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Pandemic Creates Lasting Impact on Food Retailers and Commercial Refrigeration

Andre Patenaude | Director – Solutions Integration,

Emerson’s Commercial and Residential Solution’s Business

The year 2020 was an inflection point for the food retail industry. While many restaurants closed for in-person dining due to the COVID-19 pandemic, supermarkets and other food retailers were considered essential businesses and remained open. But for those responsible for these operations, this meant quickly adapting to new fulfillment scenarios, as many shoppers sought online grocery-ordering options such as curbside pickup and/or home delivery. I recently contributed to an ACHR The NEWS article where we discussed how the events of 2020 changed the food retail landscape and will continue to impact the commercial refrigeration industry in 2021 and beyond.

Online Retail Drives Refrigeration Decisions

As vaccine distribution increases and the COVID-19 pandemic hopefully recedes, the impacts of the pandemic will be felt well into the future. From a food retail perspective, the acceleration of e-commerce adoption appears to have permanently altered consumers’ buying behaviors and shifted the retail landscape.

According to a 2020 study by grocery e-commerce specialist Mercatus and research firm Incisiv, the growth rate of online grocery retail is expected to make up 21.5% of all grocery sales by 2025, representing a more than 60% increase compared pre-pandemic projections. As consumers continue to embrace both click-and-collect and home delivery options, many leading food retailers are rethinking their refrigeration strategies and expanding their fulfillment capabilities to meet both near-term and long-term projections.

The sheer volume of e-commerce sales took many food retailers by surprise in 2020 and has led them to take steps to shore up their online order fulfillment infrastructures. These include investments in additional refrigeration equipment and cold storage space — whether for in-house, click-and-collect operations, micro-fulfillment centers (MFCs) or even dark stores.

In addition, many retailers are evaluating their existing systems to determine if there’s available capacity to potentially tap into. Where there is not, distributed strategies such as stand-alone condensing units or self-contained cold storage are ideal solutions for creating additional refrigeration capacity. Of course, any new system designs or major retrofits will require more thorough consideration with respect to how these systems would align with retailers’ long-term sustainability goals.

It’s also important for contractors to continue playing a key role in helping retailers to make these decisions. They must be prepared with the knowledge and expertise in order to advise retailers on all the available short- and long-term refrigeration strategies — from self-contained propane cases to full CO2 systems to more distributed equipment architectures.

Cold Chain Data Tracking, Monitoring and Control

Another likely permanent impact will be the increased collective focus on cold chain tracking, monitoring and data analytics. Vaccine distribution challenges have highlighted the importance of monitoring product temperatures during transit – similar to the cold chain journey for food.

The adoption of temperature tracking, monitoring and control technologies used for the vaccines will likely accelerate the integration of these tools within the food cold chain — from farm to fork. This presents an opportunity to improve the working relationships, cooperation and technologies among producers, shippers and retailers to create an unbroken chain of temperature certainty throughout the food cold chain.

With supermarkets becoming one-stop shops for essential consumer needs — from freshly prepared and perishable foods to dry goods, pharmaceuticals and mini health care clinics — retailers have a variety of data streams strictly related to temperatures that they need to manage and monitor in order to preserve food quality and safety, as well as ensure proper vaccine storage. They also need to continuously track and monitor the performance of essential equipment and systems such as refrigeration, HVAC and lighting.

Fortunately, technological improvements and increased adoption of the internet of things (IoT) are giving supermarkets the abilities to capture, access, interpret and analyze data to deliver higher-value facility management solutions. Emerson’s Lumity™ supervisory control platform is designed to aggregate these data streams into consolidated views and provide insights to help retailers simplify their increasing facility management challenges.

From the perspectives of cold chain management, power management, equipment performance and preventative maintenance, we’re helping supermarket operators to bring all these aspects together within one cloud and one view — with robust data analytics to provide insights into each of these critical areas.

Factors Which Drive Innovations Toward the Next Generation of Refrigeration System Design

Katrina Krites | Marketing and Business Development

Manager, Food Retail

Emerson’s Commercial and Residential Solutions Business

The coronavirus pandemic has increased the retail food industry’s collective focus on food quality, safety and sanitation in supermarkets while driving consumer adoption of click-and-collect. At the same time, industry regulations impact retailer behaviors. These factors have brought more attention upon refrigeration systems. In a recent Progressive Grocer article (pages 76–80), I explored how refrigeration products, monitoring and sensing devices can support these initiatives.

Impacting food quality and safety

A grocer’s approach to refrigeration is a fundamental part of creating ideal shopping experiences for consumers. Starting with the configuration of the display cases, merchandising strategies are designed to present food in the most appealing ways. Many cases are now equipped with enhanced controls that turn on lights when a shopper approaches. By leveraging case controls and the internet of things (IoT) technologies, retailers can more effectively keep perishable foods within ideal temperature ranges, thus positively impacting food quality and safety while maximizing shelf life.

Continued improvements in data analytics and cloud-based, IoT technologies are enabling connectivity among equipment and devices, which will allow retailers to achieve much greater holistic controls of not only their refrigeration assets, but also other key facility systems, such as HVAC and lighting. These are areas in which Emerson has invested significant resources and will continue to do so in the future.

Closely related to that are the abilities to monitor and track the temperatures and locations of perishable foods throughout various steps along the cold chain journey.

Acceleration of click-and-collect

If what we’ve seen in 2020 is any indication, the supermarket industry can expect the continued adoption of online fulfillment options. This change in consumer shopping preferences will continue to drive innovations in the next generation of refrigeration system design.

With the growing popularity of click-and-collect, retailers are adding capacity specifically for these cold-storage purposes. With variable-capacity modulation capabilities that can adapt to changing load variations, the Copeland™ digital X-Line series provides refrigeration flexibility and reliability in click-and-collect applications. In addition, its onboard controls can be networked into a supermarket’s building management system (BMS) for complete refrigeration control and monitoring.

Our facility management controls (E2) and enterprise software (Connect+) also help retailers to remotely monitor their refrigeration assets, optimize system performance, and provide data-driven, proactive alerts of potential equipment issues.

The role of regulations

The regulation of refrigerants continues to be a source of great uncertainty for our industry. For several years, regulations have targeted the phase-down of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants to reduce carbon emissions and their potential contribution to climate change. Many retailers face global, national and state regulatory mandates that ban the use of refrigerants with high global warming potential (GWP) and call for the deployment of energy-efficient refrigeration equipment. As a result, the industry is undergoing a shift toward alternative refrigerants with lower GWP levels and no ozone depletion potential (ODP).

All of this has helped to bring low-GWP refrigeration solutions into the spotlight, and Emerson supports a wide range of options for retailers along the sustainability continuum.

Whether it’s natural refrigerants like CO2 or propane, or lower-GWP synthetic A1 or A2L blends, Emerson equipment is designed to cover the full spectrum of refrigerant preferences in various types of architectures. It’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for this refrigerant transition; food retailers are employing a wide range of strategies, depending on their unique regulatory and sustainability mandates.

Many operators simply may not immediately require a drastic reduction in refrigerant GWP and instead are seeking a more gradual transition toward their future sustainability goals. We are helping these retailers to develop equipment strategies that will allow them to transition to lower-GWP refrigerants today, while giving them a pathway for achieving reduced GWP levels in the future.

Energy regulations are also in play, and Emerson is committed to helping the industry meet Department of Energy (DOE) efficiency targets for commercial refrigeration equipment. For example, our recent launch of the Copeland digital X-Line series is designed to meet the DOE’s annual walk-in energy factor (AWEF) efficiency standards for walk-in coolers. These products can also help operators in the state of California to comply with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) requirements for small-format grocery and convenience stores. The X-Line series utilizes low-GWP R-448A and is designed to service a limited number of medium- or low-temperature refrigeration fixtures — making it ideal for small, urban store formats or large supermarkets seeking to add refrigeration loads outside of their existing direct expansion (DX) systems.

Innovation throughout the cold chain

Leveraging the power of IoT, operational data and the software that can extract insights and value from this information will also play much larger roles in future supermarket refrigeration strategies. To that end, continued efforts to achieve connectivity throughout the various links of the cold chain will allow supermarkets to gain much greater control of food quality and safety well before it reaches the shelves of grocery stores.

 

 

Grow Your Bottom Line With Sustainable Refrigeration Retrofits

Katrina Krites | Marketing and Business Development

Manager, Food Retail

Emerson’s Commercial and Residential Solutions Business

Across the food retail market, supermarket operators are re-evaluating their legacy refrigeration architectures. A dynamic mix of regulatory mandates, sustainability goals and the emergence of e-commerce fulfillment models are dictating changes in the status quo of refrigeration. We recently published an article in the RSES Journal that discussed refrigeration retrofit strategies that allow retailers to meet their sustainability objectives while improving their bottom lines.

When considering refrigeration retrofits, food retailers must remember that sustainability is a two-sided coin. While reducing leaks of global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants is important for lowering direct emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), many supermarket operators often overlook the potential for indirect GHG emissions caused by poor system energy efficiencies.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that supermarkets are the most electricity-intensive of all commercial buildings. Commercial refrigeration systems account for 40–60% of supermarket energy consumption and are by far the greatest contributor to indirect GHG emissions. Combined, direct and indirect emissions make up the true measure of sustainability, or a system’s total equivalent warming impact (TEWI).

Reduce direct emissions with lower-GWP refrigerants

The transition from high-GWP refrigerants and those with ozone depletion potential (ODP) is inevitable. Common legacy refrigerant options such as the HFC R-404A will be phased down while hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) such as R-22 are being phased out. But this does not necessarily mean operators should immediately transition to an alternative refrigerant or embark on a complete refrigeration rebuild.

Lower-GWP A1 refrigerants, such as the hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) blend R-448A/R-449A, are available that allow end-users to retrofit their existing system, reduce GWP from direct emissions by up to 60%, and still maintain a familiar operational footprint similar to the one they have today.

For those operators currently using R-22, the transition to R-448A/R-449A is relatively straightforward and requires very few substantive architecture changes. The transition from R-404A to R-448A/R-449A is slightly more involved but can still be accomplished without significant architectural changes. R-448A/R-449A produces compressor discharge temperatures that run approximately 10–12% higher than R-404A. This may require additional compressor cooling mitigation such as head cooling fans, demand cooling modules, or a liquid or vapor injected scroll compressor. Consult your compressor OEM’s guidelines for specific retrofit procedures.

Improve system energy efficiencies

Any system retrofit or upgrade comes at a cost, so food retailers must ensure their investment delivers long-term viability and returns to their bottom line. This is where reducing indirect emissions by improving energy efficiencies plays such an important role. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that every dollar saved in electricity is equivalent to increasing sales by $59.

While it makes sense to undertake energy-efficiency measures in conjunction with a refrigerant transition, energy optimization best practices can — and should — be performed periodically on all systems. Before considering any retrofit options, start by performing a system assessment to determine your current performance metrics — which in many cases will deviate significantly from the system’s original commissioned baseline.

The next logical step in the energy optimization process is to enable a variable-capacity modulation strategy by either upgrading to a digitally modulated compressor or adding a variable-frequency drive (VFD) to a fixed-capacity compressor. Variable-capacity modulation provides significant system improvements, not just to energy efficiency but also to overall refrigeration system performance, reliability and lifespan. Benefits include:

  • Precise matching of capacity to changing refrigeration loads
  • Tight control over suction manifold pressures, allowing increased setpoint and energy savings
  • Improved case temperature precision
  • Reduced compressor cycling (on/off)

In digital compressor retrofit scenarios, we’ve demonstrated that replacing an underperforming, fixed-capacity compressor with a variable-capacity compressor can result in an additional 4% energy savings — even before activating digital modulation capabilities. And once digital modulation is activated, operators can expect an additional 12% energy savings.

Whether you’re trying to reduce your direct emissions with lower-GWP refrigerants or seeking to improve energy efficiencies and lower your indirect emissions, Emerson has compression technologies and sustainable refrigeration solutions to help you meet your specific objectives. The Copeland™ digital semi-hermetic and Copeland™ digital scroll compressors provide opportunities to transition to lower-GWP refrigerants and enable variable-capacity modulation to drive energy efficiencies.

Refrigeration Strategies for Small-Format Retailers

Andre Patenaude | Director – Solutions Integration,

Emerson’s Cold Chain Business

The trend toward smaller grocery store formats has taken hold across the global food retail industry. These small-footprint outlets — which can be located closer to customers in urban centers and universities — are designed to provide optimal shopping experiences that are tailored to appeal to customers’ regional preferences. While traditional centralized refrigeration systems are too large for these small facilities, new equipment is emerging to suit these smaller spaces and support retailers’ unique operational goals and constraints. As I discussed in a recent article for ACHR The NEWS, many retailers are adopting a more decentralized refrigeration approach to support their small-format operations.

Compared to typical large-format grocery stores — which can cover more than 100,000 square feet and are found in most suburban areas — small-format stores are usually less than 40,000 square feet in size and are popping up in non-traditional locations and under-served communities. In terms of refrigeration, large stores utilize complex refrigeration rack systems, which can contain thousands of pounds of refrigerant. Small-format stores require completely different refrigeration strategies — which often means taking a decentralizing approach for more flexibility and much lower refrigerant charges.

Space constraints drive refrigeration options

Lack of space for mechanical rooms and other facility access restrictions are among the primary considerations for small-format retailers. Some stores are located inside residential buildings, which may prevent the use of remote racks or condensing units to be installed on rooftops. In mixed-use spaces, basic considerations such as door clearances can also dictate equipment selection.
The good news for retailers is that there are many refrigeration alternatives designed to address these challenges. The alternatives are often more flexible and typically combine a distributed refrigeration architecture for primary refrigeration needs, along with stand-alone cases — which integrate the refrigeration system into the case — that can be moved around a store to support seasonal and regional offerings.
Distributed approaches to refrigeration system design typically rely on indoor or outdoor condensing unit (OCU) architectures that allow the refrigeration equipment to be installed in closer proximity to fixed display cases. Another advantage of this approach is the ability to deploy a distributed controls architecture, which allows individual refrigeration assets to be operated and controlled independently. Thus, if a facility controller were to fail, there would be little to no impact on individual assets.
In addition, utilizing distributed controls in tandem with a centralized building or facility management controller results in a hybrid approach that delivers the best of both worlds: independent asset control and centralized visibility to all assets.

Multiple approaches for varying preferences

As is the case with large-format retailers, it’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for selecting a refrigeration architecture for smaller formats. From environmental sustainability to system lifecycle costs and servicing requirements, retailers have a wide range of pain points and business criteria on which to base their individual decisions. Emerson is committed to supporting small-format retailers with a variety of refrigeration solutions that can be utilized in most existing and emerging small-format architectures, including:

– A full complement of compression technologies
– Facility management controls and valves
– Copeland™ Digital Outdoor Refrigeration Unit, X-Line Series
– Copeland™ Indoor Modular Solution

We are actively partnering with OEM and retail customers to help create high-value, small-format refrigeration solutions. By combining refrigeration technology and component portfolios with design and domain expertise, our goal is to provide fully integrated solutions that can address a wide range of end-user criteria.

Pandemic Drives Changes in Grocery Store and Refrigeration Designs

Katrina Krites | Marketing and Business Development

Manager, Food Retail, Emerson’s Cold Chain Business

 

As essential businesses, food retailers were among the few sectors that had remained open during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. Staying open meant they would have to adapt quickly to new operating protocols, which often included one-way aisles, plexiglass shields at registers and enhanced cleaning procedures. Grocers were also inundated with high volumes of click-and-collect orders, which tested their e-fulfillment capabilities and presented additional challenges. I recently contributed to an ACHR News article discussing the shifting grocery landscape and its potential impacts on store and refrigeration system designs.

 

Attempts to provide “contactless” shopping experiences were among the first areas of focus, as store layouts were modified to limit the need to touch physical items and surfaces. While these were originally intended as stop-gap strategies, some of these short-term measures have already become more permanent elements of in-store designs. In fact, new store builds and remodels will likely feature layouts and case placements that are designed to adhere to as many safeguards as possible and provide much-needed merchandizing flexibility.

Of course, this shift will also affect the type of refrigeration architectures grocers select to address these emerging challenges. Flexibility in refrigeration translates first into the ability to meet typical capacities, but also provides the freedom to scale up or down to meet fluctuations in demand — such as staging additional self-contained cases or enabling variable-capacity modulation in walk-in units that support click-and-collect.

Shoring up stores for click-and-collect

While demand for click-and-collect fulfillment surged significantly during the initial onset of the pandemic, months later it shows little to no signs of letting up. In fact, recent reports indicate a 23 percent growth in click-and-collect adoption from June to July. Many experts believe this change in consumer behavior will represent a more permanent change in buying habits — although the degree to which it becomes a preferred shopping method remains to be seen.

Fortunately for most major retailers, click-and-collect capabilities have been in place for several years. But that doesn’t mean they were necessarily prepared for pandemic-level order volumes. In terms of fulfillment and execution, this emerging business model presents a variety of cold storage, picking and associated labor requirements.

As retailers respond to the increased amount of online shopping, they will need to account for fluctuations in consumer demand and the impacts on refrigeration equipment loads. Refrigeration design strategies with variable-capacity modulating compressors — such as the Copeland™ Digital Outdoor Refrigeration Unit, X-Line Series and Copeland scroll compressors — will help retailers balance click-and-collect refrigeration loads more effectively.

Another effective strategy is to implement “dark stores,” which are dedicated online fulfillment centers. Retailers who operate dark stores essentially take load fluctuations from click-and-collect activities out of the equation, which may make it easier to balance refrigeration loads. Whichever method is preferred, retailers will ultimately approach click-and-collect services differently, depending on their local demographics and store design strategies.

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