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There’s more to Unilever’s ice cream freezers than meets the eye. Some run at warmer temperatures that save on energy bills; others use smart tech to tell you when to restock. In future, they may even predict what consumers want before you do.

Magasin avec les enseignes de glaces Wall's présentant les meilleures ventes avec un congélateur à glaces en vitrine

“Did you know Unilever is not only one of the biggest ice cream companies in the world, we’re also one of the biggest retailers in the world?” asks Berty Jacob, an R&D cold chain specialist at Unilever’s Colworth site in the UK.

It’s a claim he makes only half in jest because Unilever owns, freely loans and maintains 3 million ice cream freezers around the world. “And wherever the freezer is located in a shop or supermarket, we have a retail space,” he says.

Ice creams and the freezers they are kept in are big business for Unilever. Analysts predict that the global market in impulse ice cream will grow 5.7% between 2023–2028 and many of these sales will be made from Wall’s ice cream cabinets in convenience stores.

Bestway , a wholesale retailer that serves more than 12 million consumers through its stores in the UK, Pakistan and the Middle East, says 34% of total ice cream unit sales are impulse purchases. And while good weather is the biggest reason for purchasing an ice cream, being visible to the consumer was a very close second.

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“Consumers need to see our freezers when they go in-store, open the lid and enjoy browsing and picking up an ice cream. You need to make your freezer experience really great,” Berty says.

So, as well as providing retailers with a free loan of the ice cream freezer, Unilever’s customer development team use the DAVE acronym to ensure each freezer showcases – Desirability, Availability, Visibility and Execution.

The team works with retailers to refine their ice cream assortment and provide a planogram to show what quantities of stock goes where. “It’s critical to have a good mix of your best-performing products and new products during peak season,” explains Out-of-Home Programme Manager, Ebru Ozdemir, “having the right visibility at the point of sale can increase sales by more than 25%,” she adds.

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To keep the ice creams in perfect condition, freezer cabinets need to operate at -18°C. And that takes energy.

“Emissions from retail ice cream freezers account for 10% of Unilever’s value chain greenhouse gas footprint,” acknowledges Berty.

But since 2008, all of Unilever’s freezers have been run on natural refrigerants. It was a pioneering move that saw much of the industry follow suit, “and that has made our fleet of freezers 30% more energy efficient,” he says.

Value engineering that creates energy efficiencies at this final part of the cold chain is an ever-changing and innovative space.

In Germany, for example, Unilever’s R&D team have run a successful pilot that has changed the design temperature of ice cream from -18 to -12°C. This gives ice cream lovers exactly the same consumer experience and means freezer cabinets can run at -12°C too. It’s a difference that translates to something like a 20–30% energy saving.

Berty’s team is also exploring the use of renewables and has developed the first ice solar-powered mobile cabinet which has been tested.

“There is still work to do, the cost of solar panels is high, and the storage batteries add significant load to mobile cabinets, but the concept is worth pursuing,” he adds, “so watch this space.”

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While Bestway reports that 50% of its impulse ice cream sales are made outside the summer months, there is no doubt that good weather during this four-month period in the northern hemisphere has a positive impact on sales.

For retailers, maximising that seasonality means working to ensure they never run out of stock.

“Research tells us the majority of consumers choose what ice cream they want to buy at the cabinet,” says Berty. “People don’t pre-plan. It’s not like buying milk; they won’t come back tomorrow. If you don’t have the product, you’ve lost the sale.”

Making sure retailers don’t run out of stock has seen Unilever incorporate digital tools and AI into the freezer fleet. “Today, 50,000 freezers are AI-enabled when it comes to putting the right product in the right freezer,” adds Sarosh Hussain, Head of Digital Selling Systems, “and there are plans for more.”

“The camera fitted inside our cabinet takes a photo periodically, sends it into the cloud and it’s analysed using AI to let shopkeepers know what to restock and submit orders in a frictionless way,” Berty explains.

Some stores have seen an uplift in sales of 15–35%. And while it’s early days, there is potential for stock data to be used for market research, to shape targeted promotions and further help retailers understand what their customers want.

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The image capture and AI that enables smart cabinet freezers are also being utilised by the team to take a slice of the multibillion-euro vending machine market which is servicing the likes of airports, petrol stations and university campuses.

Wall’s smart freezer vending machines open at the tap of a consumer’s contactless payment of choice, they can pick up and even amend their order, and the AI will capture and charge them for what they’ve bought.

Berty Jacob, spécialiste de la R&D sur la chaine du froid

Research tells us the majority of consumers choose what ice cream they want to buy at the cabinet. People don’t pre-plan. It’s not like buying milk; they won’t come back tomorrow. If you don’t have the product, you’ve lost the sale.

Berty Jacob

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But not all countries that love ice cream have consistent power supplies. In India and South Africa, load shedding can see power cuts for three to six hours, and in-store freezers and mobile freezer carts that bring ice cream to rural communities need to keep their stock at a temperature so it doesn’t spoil.

Here, the team have created a smart lining in the freezers which holds water at a depressed freezing point of -21°C, much like an insulating block you’d use in a cool bag.

When the freezer’s compressor runs, the liquid lining freezes at this temperature. When the power goes out, the lining uses the energy that the ice water gives off as it changes state. This chemistry can keep frozen stock at the right temperature for up to nine hours.

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Scientists are curious by nature; with Berty and his team, you also get the sense that offering value and driving sales for his retail users are at the heart of his quest for new innovations.

“Wherever the science takes us next,” says Berty, “we’ll work to ensure our freezers maximise energy efficiency, employ digital and AI tools to futureproof our retailers, and continue to enhance their consumers’ experience of our ice creams into the future.”

And you can’t get cooler than that.

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