Should All Cases be 'Open & Shut'?

Aug. 1, 2011
Would doors on all medium temperature product cases save energy? How would customers react? Our Refrigeration Roundtable took up the topic.

The News Refrigeration Roundtable was held during HVAC Comfortech/HVACR Week in September 2010. It brought together leading refrigeration contractors and their supermarket customers to discuss issues and share best practices.

This article is our final look back at the 2010 Roundtable. It offers our panelists’ opinions on doors on cases, training, and attracting new talent to commercial refrigeration.

Read the first three articles in this series:

To Door or Not to Door
Stan Shumbo
, president, Eastern Refrigeration, Colchester, CT believes doors make sense.

"With doors, the Btuh requirements are reduced, which in turn reduces the horsepower required to run these cases," Shumbo said. "Another benefit is reduced frost buildup between defrost cycles, and a more comfortable shopping experience. Closed cases keep the store conditions more comfortable because of much less spillage into the aisles.

"Of course, there's an added cost on the maintenance side that comes along with adding doors," Shumbo added. "Door hinges, gaskets, anti-sweat heaters, and sometimes broken glass doors add to the maintenance costs. In some cases, additional energy is required to operate anti-sweat heaters, and the doors have to be kept sweat- and fog-free, so the product is clearly visible to the customers."

Jon Perry director of energy and maintenance, Farm Fresh, Virginia Beach, VA, said the door debate is actually an old one that he recalls hearing more than 20 years ago, when doors were installed on open, multi-deck, frozen food cases. Those cases switched to glass door cases years ago, and there have been people who still felt the glass on the doors decreased sales, because people wouldn't open the glass doors.

"Those doors have certainly become well-accepted over time. The energy savings from putting doors on the product is just so great," Perry believes. "As far as customer reaction, if I need a pound of butter, I'm not going to let a door prevent me from getting it. However, I do realize that some of the concern that doors will reduce impulse buys," he said.

Dan Steffen, vice president of AAA Refrigeration Services, Bronx, NY— the 2008 Contracting Commercial Refrigeration Contractor of the Year —believes acceptance of additional doors represents a cultural change, that if fully adopted, "just takes some getting used to,” and doesn’t mean stores will see an adverse effect on revenue.

"If you go to a convenience store, you see many cold products behind doors," Steffen said. "We're finding that the big-box retailers, such as Target or WalMart, have most of their products behind doors. Some of our independent customers have had us install cases with doors, and they haven't seen a drop in sales."

Jim Kirk, AAA's manager of energy services, said some products don't preserve well inside a door-enclosed case.

"Yogurt for example is best preserved in multi-deck cases," Kirk said. However, I think we should be moving towards doors whenever possible. There has to be a learning curve. Merchandisers don't like doors, but there's a gradual change taking place." Kirk also believes time will bring a change, and will open new merchandising "doors."

"As the old guard moves out and younger people move into management positions, the energy side of the argument is carrying more weight, and you're seeing those decisions made," Kirk said. "But, there are certain products you'll never be able to convince merchandisers to put indoors, such as produce items."

Jim Galehan HVACR manager for Giant Eagle, and Charles Dinsmore, director of engineering, Weis Markets, Sunbury, PA, said the change to a greater number of doored cases will be directed from the upper levels of store management.

"We're at the whim of what operations folks say, and whether or not they believe that doors would have an effect on the customers' shopping and on store merchandising. A change has to come from the operations side," Dinsmore said.

"As energy regulations change, the cost of new doors, and the cost to repair them becomes less expensive, they'll be considered, and research and return on investment studies will be done," Galehan added.

Harrison Horning, director of energy and facility services, Delhaize America, parent company of Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, ME, believes doors on open cases make sense. "On low-temperature (frozen food) cases it's a no-brainer. On medium-temperature cases it also makes sense. It's cost-effective, especially in areas with high energy costs," he said. "It reduces the size of refrigeration systems, and it's a very effective way to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. I think U.S. supermarket companies are finally getting over the fear of reduced sales, and some of our customers are beginning to expect us to have doors on refrigerated cases. Our great-grandparents figured this out many years ago, and somewhere along the line we lost our way. It's nice to see we're getting back on track."

John Gallaher, vice president for the Hill PHOENX refrigeration systems division — a Roundtable co-sponsor — said some Hill PHOENIX customers are experimenting with glass door cases on what have traditionally been open cases.

"The primary driver is energy," he said. "On January 1, 2012, the Department of Energy's 2012 energy regulations for display cases go into effect. This means that all display cases, open- or reach-in, will have to comply with those energy consumption guidelines. Hill PHOENIX has been aware of this, and has made significant investments to ensure that our cases either meet or exceed these guidelines for all cases."

Regarding doors' effect on sales, Gallehan said he's heard both sides of the issue.

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"One thing that's more certain is that a retailer's merchandising flexibility and ability to create unique merchandising environments is limited when using glass door cases for all refrigerated display case applications. From feedback we receive, the trends will revolve around options that incorporate energy savings, sustainability (refrigerant reduction), and merchandising flexibility. The need for new customers, customer retention, and in-store sales growth will continue to be a high priority. In-store environment and merchandising practices play a big part in those initiatives," Gallehan said.

Doors Good / Doors Bad

Speakers at the Food Marketing Institute's Energy & Store Development Conference in Minneapolis, MN, in September 2010 presented evidence that stores would benefit from refrigerated cases with doors.

Bryan Becker, professor, mechanical engineering, and Brian Fricke, assistant professor, mechanical engineering, both with the University of Missouri-Kansas City, presented the results of their door study. They found that while an open display case consumed about 1.3 times more energy than a doored display case, there was no significant difference in sales between the two cases. Doored cases "had no effect" on the sales of both dairy products and beer, Becker says. They also concluded that the doored cases exhibited less product temperature variation within the case or due to store conditions, resulting in increased food safety. Becker and Fricke conducted their study from January to June of 2010 at two independent grocers. Old, open cases containing dairy products, beer, and other alcoholic beverages were replaced with new open cases selling the same products. One of the stores replaced an open beer case with a closed beer case.

Becker acknowledges that more sales data may be needed to convince retailers that they can put doors on cases and save energy without negatively impacting sales. "An urban setting with more competition over a longer period would make a good study," he said. He also said their study may not hold equally true for all products.

Contrasting Study Finds Drop in Sales. Not all of the tests done on doored cases have concluded that doors don't negatively impact sales in refrigerated cases. Last year at the FMI Energy Conference, Larry Meeker, senior manager, mechanical systems, criteria and engineering at Supervalu's Boise, ID, office, reported that tests at three stores all showed sales drops across a range of refrigerated products, along with energy savings, after doored cases were installed.

In one store studied by Supervalu, where existing cases were retrofitted with doors, about 50,000 kilowatt hours were saved annually, enough to deliver a 3.56-year payback on the cost of the retrofit without utility incentives; but sales at the store declined 3% to 4% over time. At a second store where new doored cases were installed, the payback would take over a decade and the sales decline was 8% to 10%. Another store that received incentives would get a two-year return on investment but had a sales decline of 2.2% to 4.5%.

Depending on the margin of the products studied, Supervalu determined that about a 2% decline in sales would "offset all of the energy savings," Meeker said. The stores didn't use signage touting the energy savings, which could have positively influenced sales. Future tests will continue to work on ways to increase sales of doored case products, including experimenting with signage.
— Michael Garry, technology editor, Supermarket News

Recruiting & Training for the Future

We concluded our Refrigeration Roundtable with a discussion of technician training and recruitment.

Finding New, Young Talent
Benny Smith: "You've got to strike a kid's interest. It's got to be fun for them, not just work. You watch the Discovery Channel, for example, and see people in all kinds of different, interesting careers. They want to work 8 to 5, and they want to work with a computer. Regarding talent, I believe you can teach a refrigeration technician HVAC but you can't teach an HVAC tech refrigeration. It's just different. It's a higher temperature and a number of different applications, low, medium, and high temp."

Harrison Horning: "Hannaford has found that many young apprentices don't survive because they don't want to be on call 24/7/365 during their apprenticeship. They don't want to work the hours that it takes to obtain the best education. Attitude counts — you can tell a lot by their personality when they walk in the door, their cleanliness, and how they present themselves."

Jon Perry: "I usually prefer to hire people who have earned a two-year degree from a trade school. There's also a significant number of ex-military personnel whose service included mechanical experience. We'll consider those candidates, too."

Jim Salamone: "It's frustrating to be on call 24/7, especially during a holiday. But that's aggravated when the technician answers a call, and the store employee didn't pull the case, or didn't even check to see if it's iced up. He could have washed the case out, but didn't, and now the contractor is paying the technician top dollar to wash out a case. So, there's a frustration with the productivity we're demanding from our average supermarket technicians. We push them and push them.

"Our technicians aren't paid any more or less than a qualified HVAC technician, but an HVAC technician is billing 30% more. They're actually able to relax into their job and process the knowledge. I think there's a tendency to push refrigeration technicians and contractors, and it's tough on them."

Dan Steffen: "Our best technicians are those we bring up in-house as apprentices. The majority of applicants come to us through in-house nepotism. Sons, nephews and relatives of our associates family, who take pride in their career and want to share their success with their relatives. Trade schools offer another source, but we've found that one in every five decide to stay in refrigeration due to its technical complexity and demands. The first question we ask of all applicants is, "are you willing to make the commitment to be in the refrigeration industry? Its not for everyone, and your heart has to be in it. It's not a 9-5 job.

"On a positive note, those that choose this field and become good technicians will have job security, because people can be uncomfortable, but food needs to be preserved. To be a refrigeration technician today, in addition to refrigeration, you need to be well-versed in plumbing, electrical, carpentry, and computers to perform the job. That's why we've changed the designation of our team from 'mechanic' to 'technician.' They're truly technical people."

Benny Smith: "We have minimum qualifications: a two-year associate's degree or a degree from a vocational school, preferably in HVACR. There aren't too many colleges zooming in on refrigeration; it's usually HVAC. I don't want to teach them the basics; that's up to the schools. Whether it's knowing the characteristics of different refrigerants, or how to read a temperature/pressure chart. We select candidates that are willing to work, and willing to relocate. We basically offer a 36-month apprenticeship."

Training Methods
Harrison Horning: "Supermarket technicians really are trained from within. You just don't find them out there looking. If one does come in the door, there might be something wrong with him. They tend to stay in the supermarket industry. And, if a company has a good technician, they're probably going to do whatever it takes to keep them."

Jon Perry: "We alternate new technicians between service and installation, and we try to discover which they prefer. We also hold biweekly meetings, and review service topics, possibly something they encountered in the field recently, or something that went wrong in the field that week. Maybe I'll spot an exhaust fan that wasn't working in a motor room, which is an immediate safety topic. We also provide weekly safety reviews. During any down time, or on a remodeling project, we'll go over new technology with the group; usually it's related to whatever we're installing at the time. I try to instill in the technicians the understanding that they don’t want to repeat the same year of learning for 20 years. When you train the technician yourself, there's more loyalty and respect. You get exactly what you wanted, and a long-term employee."

About the Author

Terry McIver | Content Director - CB

A career publishing professional, Terence 'Terry' McIver has served three diverse industry publications in varying degrees of responsibility since 1987, and worked in marketing communications for a major U.S. corporation.He joined the staff of Contracting Business magazine in April 2005.

As director of content for Contracting Business, he produces daily content and feature articles for CB's 38,000 print subscribers and many more Internet visitors. He has written hundreds, if not two or three, pieces of news, features and contractor profile articles for CB's audience of quality HVACR contractors. He can also be found covering HVACR industry events or visiting with manufacturers and contractors. He also has significant experience in trade show planning.