Director Food Retail Marketing and Growth Strategy, Cold Chain
Manufacturers are innovating new refrigeration systems by blending pieces of proven architectures
The practice of rotating inventory in customer-facing product displays is a common merchandising tactic for grocers, both large and small. Often referred to as flexible merchandising, this strategy provides an opportunity for retailers to highlight seasonal offerings, promote flash sales and maintain a vibrant store appearance — while giving customers the sense that there’s always something new to discover every time they walk through the doors.
With dry goods, these mobile displays can be moved and rotated relatively easily. But what if the displays are full of fresh or frozen local produce that needs to be refrigerated? For refrigeration fixtures to be viable components of a flexible merchandising strategy, they will need to have built-in mobility to move from one location to another.
Unfortunately, common supermarket refrigeration architectures are often inherently incompatible with a flexible approach. Many outlets have fixed layouts in which refrigerated fixtures and piping are literally affixed into the store’s floor plan with predetermined insets. Moreover, the use of centralized direct expansion (DX) refrigeration — which is common in most supermarkets — also doesn’t lend itself to refrigerated display case flexibility.
Flexible merchandising refrigeration options
With retailer preferences and market trends in mind, there are several viable refrigeration architectures that offer varying degrees of flexible merchandising capabilities.
Distributed: This strategy is based on installing outdoor condensing units (OCUs), essentially allowing compressors and refrigeration systems to be located outside of a facility. Often used by smaller-format stores, this approach makes it easier for operators to scale their refrigeration system to the needs of the store. Modern OCUs are quiet, energy efficient and offer installation flexibility while leaving small physical footprints outside the store. Because they’re typically installed to support refrigerated fixtures in different sections of the store, they offer only limited merchandising flexibility.
Microdistributed: Featuring display cases that have the compressors integrated within the case, this emerging system type is becoming more common, especially in smaller-format stores. To remove the compressor exhaust heat, cases are connected to a shared water-cooled loop that’s directed to the roof of the facility for heat removal. These systems use a variety of low-GWP (global warming potential) refrigerants at low charges, including hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) and hydrocarbons such as R-290. The integrated-case-with-water-loop design enables a greater degree of merchandising flexibility, while still not achieving true mobility.
Self-contained: For increased merchandising flexibility, these display cases incorporate the entire refrigeration system within the case, essentially serving as plug-and-play refrigerated units on wheels. Due to the size of the refrigeration system, they typically don't require large refrigerant charges. These systems use a variety of low-GWP HFC and HFO refrigerant options, and are among the most common applications for low-charge, R-290 applications. For larger-format stores with a centralized DX system, incorporating these self-contained display cases is a logical means of achieving refrigerated-case flexibility.
It’s important to remember that in the United States, the use of R-290 or other A2Ls may require the approval of local authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ). Despite that, these systems have seen wide adoption with major U.S. retailers; for more than a decade, they’ve been widely accepted in Europe, where the use of natural refrigerants is much more commonplace.
Meeting a variety of emerging industry needs
As refrigeration technologies evolve to address changing industry dynamics, look for emerging system architectures that help meet the needs for flexible merchandising and smaller store footprints. Manufacturers are answering the call by innovating new systems and blending pieces of proven architectures — borrowing from what has worked in the past and improving upon existing technologies.
Retailers are working with manufacturers around the globe in field trials that address a full spectrum of emerging refrigeration requirements. Many of these trials focus on systems that use lower-GWP HFO refrigerants designed to meet improved environmental goals and address regional regulatory compliance.
While flexible merchandising will continue to be a growing area of emphasis, refrigeration system integration within a complete facility ecosystem is quickly becoming a key requirement for future architectures. Retailers are seeking self-diagnosing systems with always-on connectivity — helping them to quickly and easily address issues that impact their operators while reducing their reliance on the ever-declining pool of qualified technicians.
André Patenaude is director of food retail marketing and growth strategy, cold chain at St. Louis-based Emerson, in which role he develops the North American marketing and strategy pertaining to the company’s food retail and chiller market. Read More