In China, Beware the Ice Cream Assassin

The newly coined phrase refers to unexpectedly high prices for groceries at the checkout counter.

by David Smith

Sooner or later, it was bound to happen. It’s everyone’s destiny to eventually be caught by the inescapable grasp of desire. Something as simple as a sweet tooth and the allure of a quick burst of something sweet and juicy can be a tempestuous and, as it turns out, expensive combination.

It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon in March when I decided to do a little grocery shopping. I popped into a supermarket nearby with the plan to get some of the basics for the week: milk, yogurt, eggs, and of course, a bit of fruit for a healthier snack option.

As I searched the produce section, something caught my attention: Cotton Candy grapes from Australia. For those who don’t know, these little guys are amazing. The first time I popped one in my mouth, I was immediately rocketed back to eating cotton candy at the county fairs of my childhood. That distinct toffee flavor was unmistakable, and once I’d tried them, I was hooked. The store had a decent selection of other varieties, some Sweet Globe and Autumn Crisp from Peru, some Crimson and other black seedless from Australia, and some locally grown as well, but none of them screamed out to me as these did. I had to buy them, and I did.

I continued with my shopping for a bit and went to check out. Now, I’m slightly embarrassed that I probably don’t pay attention as much as I should when buying groceries. After I was done and checked out, I started to wonder, “How did I just spend 800 RMB ($115)?” Looking through my receipt, everything seemed pretty standard. Milk: 30 RMB. Eggs: 25 RMB. Yogurt: 60 RMB. And there it was — Cotton Candy grapes costing 200 RMB ($29) for 500 grams. It then hit me: I’d been caught by the “ice cream assassin.”

So you are probably reading this and thinking, “What the heck is an ‘ice cream assassin?!’” Good question — let me explain.

Ice cream is loved all over the world. China is the largest ice cream market in the world, with over $23 billion in sales in 2020 alone. As the middle class grows, so do the sales of more premium brands offering a chance for “consumption upgrading” to these consumers. The dominant luxury brands of this category have historically been foreign brands such as Haagen-Dazs. However, the past few years have seen a shift. In 2018, the brand “Chicecream” was founded and developed a reputation as being the “Hermes” of ice cream. The price for a single bar of this brand can be more than 70 RMB ($11).

The phrase ‘ice cream assassin’ comes from the feeling people get when they go to the freezer in a convenience store looking for a sweet snack, expecting to pay the ‘normal’ price of 10-15 RMB ($1.5-$2) only to discover afterward that they’ve just spent more than five times what they were expecting. These freezers are usually a bit disorganized, with different brands and flavors mixed together, so it’s easy to understand how the expensive brands get confused with the normal ones, but it still leaves a bit of a shock. Customers feel as if they’ve been caught by the ‘ice cream assassin.’

This has been angering consumers that have been caught off guard. Market research from iMedia indicates that 80% of consumers surveyed aren’t willing to pay the high price associated with these luxury brands. However, the bigger and louder complaints come when those brands do nothing to deliver value near the price tag.

This disappointment can come in the form of simply not having any ‘better’ taste or eating experience, but also in other more disturbing ways. One story online showed that one brand’s product was not melting, even after an hour at room temperature. This gave the impression that the products were expensive and overloaded with unnatural additives.

Consumers are not afraid of “consumption upgrading.” Quite to the contrary, we see that local premium brands are becoming even more popular. In the fruit business, we see locally grown fruit brands achieving unbelievable prices. A clamshell of locally grown Driscoll’s blueberries has attained retail prices above 40-50 RMB ($6-$8), while imported product from Chile and Peru selling at the same time is only 1/3 that price. We see premium Shine Muscat grapes from Korea and Japan selling for well over 300 RMB ($44) for a 500g bunch, much MORE than those Cotton Candy grapes I purchased.

The key takeaway and lesson to be learned here is simple: don’t violate consumer expectations, and be sure you’re delivering on your brand’s promise. People are willing to buy those expensive premium fruits because they don’t feel cheated, and even more, they feel the product is worth it.

Another important lesson here that is valuable for anyone exporting premium products to China or involved in local production is that Chinese consumers can be very demanding regarding price-quality expectations. If they are going to pay a higher price (and there are many willing to do just that), you need to meet their expectations, and if you don’t, the results can be devastating.

Luckily for me, my expectations were met. Those grapes were exactly what I remembered them being, and I ate every one with a giant smile on my face, even if my (digital) pocketbook had taken a hit from the ice cream assassin.