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Keeping It Cold With Style

Contracting Business; 8/1/2001; Hall, Gary

The challenge began simply as a need to preserve food, but improved technology and growing consumer sophistication have placed a much more complex set of demands on the commercial refrigeration industry.

Throughout its history, refrigeration has evolved to offer users ever more energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing, and user-friendly options. What began with simple ice blocks used to cool wooden cabinets at the turn of the last century, progressed first to mechanical refrigeration with reciprocating compressors and manual valves and controls in the early 1900s, to today's electromechanical computer-controlled systems.

The demand for change has been driven by not only the new technologies, but by the ever-changing state of the economy. Such factors as the cost of energy, environmental protection issues, and retail competition have also played roles in the revolution of refrigeration and the storage and display of food.

As retailers of refrigerated and frozen foods modernized with the times, manufacturers of coolers had to keep up with these transitions.

In recent years, there's been a major increase in "cross marketing" at grocery and convenience stores. Customers shopping at these retailers are now enticed by the smells of fresh bakery, and the sight of delicatessens and ice cream shops. These "one-stop-shopping" environments give consumers the opportunity to satisfy all their cravings. The challenge for equipment manufacturers is to design new lines of cabinets, display cases, and merchandisers to satisfy the needs of this new "restaurant within the store" concept.

Now this trend is crossing over into the restaurant and fast food industries, where branded concepts are becoming more readily available. The food service industry is turning to dual branding, selling everything from tacos and fried chicken to ice cream and popcorn, all under one roof. In many cases, each co-brander needs to find its own cabinets that fit in small spaces, resulting in a variety of new refrigeration demands.

From Ice to Microelectronics

So how has all this affected the refrigeration industry? First, refrigeration has become more durable, reliable, and user-friendly.

The wooden cabinets of yesteryear faded in popularity because the wood retained moisture from the melting ice and rotted. As fiberglass was introduced in the early 1900s, it was added to the wood, but the structures were still getting wet and rotten. Today's metal-and-urethane foam-filled case walls offer the most solid, efficient cooling products in the history of refrigeration.

Reliable refrigeration became critical to safe and successful food service operations. When electricity became more readily available, the industry went from cooling with ice blocks to mechanical refrigeration, using refrigerant gases and reciprocating compressors. As these electromechanical systems evolved, static coils and cold wall technology came into play. Following electric motor and fan developments, finned evaporator coils were introduced to better distribute the air they chilled. This, along with advancements in compressor options (screw, scroll, and rotary), is providing the most efficient and dependable refrigeration options ever.

The advent of computers has led to the development of more user-friendly refrigeration products. Expansion valves that evolved from hand-operated to thermostatically controlled versions in the 1930s have given way to computer-controlled electronic expansion valves. However, that's not all that's been computerized. System controls, such as the defrost termination switches, fan delays, electronic timers, and thermostats, are now more easily monitored and operated through a simple computer interface.

Keeping food cold and well-merchandised at the same time has always been the main concern of the food service industry. New retail concepts and marketing programs have had a major effect on the type of coolers and cases used in food marketing. Consumer perception, merchandising impact, and purchasing trends are what drive style as well as function today.

Consumer Motivation

Ease of product accessibility has been one of the greatest influences in new cabinet styles. The energy efficient '80s saw an increase in the use of doors on merchandisers, but with that barrier between product and consumer, some retailers noticed a negative impact on sales.

This gave way to technological advances in energy efficient air flow systems. Invisible screens were engineered to keep the cool in and more effectively recirculates the cold air. This allowed for easy-open product access, which, in turn, increased sales. Some argue that consumers perceive that products aren't kept as cold in open air merchandisers. Many retailers have weighed the pros and cons of increased sales due to open-air merchandising versus the more energy efficient door, and are willing to forego the energy costs for the convenience of the "grab-and-go" concept.

It's been shown that the way product is displayed in a merchandiser directly affects the purchasing decision. Many supermarkets have gotten away from open-air "coffin"-type cases that ran down the center of aisles. Not only did they take up a lot of space, they weren't very energy efficient. Customers had to lean over these cases to see what was inside. Grocery stores have moved more toward upright cabinets that allow for a greater visual product display. Many cases come with a variety of lighting options that make products stand out. For example, lighted cases with black interiors make shelving disappear, causing the product to appear suspended in air.

Manufacturers are offering aesthetically pleasing cabinets to complement any establishment's decor. The cases can come in a variety of colors, from black to chartreuse, or they can be decorated with graphics, POP decals, or silk screened.

Yet another change was a result of retailers realizing the added value in the grab-and-go, or impulse, buy. There are now refrigerated cabinets designed to be free standing and mobile for use as point-of-purchase displays. This allows marketing-savvy retailers to cross-merchandise and place refrigerated cabinets in non-traditional areas of the store. For instance, a freestanding dairy case can display milk in the cereal aisle. This trend began at convenience stores with such things as beverage merchandisers and ice cream novelty cases at the checkout counter. Now this creative marketing concept is taking hold at end-of-aisle displays and at the check out counter.

With costs rising and traditionally tight profit margins in supermarkets becoming tighter, getting the most out of available space is a major key to the success of a food merchandising business.

Manufacturers realized this and accordingly expanded their offering of refrigerated cabinet sizes. From width to height, coolers are now available to fit in the tightest spaces, underneath cabinets and on top of counters.

Another innovation in sales space expansion is the new concept of merchandising and selling product right out of the walk-in cooler.

Getting away from the old days when walk-ins were mostly used for storage in the back of the store, one manufacturer has developed a way to merchandise right out of existing walk-ins. This is accomplished by integrating a rear-loading open-air display merchandiser directly into the front of the walk-in. Open-air, walk-in merchandisers can be stocked directly from the walk-in's storage area. These walk-in merchandisers are available as new units or they can be retrofitted to existing walk-in coolers.

The latest innovation in food merchandising for the supermarket, convenience store, fast food, and restaurant industries involves the concept of home meal replacement. It has presented refrigeration equipment manufacturers with the challenge of offering these businesses new retail merchandising solutions. This has constituted a need for the greatest variety of stylish and innovative cabinets and cases ever. Utility-type storage cabinets and refrigerators that used to be hidden in the back of the house are now being put up front in these "take-home" environments. The more traditional food service-type cases with solid doors are being redesigned to be showcased out front with glass doors, curved comers, and digital control panels.

While the basic concept of refrigeration (keeping food frozen or as fresh as possible) hasn't changed, the methods of delivering it have certainly changed over time to become ever more reliable and efficient. Manufacturers have changed their product offerings to meet the needs of the growing array of food service retail environments. Current energy supply problems around the country and the growing sophistication of consumers and the time constraints placed on them by the modern world are certain to bring a new generation of food preservation and merchandising innovations to rival those that have occurred since we stopped using blocks of ice to keep food fresh.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Penton Media, Inc.

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