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Domestic competition pushes Lithuanian ice cream producers to foreign markets.

KLAIPEDA - Say what flavor of ice cream you like, and some important things about your intimate life could be revealed, says a trendy eye-catching story in a romance story section on the Internet.

Correlation between flavor and the bedroom

Those conducting a survey at Lithuania's Trading Companies Association, on the most popular flavors of ice cream, probably weren't aware of the ice cream and intimacy relationship when they announced vanilla as the most popular flavor in Lithuania. "And to be more precise, plombir ice cream, which has been the most sought-after flavor since Soviet times," says Alvydas Malakauskas, director general of Premia KPC, an ice cream producer.

The director says the company sold over 430,000 liters of this kind last year. "In other words, every Lithuanian enjoyed Premia's plombir in 2011," says the CEO.

In revealing where the secret of the success is, Malakauskas says: "The main rule is the longer ice cream lasts, retaining its shape and taste, the more popular it is. The vanilla plombir is exactly as such."

Ice cream imports are increasing

Looking around Lithuanian supermarkets, no other item carries so many discount tags as ice cream. Even now, in the summer season. Some brands are discounted by 30-40 percent, even 50 percent.

Looking further, at the ingredient's list, shoppers might be unpleasantly surprised to discover that most of the cheaper varieties, both domestic and foreign products, include such ingredients as milk powder or regenerated milk. No sweet cream!

And that creates a huge challenge for Lithuanian ice cream producers, who mostly tend to focus on quality production.

"Ice cream imports have been rising year-on-year lately, by 21.4 percent last year alone. For domestic ice cream makers, it becomes more and more difficult to stave off the foreign production," says Viktoras Malinauskas from Lithuania's Diary Product Export Association (LDPEA).

In Norfa supermarkets, roughly 100 kinds of ice cream are for sale, and most of them, around 60 percent, are by foreign makers, Norfa spokesman Darius Ryliskis said to The Baltic Times.

On the lookout for foreign markets

Often unable to compete with imports, Lithuanian ice cream producers have to be on a constant lookout for foreign markets. And, in fact, some have been successfully penetrating them, according to the Lithuanian Institute of Agrarian Economics (LIAE).

Lithuanian ice cream goes as far as the United States, Russia and even Israel, as the export volume has increased by nearly one-fourth over the past two years alone.

Raimundas Ramonas, production director of Vikeda, known for Dadu ice cream, the company's most distinguished product, says small Vikeda ice cream shipments are being sent even to Australia. Mulling expansion, he says many things have to be taken into consideration, including different tastes in different countries.

"Usually foreigners prefer sweet cream-rich ice cream, in other words, plombir. Therefore, for example, to Germany we export only this. However, more and more Lithuanians also tend to choose cream-rich varieties of ice cream too," says the Vikeda head.

To adapt to foreign tastes, Vikeda is running a bakery line, where cones are being made. "To us Lithuanians, cones are not very common, as we still prefer drum-like roundish ice cream waffle packages," he says.

No room for price cuts

Though world markets see milk supplies in surplus, and milk powder prices down by one-third, ice cream lickers, nevertheless, will have to spend more on this dessert. "According to our data, one kilo of imported ice cream cost 4.8 litas in March last year, and went up to 5.13 litas this year. Domestic producer ice cream prices have also increased, from 6.7 to 7.49 litas per kilo," says Daiva Mikelionyte, an LIAE researcher.

Cheaper milk powder may impact, to some extent, the ice cream price.

Alvydas Alunderis, a department head at Pieno Zvaigzdes (Milk Stars), says the product prices are determined by the market itself. "As we produce most kinds of ice cream only from fresh cream, we compete with other producers at the premium level - the highest quality level. It's hard to expect the product price to fall," the producer says.

Vida Sukiene, with Ingman Ledai, a major ice cream producer, concurs with the Pieno Zvaigzdes representative on the "little or no room" thesis for cheaper, high quality ice cream. "Approximately 80 percent of Ingman production is being made using skim milk, sweet cream and butter. None of the items is cheap," she says.

To avoid large retail trade mark-ups, some producers, like Dadu, have started opening their own stores around the country. It seems some of the competitors are to follow this example.

UK-Dutch player in the market

Last year the domestic ice cream market was shaken up by a market-defining acquisition - UK-Dutch ice cream maker Unilever bought Finnish ice cream producer Ingman Ice Cream, which has an affiliate in Lithuania.

The company has started from scratch with the introduction of Algida, an ice cream that, by now, has found its spot on the shelves in over 40 world countries. "They had gotten off to a very good start, employing the resources a larger company can employ in launching its new product. They take up approximately 10 percent of the Lithuanian ice cream market now, and it seems it is not the maximum for them. Sure, their penetration shrinks other producers' market shares," an industry insider, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, told The Baltic Times.

Move to larger packaging

With ice cream imports and competition in the market increasing, so is the army of ice cream fans. "Ice cream is one of the most popular summer foods; therefore, even during high season, with the abundance in the market we are nearly always giving discounts, though lately the price hasn't changed," says Maxima spokeswoman Olga Malaskeviciene.

She says most Maxima clients prefer domestic Lithuanian ice cream. Interestingly, when it comes to packaging, most buyers prefer ice cream in waffle cones.

Ryliskis, the Norfa spokesman, notes that ice cream sales this May, compared to the same month of last year, have surged 25 percent. "The hike has been due not only to warmer weather, but also to a lot larger ice cream assortment," says the supermarket chain representative.

In discerning other trends, Nestle Baltics market researchers note that Lithuanians tend to buy ice cream in larger packages. "The habit of buying ice cream in larger quantities than single cones has reached Lithuania from the West, especially the United States. Until now, most Lithuanian buyers would buy ice cream in single little packages and cones. In that sense, we are still lagging behind all Western European countries. However, this is changing," says Ariana Rastauskaite, Nestle Baltics Corporative Affairs head.

Weather remains a key factor

Malinauskas from LDPEA says weather is crucial for ice cream sales. "If a day is warm and sunny, in a single day in the resort town of Palanga you can sell as much ice cream as during a whole winter month in all the resort's supermarkets. In other countries with similar weather conditions like in Lithuania, ice cream sales aren't so sensitive to weather. Unfortunately, in Lithuania, sales are very much so, as ice cream producers count their sold production not in the millions of portions, but rather in the thousands," notes Malinauskas.

He says ice cream sales plummet by up to 90 percent in winter.
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Title Annotation:Special
Author:Jegelevicius, Linas
Publication:The Baltic Times (Riga, Latvia)
Geographic Code:4EXLT
Date:Jun 27, 2012
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