Advances in design and technology have brought forth a new generation of multizone cases that offer tremendous possibilities by allowing a variety of temperature-sensitive items to be merchandised together in a single location.
According to industry experts, these fixtures can be found in some shape or size at retail chains including Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh; Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y.; Homeland Stores, Oklahoma City; and Kroger Co., Cincinnati.
Stater Bros. Markets, Colton, Calif., is one retailer that is pushing ahead with the possibilities these cases present, and is currently testing self-service, endcap prototypes, manufactured specifically for it by Tyler Refrigeration Corp., Niles, Mich. It's part of the 155-store independent's strategy to compete in the fast-moving fresh-meals market.
"It's basically a meals-to-go type program that they are used for," said Ron Figueredo, director of purchasing for the chain, adding that Tyler worked with him in developing the cases.
"Basically [Tyler has] taken a refrigerator unit and put it on the bottom and they put a hot case on top and they have separated the two with enough insulation that they don't affect each other." As a result, "you have the ability -- in basically a 4.5-foot area -- to put two cases in one," he said.
The cases allow customers to choose from a number of hot and cold items, including chickens and ribs in the top heated section of the case, and soda, salads and sandwiches in the bottom refrigerated section. And, it makes it easier for the customer to grab items and go, he said.
Currently, Figueredo said, he is testing the brand new cases in the deli departments of two stores and plans to install them in another store next month. So far, the existing cases have been a success.
"It gives me the ability with an endcap to sell both hot and cold together," he said.
This "ability" is what Stater Bros. was after with the new cases, which is especially important for some of Stater's locations, which are smaller than today's typical supermarket. Instead of scanning aisles for individual choices, customers desiring lunch or dinner can grab a hot chicken, salad or a soda at the one case and quickly be out of the store.
"We basically put this together for our smaller delis, our smaller stores that didn't have the room great big delis have," he said.
Before installation of the multitemperature cases, Stater Bros. had to rely on more traditional merchandising methods: cold foods were sold from a refrigerated case, and hot foods from a heated case. Often, they were never in the same place.
Figueredo said that his customers have accepted the idea of hot and cold together in one spot.
"When the customer walks up to it, they go 'Wow!' [They] can get spaghetti or a hot potato or whatever we put in there and then right below grab something cold, a salad, cold sandwiches or a soda, and off they go," he said. "It's a good way for us to get that fast-food market."
Level's Food Centers, Fort Worth, Texas, is preparing to introduce self-service multitemperature cases in a unit that is undergoing renovation. Currently, whole meals have to be sold from separate areas based on temperature requirements. When the remodel is completed, the various components will no longer be separated by such a barrier.
"It makes it much easier to bundle," said Kathy Dyer, operations supervisor of deli/bakery for the eight-unit chain, adding that bundling meals components is increasingly becoming one of the more popular -- and profitable -- meals-merchandising strategies.
"It seems to be the way to go, especially with the way people are shopping, 'in and out,' " she said.
One of the attributes of the cases that Level's is eager to explore is the capability of the cases to cross merchandise hot and cold products in ways that were impossible before.
"The application we're thinking of is taking hot roasted chicken and cross merchandising it in the cases with our ready to go [cold] salads -- like a home-meal application," she said.
While some retailers are embracing the new technology, others are taking a wait-and-see attitude. One of the latter is Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark. According to Bruce Peterson, the chain's vice president of perishables, one of the big challenges with multizone cases is cost, due to increased design demands.
"You have to ask what degree of flexibility you want to have, and what price you're willing to pay for it," he said.
Wal-Mart is not so much interested in the opportunities presented by multizone cases, and, instead, is looking at the temperature/merchandiser question from a more traditional point of view. The retailer has approached manufacturers to develop what Peterson calls "optimum-zone" cases, or finding the most efficient way of merchandising one particular product, in one particular area.
"What I'm talking about is keeping this group of items [together] and [determining] the optimum environment to put them in," he said. "Optimizing the environment of a particular commodity is different in concept from multizone casing because what multizone tells you is that you can put a lot of different things in a lot of different places."
According to George Tsokolas, director of fresh foods and food service at the Chicago-based consulting firm Senn-Delaney, a unit of Arthur Andersen, this type of debate -- the ability of multizone cases to increase sales potential -- is common among retailers. Those who are interested in the equipment are looking for ways to increase the customer-convenience factor.
"What they're doing is putting it in a multitemperature case and creating a different merchandising look," said Tsokolas. "It's no different than changing a display at Saks Fifth Avenue. What you want to do is present your product in a different environment and show the customers the different uses for it."
Within the multizone case segment, Tsokolas sees the most growth in those pieces that can accommodate both frozen and chilled items -- like hors d'oeuvres, frozen pizzas or salads -- and hot items, like rotisserie chickens and finger foods.
A retailer could also use the bottom of the case to display dry merchandise, breads and rolls and desserts. For example, the hot case could feature a center-of-the-plate taco set or a macaroni and cheese meal, with a choice of two or three sides featured in the bottom cold case.
However, Tsokolas warned that multizone cases should not carry the entire selection of merchandise. Retailers must limit the number of products that they display at any one time, because customers tend to reject shopping for too many products at one time.
"You put a dozen products in this thing, it doesn't have the kind of impact you want it to have," he said. "We're looking at core products. This would not be something like going to a buffet where [a customer] could select from 13 different products."
Terry Roberts, president of Merchandising by Design, Pittsford, N.Y., agreed, saying that customers may become disoriented when they initially see these cases. She said retailers have to be aware that consolidating food components in "all-in-one" cases can actually have a negative effect because they don't show the products off to their maximum potential.
"I have never been sure whether the customer understands when one part of [the case] is hot and one part of it's cold and they know what's what," she said.
Roberts said that operators reluctant to experiment with multizone technology might want to test themed kiosks, which are more related to the "optimum-zone" cases preferred by Wal-mart's Peterson.
Instead of highlighting variety, these whole modular units promote a single, unified theme, such as Mexican, Italian or panini sandwiches, "with all of the supporting pieces of equipment [sharing] a very small amount of space," she said.
Overall, multitemperature cases present retailers with yet another unique way to present a targeted selection of food products, and should seriously be investigated, since improved product movement and sales have been recorded with similar pieces of equipment, it was said.
"That's what we see happening in the the future because of the success we see with the chilled and the frozen tables," said Tsokolas. "You just minimize your options by not having [multitemperature cases]."