By Reggie O’Donoghue
Competition in the food retail sector is such that companies that don’t innovate or evolve with consumers are increasingly in danger of becoming irrelevant. Witness the recent demise of Marsh, Andersons, and many others in the department store space. Consumers are more price-sensitive than ever, and they support those retailers that provide value and make shopping easier and more affordable.
Food retailers operate with the slimmest of margins, and those that trim their costs have found success in this ever-changing marketplace. Along with energy efficiency, retailers should also consider workforce issues, emerging equipment technologies, and inventory management needs. To meet these demands large format food retailer facility management professionals should welcome enhanced facility controls.
Better Oversight With Facility Controls
To help maintain efficient and profitable operations, food retailers can implement facility control systems that provide flexibility to operate within food safety requirements and meet the ever-increasing demand for a variety of fresh, prepared foods.
Facility controls provide centralized control and the ability to monitor building and refrigeration systems, including walk-ins, coolers, heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC) units and lighting for stores as well as distribution centers. This type of platform collects data on important performance indicators, including refrigerated case temperatures, energy usage, and HVAC discharge and space temperatures, helping facility managers to react quickly to potential issues that could impact the shopping experience.
As large food retail stores continue to become more complex, scalability is key. Retailers should consider comprehensive facility solutions that fit a variety of formats, new technology, and equipment. Retailers can connect refrigeration, HVAC, and lighting systems — regardless of whether they are legacy equipment or new generations of devices with advanced functionality — throughout a distribution center or a store with integrated facility controls.
Updated controls allow retailers to move beyond disparate building control systems to connect all store equipment, including commercial kitchen and foodservice equipment, and gain insights to improve operations. With an integrated facility management system, retailers gain additional visibility, power, and control throughout an entire enterprise of stores and distribution centers from a central location.
Reasons For The Rise Of Advanced Controls
Energy efficiency. Retail customer feedback from an Emerson Retail Solutions survey found that energy costs continue to be a top concern. With the use of the Internet of Things (IoT) and connecting coolers, freezers, HVAC units, and other power-using equipment to a centralized program, retailers can gain a clearer picture of their energy use. The information allows them to better utilize facility controls to manage equipment performance and apply settings for optimum temperatures and lighting. Data insights from continuous remote monitoring can help identify problem areas and opportunities for efficiencies.
Lack of skilled labor. There are far less refrigeration technicians to maintain HVACR equipment than in the past due to retirements and lack of qualified technicians for these jobs. In an age of widely varying system architectures, ever-altering technologies, dependence on emerging and natural refrigerants, and changing regulations, the need for trained technicians has never been greater.
While waiting for the industry and the market to fix the technician shortage, companies have focused on making technology easier to use and more intuitive to apply. Many applications are icon-based and color-coded to make it simpler to organize into a facility. The equipment still needs to be powerful enough to control devices and applications to which customers have been accustomed.
Emerging equipment technologies. Managing the HVAC, lighting, and refrigeration systems from racks to an entire store footprint is not easy, especially with constantly changing technology. With legacy equipment and state-of-the-art technology, or an inviting customer experience, facility managers need to balance the refrigeration system for racks and cases to work seamlessly with the HVAC needs of the front and back of the store.
One aspect is humidity control. Customers expect quick access to chilled products such as dairy, meat, fish, and produce. However, as they open and close case doors, they bring in warm air and increase the humidity within the case that causes the chilled doors to fog up due to more moisture in warm air. This extra burden on refrigeration can be alleviated with better humidity control by the HVAC system and automatic controls that activate heaters in the doors to maintain the case’s surface temperature just above the ambient dew point.
Control inventory setup. A lot of time is spent setting up applications for food retail sites or distribution centers. In many instances, such as refrigerated cases, the set up is just redundant input. Using facility controls can save time by allowing the set up for applications such as thermostats, setting of addresses, configurations, and others to be easily replicated.
A typical grocery store has about 100 cases. Half of these cases need to be set at a medium temperature (35 to 40 degrees) and the other half at low temperatures (-10 to -5 degrees). The Emerson Site Supervisor allows facility managers to set up the configuration and duplicate it for each case at the desired temps. The technology can automatically increment the names, such as “Case 1” and “Case 2,” and allow energy managers to review conditions for each case or a section of a store and make needed adjustments onsite or remotely.
In a typical supermarket, you might have multiple controllers for low temperature and medium temperature racks. There might also be a separate controller for the lighting and HVAC in the building. From a control viewpoint it’s tough to see all of these from one site. Using updated control technology allows users to see all units in the facility and the ability to organize in any manner.
Facility controls also house file management with SD cards and USB slots allowing users to back up files to controllers with the ability to restore or make adjustment to all settings. In the past, most of these capabilities were available, but not clearly defined. The availability of a range of capabilities is relatively new in this approach to the market and is more intuitive than previous technology, allowing users to get up to speed quicker.
Advanced facility control additionally makes maintenance more effective. Smart alarms can provide technicians with more insight and possible solutions regarding alarms and assist them to remotely triage issues and sometimes avoid a service call. Preventive maintenance can be enhanced and allow energy managers to tweak aspects such as temperatures to ensure better energy efficiency.
O’Donoghue is director of product management at Emerson Commercial & Residential Solutions, Retail Solutions.