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FMI Energy & Store Development Conference: Integrated Design Can Change Everything

Last updated on June 13th, 2024 at 11:55 am

Rocky Mountain Institute’s Hutchinson says ‘put doors on everything’

by Terrie Ellerbee/associate editor

Grocers operate on paper-thin profit margins, and for the industry as a whole, those margins are trending smaller. Store profitability has slipped below 1 percent.

Meanwhile, energy costs have, on average, risen well above 1 percent.

Throw in the current regulatory environment, and you have a complicated equation that presents challenges, but also, according to Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, managing director of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in Colorado, many opportunities. Hutchinson spoke to attendees at the Food Marketing Institute’s (FMI) Energy & Store Development Conference, which was held Sept. 19-21 in Atlanta. He asked those attending to do a few things, too, like hold mechanical engineering firms accountable for quality work, “put doors on everything” and “yield to physics.”

There are simple ways that grocers can move design and retrofit projects in the direction of saving energy and increasing consumer comfort all while meeting governmental regulations, restrictions and requirements, Hutchinson said. It is all about integrated design.

“Integrated design is about solving every design problem at once in an elegant and low cost way,” he said. “That means that you leverage nature whenever you can, you leverage physics whenever you can. It’s less, not more. It’s whole system.”

So start with what’s natural, he said. Start with what’s free, like daylight, which is typically harnessed by skylights.

“The interesting things about skylights is the way they are typically put in after you’ve built the roof,” he said. Many make the mistake of thinking they must be built into the design, but the truth is they are always installed after the roof is completed, even in new buildings.

“It’s really not that big a deal,” Hutchinson said. “It’s not a different cost structure than what it would be in a new build. You can convert to skylights just fine and you don’t need a ton of them.”

Just don’t use skylights and the store lights at the same time. It defeats the purpose.

Lighting should be used appropriately inside the store. Surfaces reflect light, and flooring is a big surface in the store. In many cases, the floor is lit, but products on the shelves aren’t.

“Light the shelves,” he said. “It makes a huge difference in what we actually care about most, which is the shelf and the human ability to read labels, that ability to be attracted by the bright colors that the merchandisers give us.”

Colors change the dynamic as well. Lighter colors reflect light while dark colors absorb it. Think about a dark asphalt parking lot and how little light escapes beyond the poles. If the parking lot has a lighter reflective surface, less energy and light would be needed to brighten it. It is the uniformity of the light, not the absolute level of the light that makes the difference.

“We’d love to have everybody yield to physics,” he said.

He said he often sees “lighting warfare, where one part of the produce department is fighting with the meat and seafood departments and they’re both jacking up the lighting levels in order to attract customers.”

Hutchinson suggests focusing on relative lighting levels, not absolute lighting. In addition, subtle lighting won’t “fry the fruit,” he said.

Designs that focus the light specifically where it is needed are rare, he said.

Another point about lighting is the risk of resting on laurels. Hutchinson said that even if store operators have changed out lighting recently, chances are another look is warranted.

“Have you seen what’s happening to the cost curves? Have you seen what’s happening to the economics that you can get from this? Just because you put money into it six years ago doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put money into it again,” he said. “It is still a good investment.”

Another thing that’s happening is that LED lights are starting to become available in more colors.

Finally, he said, make sure that the lights themselves are kept free of dust and dirt.

“You actually need fewer lights if you keep them clean,” he said.

Discomfort won’t run them off, unless …

Shopper comfort is a paramount concern to grocery store operators. Hutchinson addressed concerns that shoppers would object to changes like putting doors on every refrigerated and freezer case. He said customers aren’t comfortable with the spillage from the cold cases, he said.

“We work with a number of grocery chains that always told us, ‘There’s no way that we’d be able to put doors on anything. Shoppers are going to go to the store down the street,’” he said. “If you’re worried about somebody going to the store down the street because they can’t open a door, let’s just all put doors on everything. It has such an amazing energy response. It has such good economics. We can take out a number of the compressor systems that we use and pay for and maintain and have all these costs associated with. Shoppers are adapting rapidly to doors in places that have them. Let’s put doors on everything.

“The more comfortable the shopper, the more time they spend at the store,” Hutchinson said. “One of the things we absolutely know is that it’s time in the store that drives the market basket. It’s how long they spend in the store, and we are driving them away.”

Customers—and employees—are tolerant of some discomfort, as long as they are moving. But when their bodies are not in motion, like when they are, say, in the checkout lane, they aren’t so willing to put up with the excess chill or warmth.

Store operations present many opportunities to save energy and cut costs. He gave the example of walking by delis where the hot dog machine is turned on early in the morning when workers arrive despite the fact that no one will be buying a hot dog for hours. He’s also seen employees heat their lunches in car-sized commercial ovens.

“You know how much energy you’re burning?,” he asked. “That’s about equal to the salary of some of those guys. There are a whole bunch of things that I think will help us all with getting after that stuff in a good, positive way. These are our colleagues and associates, but people are seemingly unaware.”

Other store operating procedures that he doesn’t advocate include:

  • Produce misters. “They don’t actually do anything other than get the shoppers wet.”
  • Ice for fish. “It doesn’t actually help the fish, and it’s a huge operational and energy drag on the store, not to mention an extra piece of equipment you don’t need to buy.”

Now it’s up to grocers

Grocers often retrofit stores. Hutchinson said that as they do the retrofits, RMI would love to see a lot of work done at the same time without expensive design—and the organization wants to give grocers ideas.

Grocers also could include energy involved in decision making about what gets retrofitted.

“We’re not sure why it isn’t playing a role,” he said.

He also would like to see analysis on the difference changing some of the store operating procedures could make.

Also, he said grocers should work with utility companies. Many states have efficiency requirements they have to meet, but they don’t know how.

“You can help and they will help you pay for it,” he said. “Basically what you’re doing is borrowing from their economics to help yours. I’d love to see the industry as a whole educate utilities on more effective supermarket intervention programs. You are a very, very big user, and you are everywhere.”

He also said grocers should insist on quality work from mechanical engineering firms, and that there are young, hungry firms—or simply firms that do the right thing—who are ready to work with grocers.

And, of course, he wants to see doors on everything.

“I’d love to hear from you about what you think we can push on this,” he said.

The savings, he said, would be in “the hundreds of millions a year to the industry and a whole—and it will take out a few power plants that are producing a few things you don’t want to breathe.”

The nonprofit RMI was organized 30 years ago and is devoted to driving the efficient and restorative use of resources, but with a difference, he said.

“We work with the system, not against it. We don’t go and parade around Congress or any place else trying to get them to our work for us,” Hutchinson said. “We call ourselves a think-and-do tank, and, frankly, it really should be a do-and-think tank. “

The Colorado-based organization has worked with five major supermarket and convenience store chains and has consulted with many others. Hutchinson said “integrated design” is a buzzword in the industry now. Careful thought should be put into any decision about retrofitting or building from the ground up for energy savings.

Reach Hutchinson by email  or call the RMI 303-990-2838.

About the author

Shelby Team

The Shelby Report delivers complete grocery news and supermarket insights nationwide through the distribution of five monthly regional print and digital editions. Serving the retail food trade since 1967, The Shelby Report is “Region Wise. Nationwide.”

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