Summer had not yet arrived this year at the Vermont headquarters of Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., but already the ice-cream maker had a good idea of the season's most popular new flavor.
By early June, customers were clamoring for a concoction called Chocolate Therapy, a mixture of chocolate ice cream, chocolate cookies and chocolate pudding.
The early feedback was provided courtesy of the Ben & Jerry's Web site (www.benjerry.com), which includes a feature that allows people with the munchies to find stores in their area that stock particular flavors.
The data enabled the company to plan ample production of the new flavor during its limited release this year, and to begin contemplating its introduction as a regular product before summer 2006.
"We get hundreds of thousands of flavor searches a year," says Lucas Jenson, market research and consumer services manager for Ben & Jerry's. "Not only are we able to give consumers answers to their questions immediately, we can see consumer demand in a particular area of the country."
The information translates into action. "We can go to our sales team and say, 'What's up, can we get this flavor stocked in this store?' " says Jenson. "And when we launch new flavors, it's a great way to tell right out of the gate which will be the most popular. We pay a lot of attention around this time of year, and Chocolate Therapy looks like a classic in the making."
The Web site also supports Ben & Jerry's hippie-licious brand image with prominent links to an anti-global-warming page, and another page that promises "50 ways to support peace." But however altruistic the corporate culture, the site is built to sell ice cream. The Flavor Locator, which uses scanner data from Information Resources Inc. to track inventory in real time, is the most popular customer-service feature.
Users can also suggest new flavors and peruse an interactive FAQ that commingles queries about ice cream with posts on topics such as a homeless shelter program in Amsterdam.
Ben & Jerry's was purchased by Unilever for $326 million in 2000, and the parent company handles the IT infrastructure. But Web design stayed in-house in Vermont, where a four-person team works closely with the ice-cream makers and marketers. Jenson, who says his unofficial title is Conduit to the Great Ice Cream Consciousness, adds, "We'll go outside for a specific technology that it would make no sense for us to develop on our own, but we like to keep the interesting stuff here."