Ben & Jerry's A La Mode

The ice-cream maker craves a market in France

This summer, vacationers basking in the unclad chic of the French Riviera risk seeing their seaside fantasies interrupted. A bearded relic of the 1960s may suddenly walk up and hawk samples of Chunky Monkey or maybe Cerise Garcia.

Yes, Ben & Jerry are doing France. Bennett R. Cohen, co-founder of the Vermont-based ice-cream maker, is so keen to establish a foothold on the Continent that he has declared himself ready to hit the French beaches as a vendor. Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. is betting it can score in what is perhaps the most discriminating ice-cream market of all. It aims to take a lick out of archrival Haagen-Dazs Co., owned by Britain's Grand Metropolitan PLC.

It could be a nasty fight. While the French eat only a third as much ice cream as Americans per capita, Haagen-Dazs has turned France into "its main success story" in the market for super-premium ice creams, says Alan Gordon, managing director of Geneva-based market research firm GIRAG. In the six years since Haagen-Dazs set up parlors in fashionable Paris neighborhoods, it has grabbed an estimated 80% of France's $50 million annual market for deluxe ice creams. It has also fought off attacks by Unilever and Nestle, despite charging $6 per pint--or $2.50 a cone--for its ice cream. Haagen-Dazs leads Ben & Jerry's in Britain with a 24% market share, or three times that of the Vermont company, which is No.2.

NO ADS. But Ben & Jerry's founders Cohen and Jerry Greenfield see weaknesses to exploit. With Haagen-Dazs burdened by high costs in France, the two are confident they can match or better their rival on price, even though the six flavors they will start off selling in June will all be shipped from Vermont. While Haagen-Dazs temporarily slashed its price to $4.20 per pint when Ben & Jerry's tested the French market last winter, analysts figure Haagen-Dazs' weak European profits won't permit it to engage in a larger price war.

The Vermonters also hope to score with their marketing strategy. In contrast to the television spots Haagen-Dazs uses to advance its trendy image, Ben & Jerry's will eschew advertising, as it does in the U.S. Instead, it will roll out sales in 472 hypermarkets and supermarkets around Paris and send its promotional vehicle--a van imported from the U.S.--on a summer tour, including ice-cream giveaways to attract a young clientele.

If the grassroots approach works, Ben & Jerry's aims to open a handful of ice-cream parlors that will compete against Haagen-Dazs' 40-odd parlors, including its glitzy flagship on the Champs-Elysees. Half a decade after Haagen-Dazs pioneered the market, Ben & Jerry's is betting the French are ready for a down-home style.

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