Though now owned by a private equity firm and with 600 locations, Rita's was started in 1984 in Bensalem by Philadelphia firefighter Bob Tumolo, whose wife is named Rita. Headquartered in Trevose, Bucks County, Rita's relies on warm weather - and customers' yearning for icy sweets and favorite flavors.
But with 65 flavors, space constraints, and a promise that Italian ice and other treats won't be kept more than 36 hours after being made on location, Rita's has to make choices. Hard and painful choices, perhaps, for customers who prefer exotic flavors.
Rita's uses a marketing tactic that other companies have tried, sometimes successfully: They turn an inability to give all customers what they really want all the time into scarcity appeal.
"We have a number of ways in which we build guest excitement for flavor availability," Laura Lazar, Rita's senior vice president for marketing, said via e-mail when asked about the scarcity approach. "We have limited time only promotional periods where we create a sense of urgency to run to Rita's and try our newest flavors and products.
"Franchisees have the opportunity to share their daily flavor selection with guests through their store website and mobile-marketing program, Cool Alerts. Cool Alerts is a great way for consumers to find out when their favorite flavors are available at their local Rita's locations."
Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger, who spoke recently to Philly tech types at The Inquirer's Market Street office, has a new book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On.
In an excerpt that appears in April's Fast Company magazine, Berger writes: "Scarcity and exclusivity boost word of mouth by making people feel like insiders. If people get something not everyone else has, it makes them feel special, unique, high status. And because of that, they'll not only like a product or service more but tell others about it. Why? Because telling others makes them look good."
The new test for Rita's is whether that idea works in the Philippines. Rita's, which has stores in 22 states and about 120 stores in the Philadelphia area, struck a deal to open five franchises in Manila. Rita's previously opened stores in Canada and China.