. Still, "we're constantly adding and subtracting flavors based on sales and trends," he said.

Ralphs conducts extensive research in-house and with its suppliers to track and react to consumer trends. According to a company publication, a new product can take anywhere from six months to two years to get off the drawing board and into store shelves.

Once in the stores, the ice cream receives special merchandising attention on an ongoing basis. Assortments and square footage devoted to the ice cream category vary from store to store, but the underlying pattern is to highlight the store brands.

"We have an aggressive schematic for private-label ice cream -- much more aggressive than for branded. We promote one or more segments of our Ralphs ice cream every week. That includes advertising and displays," Halstrom said.

"We continuously look for means to sell and merchandise ice cream in a more favorable position," he said.

"For example, in the summer we'll have ice cream contests, which motivate store personnel to maximize sales through merchandising and selling ice cream more during the hot summer months. We'll involve ice cream in various demos, tying in with various toppings or ice cream cones throughout the summer. The intent is to promote trial for the ice cream, because our ice cream is really of top quality. Once people try it, we've got them hooked," Halstrom explained.

The quality of Ralphs' ice cream was high enough to be lauded at the latest annual Los Angeles County Fair.

The chain won a total of 103 medals for its dairy products, 46 of which were for ice cream. The majority of the awards for ice cream were gold medals. The Private Selection line, for example, won eight medals of excellence for its vanilla thriller, jungle chunks, chocolate red rocket, coffee compulsion, dough business, serious toffee crunch, triple dose chocolate and vanilla fudge rush flavors.

"All of the ice creams are evaluated by the same criteria, which include flavor, body and texture. Included in the judging were independent manufacturers, such as Dreyer's, as well as retailers," said Julie Weeks, a Ralphs spokeswoman.

Ralphs said it has developed quality standards for the dairy and ice cream products it manufactures that are much more stringent than the U.S. government and its food regulatory agencies mandate.

Ralphs' self-manufactured dairy and ice cream products are required to pass several quality tests before receiving the green light for shipment to stores.