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Unilever Hero Colette Hittinger outdoors

How Ben & Jerry’s scoop shops are responding to coronavirus

Colette Hittinger gives support to franchisees

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Whimsical and welcoming, Ben & Jerry’s scoop shops are places where families and friends can enjoy their favourite ice cream treats. Co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield opened their first scoop shop in Burlington, Vermont in 1978.

Today, the scoop shops are run by independent entrepreneurs, known as franchisees. Ben & Jerry’s provide training and ongoing support, but ownership and operation are at a local level. “Our franchisees learn how to run a small business in the Ben & Jerry’s style and how to get out into their local communities to bring peace, love and ice cream,” explains Colette Hittinger, Head of Retail for North America.

When the Covid crisis struck, retail was badly hit. Bustling city centres became ghost towns. As footfall dropped, opportunities for out-of-home impulse buying fell too. Shops and cafés closed, and social distancing meant that friends could not meet up.

“Handling Covid has been challenging, but knowing that our franchisees had their life savings on the line made us all want to do everything possible to help,” says Colette.

In meeting the challenge, Colette started from a solid base of strong relationships that had been built prior to the crisis. This base of trust and communication helped the cross-functional Ben & Jerry’s teams and the franchisees to respond swiftly.

Networks of scoop shops were closed in line with national and local guidelines, as a new set of hygiene practices was developed and put in place. To ensure social distancing among consumers, floor markers resembling ice cream cones in the Ben & Jerry’s brand style were created and distributed. Health awareness posters – ‘Thanks for wearing a mask’ – were also produced. When local restrictions allowed, the shops reopened.

New models were developed to replace in-store consumption. Franchisees were encouraged to offer take-out services and to make kerbside pick-up available. They were encouraged to explore all delivery channels and work with local partners to get ice cream out to consumers.

Backing up this stream of practical support, Colette launched a system of weekly communication calls to franchisees. Updates and learning points on key business resilience issues were shared by email, and an online group forum was created so that franchisees could actively learn from one another and share lessons learnt.

Project Joy

Covid-19 has taken a huge toll in the US. Workers in healthcare and essential occupations have responded heroically to the demands. Ben & Jerry’s franchisees were among those who wanted to show their gratitude – and so Project Joy was born.

“Project Joy actually came to us from our franchisees,” says Colette. “They were seeing all the frontline workers out there – healthcare workers, food-service providers, manufacturing workers… They said, ‘We have to get out there, we want to thank them. How can you help us?’ ” And so Ben & Jerry’s provided 100,000 free ice creams for key workers, with the aim of doubling that figure by year end. Project Joy later evolved to provide ice cream to peaceful protesters who were trying to lead positive change in their communities.

Four women holding out tubs of ice cream – part of Ben & Jerry’s Project Joy

Support through strong values

Like its parent company Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s has long had a reputation for caring about issues such as climate, sustainable agriculture and equality. During the Covid pandemic, the values-led business has also shown enormous support for the mental and economic wellbeing of its franchisees.

“We had subject-matter experts talk to us about mental health and wellbeing,” says Colette. Ben & Jerry’s has also provided financial support and extended relief from marketing and royalty fees.

“Ben & Jerry’s leadership team has always said that we are a family and must support one another. In our opinion, their actions speak louder than any words could,” says Michael Garrett, Ben & Jerry’s franchisee in Mount Kisco, New York. Michael has been a franchisee with the brand for 33 years.

Echoing this respect, Colette says: “We’re all in this together. This is not only a financial business and investment. This is their lives.” Around 300 Ben & Jerry’s scoop shops in North America have been helped, together with their 5,000 employees. And sales are averaging 60–70% of last year’s volumes – a huge achievement in these times of coronavirus.