Baby, it's cold inside
By Carol Radice
Today’s refrigeration cases continue to make inroads in terms of appearance, efficiency and flexibility. The words “eye-catching” or “stunning” are rarely associated with refrigerated display cases. However, looks are quickly becoming just as important as functionality. More retailers are focusing on the big picture value with refrigeration units, including the finer details of differentiation within the products. As a result, suppliers can no longer get by with simply offering a highly functional and efficient unit. Industry observers say refrigeration cases must stand out in the eyes of the consumer, stand apart from similar units in the market and be designed to withstand the test of time. “Energy efficiency remains a key factor, but increasingly retailers are also looking at the merchandising qualities a case offers,” says Cheryl Beach, marketing communications manager for Hussmann Corp., based in Bridgeton, Mo. Beach says Hussmann had these qualities in mind when designing its EcoVision II Plus doors. The doors feature maximum product visibility through an ultra-thin door perimeter and slim handle design. “Our goal is to provide food retailers with a product that will last for many years. We continue to provide upgrades to all door components so that today the Hussmann EcoVision II Plus door has been tested to 99% reliability at 10 years,” says Beach. Higher standards hold true of LED lights, which for years had been touted just for their energy saving properties. Today, focus is also turning to the merchandising benefits LED can offer within the refrigerated/freezer display case. Beach says Hussmann’s EcoShine II LED was created specifically to attract the shopper’s attention to product displays inside the merchandiser. “Retailers need to take a holistic view of their entire store lighting landscape,” says Beach. “That includes ambient, accent and in-case lighting to define the right solution for their store.” Observers say there has been a learning curve for retailers as they are discovering that not all LEDs are created equally in terms of color vibrancy and optical design. Beach says most food stores tend to be over lit, which can create glare, waste energy, damage shoppers’ experience and negatively impact product display. As retailers continue to focus their efforts on reducing energy costs, they are also looking for ways to enhance how products are displayed. “In today’s highly competitive retail environment, shoppers are becoming more discerning and expectations of product quality, freshness and selection have ramped up considerably,” says Carl Petersen, marketing and advertising manager for Zero Zone, based in North Prairie, Wis., adding that this is particularly true for refrigerated dairy, deli, produce and fresh meat. In an attempt to save energy and present the most appealing display of medium temperature products, he says many retailers are now using the Zero Zone Crystal Merchandiser, with its 30-inch by 74-inch CoolView doors. However, some retailers want to stay with the 48-inch planogram they have used with open cases. For them the company created the Crystal Merchandiser with 24-inch by 74-inch CoolView French doors. The cases are also available in rear-load and deep versions. Kavita Vallabhaneni, product marketing manager for Baltimore Air Coil (BAC), based in Baltimore, says there are two key factors driving technological advancement and product development in the grocery environment. “The first remains energy efficiency as shown with the recent California Energy Code release of Title 24,” says Vallabhaneni. The code states that for newly constructed retail food stores in California, the condenser fans must offer a continuously variable speed and the condenser controls must reset the condensing temperature based on the ambient temperature. Vallabhaneni says that both of these measures save system energy and decrease the operating costs for the store. Officials at BAC are also seeing an increased interest in natural refrigerants, specifically CO2. Some of the benefits of CO2 refrigeration systems include no regulatory liability or restrictions, no expensive future retrofits due to refrigerant phase out, reduced system carbon footprint with global warming potential of 1 and an ozone depleting potential of 0 and low installation cost due to lower refrigerant prices and no refrigerant tax. “With an estimated 2,885 European food retail stores using CO2 trans critical refrigeration systems, their application is constantly expanding to other countries including Canada and the northern part of the U.S.,” says Vallabhaneni. “Historically, energy efficient, economical refrigeration systems are normally limited to colder climates due to the limitations of air cooled gas coolers.” In addition to energy efficiency, retailers are also focusing on low maintenance systems that can help drive incremental sales, says Hans Joergensen, CEO of AHT Cooling Systems USA, based in North Charleston, S.C. Specifically, he says the North American market is beginning to look at systems that utilize natural refrigerants, such as R290. According to Joergensen, these types of natural refrigerants have been used throughout Europe for the past five years or more with good success. “In the case of R290, systems are required to be self-contained and use less than 150 grams for the U.S. market. AHT’s coffin/bunker line fits within these regulations and these are the most energy efficient cases available,” he adds. Observers say utility incentives for energy efficient upgrades are driving trends in refrigerated equipment. The need for flexibility is also influencing design trends in cases such as those that can be changed to house either refrigerated or frozen foods depending on need. Mitch Knapke, refrigeration market manager—food retail at Emerson Climate Technologies, based in St. Louis, says climate change and attention to CO2 emissions from consumers and governments is keeping sustainability a focal point within supermarket refrigeration. “This is driving manufacturers to develop natural refrigerant solutions, including using carbon dioxide and propane as the cooling gas,” he adds. Concerns over food safety are also playing an important role when it comes to technological developments in refrigeration cases. Wireless temperature monitoring systems that aid in the task of maintaining a consistent product temperature throughout the case make it easier for retailers to ensure that temperature is maintained within acceptable levels at all times, says Knapke, adding that “merchandising options, food safety requirements, energy efficiency and sustainability will continue to drive change for the foreseeable future." Impediments to growth Upgrading should be a no-brainer, but ROI and first-cost mentality are driving the decision on whether or not to replace refrigeration equipment for many retailers. Observers say retailers have been trained to view refrigeration equipment as a commodity product and have gotten away from understanding its merchandising value to attract shoppers and increase top line sales. It is estimated that more than 76% of consumers shop at least five different retail channels for food so there is more competition than ever for every shopper dollar. “Food retailers need to be thinking about how they are going to differentiate their store layout and product offering from other food retail channels in their neighborhood,” says Beach. She says some of the solutions to this differentiation revolve around merchandising and store layout. That includes the presentation of fresh and prepared foods, how shoppers can easily navigate through a store to get the products they need and how connected the retailer is to what is important to their target shopper. “At Hussmann we are very focused on understanding the important shopper behavior trends and offering solutions that will enable food retailers to attract their target shopper to their store and increase their top line sales,” says Beach. When making purchasing decisions, retailers are looking at total cost of ownership beyond initial purchase price, says Joergensen. He adds that they are gravitating to systems that require little to no maintenance, offer energy savings and are easy to install. “Retailers are looking for ways to grow sales out of existing locations. AHT’s cases provide retailers with a way to do this quickly, easily and with minimal investment,” says Joergensen. Looking forward, observers say big changes lie ahead in terms of what the next level of refrigeration will look like in the coming years. “The future for refrigerated merchandisers is to move beyond the refrigerated box they are viewed as today and interface with consumers, retailers, inventory management, POS systems and service providers,” says Michael Lehtinen, the lead case product manager for Heatcraft Kysor/Warren based in Columbus, Ga. “Once the merchandiser becomes a source of sales feedback I believe retailers will finally view it as a critical component for success.” AHT’s newest models are the Ibiza, Vento, AC XL Slim (with or without doors) and Sydney. The Ibiza is a spot bunker for supermarkets and available in two sizes, 39-inch by 33-inch or 57-inch x 33-inch. Company officials say they saw a demand for high-quality, dual temp mobile spot cases and designed the Ibiza with panoramic side glass to provide a high impression on consumers with more product visibility. The Vento is AHT’s plug-in multi-deck, available in 4-, 8- or 12-foot sections and can be configured for an endless run. The 4-foot version utilizes R290 and is standard with frameless doors. The 8- and 12-foot models currently use R134-A and doors are optional. “The Vento is a quiet, low maintenance, multi-deck offering that can provide retailers tremendous flexibility, since they do not require refrigeration lines to a rack,” says Joergensen. The XL Slim was designed for in-line grocery placement to address the increasing number of retailers looking to offer more cross merchandising and capture additional sales. The Sydney will be available in the North American market in 2015 and is AHT’s latest jumbo island. Officials say this model will come standard with all of the latest technological advancements offering retailers the most energy efficient jumbo island with no impact on the environment. Zero Zone has also just formally introduced the Zero Zone ColdLoop CO2 Subcritical Refrigeration System. According to Petersen, the first retailer to use the system has been awarded the rare Platinum Certification from GreenChill, a certification currently shared by only four stores in the country. To achieve this highest level of certification the system needed to meet stringent requirements, including demonstrating a leak rate potential of no more than 5% (compared to the industry average leak rate of 25%). “The new ColdLoop CO2 Subcritical System minimizes the use of HFC refrigerants in favor of CO2, a readily available refrigerant that has a GWP (Global Warming Potential) of 1, the lowest GWP available and the baseline by which all other Green House Gases are measured, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” he says. Hussmann’s new Q3-DV vertical front glass service deli, meat, bakery cases provide a “Wall of Glass” merchandising with clear views from top and front. In addition, its Focal Point adjustable, multi-directional LED canopy light system illuminates the product display from front to back. At FMI in 2012, BAC launched the TrilliumSeries Condenser which reduces system energy by up to 37.2%, peak energy by 43.5% and refrigerant charge by 60%, which significantly lowers operating costs compared to traditional air cooled systems. “With the use of proprietary logic and EcoFlex controls, the On-Demand Adiabatic Pre-Cooler uses water only on the hottest days to maintain condensing temperatures that typical air cooled technology cannot achieve,” says Vallabhaneni. Because of this, the TrilliumSeries Condenser is the lowest total cost of ownership product for supermarket refrigeration systems. According to officials at Emerson, the company has developed sustainable alternatives to both increase energy efficiency and lower the environmental impact with refrigeration equipment. Natural refrigerant compressor and control options recently released include carbon dioxide and propane. The company has also been focusing on electronic case controls, which improve temperature regulation and system control, resulting in lower energy use.