Open Cases Get a Chilly Reception

Observe the refrigerated and freezer section of any supermarket or grocery store that still has open cases. What you’ll see is shivering shoppers rushing to the registers, products that appear washed out by bad lighting and scuffed, dirty cases that accumulate dirt and repel buyers. It is a universal phenomenon.

“I shop at two stores, one is close to home and has open cases and the other is 15 minutes away, but they have new closed cases,” says Kristin Manning of Charleston, S.C. “I try to avoid the one closest to home because the store just looks run-down, plus the cold cases are all open, so the store always feels like a meat locker. In fact, that’s what we call it – ‘the meat locker.’

“If we are out of something, I’ll send one of the kids on their bike to ‘the meat locker’ to pick it up,” Manning continues. “But if I’m driving and getting the week’s groceries, I go out of my way to go to the other store. Since the store put doors on all the cases in the cold section, everything seems cleaner and more modern. I actually kind of relax and enjoy seeing what’s new instead of sprinting through so I can get back outside where it’s warm. I look forward to going to one store, but I dread going to the other.”

Retailers have always known that consumers have powerful emotions about where their food comes from and the experiences they have while shopping. Making shoppers feel good is part of every retail sales strategy, and the refrigerated section is a notorious problem for grocery stores.

There are other problems with the refrigerated sections that consumers don’t notice but are just as costly and damaging to the store’s brand and bottom line. The typical open, multi-deck meat or dairy cases defrost four to six times daily for up to 30 minutes for each cycle vs. once a day for cases with doors. This frequent defrost cycle allows product temperatures to spike and may allow bacteria to grow or cause food to spoil. Additionally, the greater air infiltration rates of open cases typically result in more frequent defrost problems, which mean more service calls.

The government’s Energy Star program reports that on average, supermarkets use 50 kilowatt-hours of electricity and 50 cubic feet of natural gas per square foot per year for an average annual energy cost of more than $4 per square foot. For an average-size store, energy costs can top more than $200,000 per year and emit the same amount of CO2 as 360 vehicles.

For retailers, open cold cases mean chilly aisles, rushed shoppers, potential food safety concerns, more service calls, washed-out products, wasted energy and a store that looks like it’s seen better days. All this adds up to profit loss and brand damage.

Warming Up to Closed Cases

Retailers such as Walmart Mexico are listening to shoppers like Kris. “We noticed that our open cases were causing low store temperatures that made our customers uncomfortable,” says Manuel Gomez, head of Sustainability and Energy for Walmart Mexico. “That’s definitely not the experience we want for our shoppers. Plus, we’re very focused on energy efficiency.”

Supermarkets consume twice the energy that a commercial building of the same square footage does, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). “We were looking for alternatives that would help save money and cut energy consumption when we discovered how reskinning and closed cases could reduce energy costs while giving our shoppers a more comfortable experience,” Gomez says.

Reskinning old cases involves replacing beat-up, dirty trim with bright, clean trim. Reskinning turns out to be a win-win for both sides. Retailers that reskin enjoy benefits such as improved shopper perception, a savings of up to 75 percent over total case replacement and the life extension of existing cases.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest advantages of closed cases is the energy efficiency. Energy Star estimates that for supermarkets and grocery stores, $1 in energy savings is equivalent to increasing sales by $59. The statistics back it up. Closed cases with swing doors immediately start paying for themselves with up to 65 percent energy savings. Installing lids on open islands saves about 50 percent.

Additionally, LED lighting generates less heat in a refrigerator or freezer case, helping to maintain constant temperatures and saving about 75 percent of energy costs. LEDs also last much longer than fluorescent. What’s more, the refrigeration and compressor workload is reduced by 80 percent, so retailers can add cold displays to the load as needed without any change to infrastructure. Closed freezer cases also emit less CO2, a detail that is important to eco-conscious retailers, ones who are already regulated by emissions standards or who have to comply with emission caps.

Increasing Profit

Closed cases directly improve profit margins in three ways: The defrost cycle is reduced from four defrosts to just one so temperatures stay consistent and there is less spoilage. This is an especially important concept with meat cases. Less spoilage means more products to sell.

Second, retailers with closed cases also notice that customers spend more time in warmer, more comfortable aisles so they spend more on impulse buys. Third, LED lighting is more uniform, cleaner and more eye-catching, which means products within the case are more appealing and turn over faster.

Gomez has seen a direct impact on sales. “Reskinning really helped us save energy and it has impacted sales,” he says. “Our customers feel that the temperature is better. The LED lighting also makes the products very attractive. We’re pleased because the investment has a good payback, and it saved the money we expected. We’ll continue with the initiative in other stores.

“During the installation, there was no impact to sales, no barrier between the customer and the product,” he continues. “Energy efficiency is very relevant because it allows us to offer lower prices to our customers. In the end, we save money and improve the shopping experience.”

Evaluating Vendors

Retailers that are considering reskinning need to evaluate vendors carefully and keep in mind these eight guidelines:

  1. To minimize headaches, use a vendor that can handle the project from start to finish without employing third-party vendors.
  2. Ensure the vendor can replace parts on all types of cases.
  3. Require after-hours installation so there is no downtime.
  4. Choose a vendor that has been around awhile – the longer, the better.
  5. Ensure your vendor offers – and has a reputation for following through with – after-sale support.
  6. Make sure your vendor offers durable, stylish products that last.
  7. Check that your vendor factory-tests products before shipping them to your site.

Closed cases solve many of the problems that retailers have with the freezer and refrigerated sections of their stores. What’s more is they are environmentally friendly, easy to implement and maintain, and offer fast return on investment. Replacing or refurbishing freezer and refrigerated cases with the latest energy-efficient and shopper-friendly technology can offer multiple benefits to retailers, including drastic savings in energy costs and keeping shoppers in the aisles longer.

John Roche is director of engineering and marketing for Anthony Inc., Sylmar, Calif., a Dover Co. The company was founded in 1958 and is now the largest manufacturer of glass doors and display equipment. For more information, e-mail