While food-service departments like delis require the latest cooking equipment to produce high-quality products, a wide range of ancillary equipment is also essential. In this special report, SN focuses on trends affecting such equipment, including scales, wrapping machines and temperature measurement devices.
Without actually cooking the food, this equipment plays a vital role in producing the finished product, whether by ensuring weight or price accuracy, or making sure food remains at the proper temperature. Moreover, these devices enable supermarkets to reduce shrinkage losses and maintain accurate sales records.
One of the more technologically oriented stores to come along in memory is Food Lion's new Bloom format, located in the Charlotte, N.C., area. To date, four Blooms have been opened, with one more slated to open in mid-October. The stores, focused on shopper convenience, feature an array of customer-serving applications, including numerous kiosks and a portable scanning system that enables shoppers to scan items during the shopping trip.
Another notable device at Bloom is the PC-based UC-CW produce scale, introduced in February by Mettler Toledo, Columbus, Ohio. At Bloom, the scale, which weighs produce and generates bar-code labels, is needed to support the portable scanning system for shoppers. The UC-CW also includes a large monochrome customer display showing product and nutritional information and pricing.
When the scale is not in use, the display shows marquees and graphics to attract the customer's attention. Direct interaction with the customer in self-service mode shows customers how to use the scale and provides cross-merchandising suggestions on the 10.4-inch color touchscreen.
"Historically, deli and produce prep are not customer facing," said Susie McIntosh-Hinson, Bloom concept creator. "Our aim was to have more customer-facing scales in order to focus on convenience."
Advanced self-serve produce scales also tell customers the cost of their fresh fruits and vegetables, helping make the shopping process more efficient, McIntosh-Hinson noted.
"With most systems, you do not know the price until you take it to the checkout. This allows customers to weigh and be accurate. So if a recipe calls for four ounces, they can buy that amount. Of course, customers have the option to use the scale, or just take their products to the checkout."
McIntosh-Hinson acknowledged that the scale's screen does have a learning curve. "Once the customer places the product on the scale, they need to key in a PLU code or choose a picture, which is similar to a self-checkout," she said. "Customers are concerned that they may do something wrong. However, customers are more apt to key the item in correctly than is the cashier, who may not be as familiar with the item."
Jim Fenker, product manager at Mettler Toledo, said a trend in supermarket scales is to make scale data more accessible. Another is to include data-oriented tasks like production planning or data consolidation.
In addition, scales are addressing the need to include multiple functions into a single device. "Supermarkets need to incorporate merchandising, advertising and regulations into scale functionality," Fenker said. In merchandising, stores want to do a better job of harmonizing the scales' messages to the look and feel of ads and coupons." In addition, with the increase in regulation requirements, "there is the desire to include country-of-origin information, as well as trans-fat labeling and other types of data required at the point of selection," he said.
Supermarkets also consider serviceability and ease of maintenance as important requirements for their scales. This is particularly important for supermarkets moving toward self-service, which tends to be especially cost-conscious. Stores want to service scales in-house with the same IT staff that works on PCs, Fenker said.
Scale management systems that tie together all scales in a chain are also coming into vogue. These systems help manage the increasing complexity of scales. "Scales are transitioning from microprocessor-based devices to more open PC-based devices with operating systems, such as one of the Microsoft Windows or Linux," noted Stephen Loveridge, president, ADC, Tampa, Fla. In addition, because supermarkets are increasingly using scales in self-service departments, color touchscreens with programmable user interfaces are becoming more prevalent.
Other new complexities in scales include an Ethernet communications interface instead of a serial connection, and regulatory labeling-compliance calls for scales to carry more data within their file systems.
ADC offers systems that help manage and communicate to scales, including InterScale scales-management software and in-store iScale servers.
The iScale runs on Linux and presents a Web-based interface to the systems administrator; it comes with the scales management software preloaded, and with the ability to update its software versions from a central server. The iScale presents an alternative to in-store scales management software that runs on a retailer's own in-store computers, said Loveridge.
One scales management system user is Schnucks Markets, St. Louis, which implemented InterScale in March to run all of its scales. "InterScale is more robust and provides better accuracy than our previous system, which was automated, but more difficult to use," said Bob Slocum, MIS manager, retail systems, Schnucks. "Without a scales management system, we would have to rely on store associates."
iScale provides a high level of pricing integrity because individual stores can't program the scales, said Slocum. In addition, Schnucks can send prices to stores every 15 minutes, vs. every hour with the previous system. "This gives us the ability to react to competitive pricing in 15-minute windows," he said.
The system also does an automatic data compression when the memory is full, on an as-needed basis. "In the previous system, we would have to send an engineer to the store to do it," Slocum said.
iScale also provides alerts about problems that may arise. In that event, employees can turn to the Schnucks Help Desk for support, rather than involving the development staff. The system also uses a "closed-loop" feature, which allows the chain to pull information out of the scales.
With closed-loop feedback, the system notifies corporate headquarters about problems even before the store. "If someone unplugs a wire in order to move a scale, but does not plug it back, the store would not know. But iScale would send the information to corporate, which could notify the store," said Slocum.
Schnucks sends such data as price changes through a central server, which communicates to iScale at the stores. On the effective date of change, iScale applies the information to the scales. Without the automation, a store associate must enter the PLU lookup and associated data locally into the scales at each store.
"The duplication of these input processes over each store and scale in the chain, together with the inaccuracies arising from such manual entry, represent a huge ROI for a centralized and networked scales management system," contended Loveridge.
In the back room, supermarkets use scales in coordination with wrapping machines in order to provide high-quality packaging for meat, poultry and seafood products. For example, Potash Bros. Supermart, Chicago, has benefited from using an automatic wrapper and semi-automatic scale combination. Mark Omoto, market manager for Potash's meat department, said that for about two years, his company has been using the Solo Prima packaging system from Mettler Toledo at its on-site meat packaging operation.
"In a wrapping system, we wanted reliability, ease of operation, reasonable cost, speed and, of course, an effective and clean-looking seal," said Omoto. The Solo machine achieves this via an elevator-type wrapper that raises the tray, wraps it, and ejects it onto a hot plate that seals the package. The scale generates the label, which the employee manually places on the package.
Potash Bros.' previously used a fully automated wrapper, but it was antiquated, according to Omoto. Change occurred when the store downsized. While many stores went to prepack, Potash preferred to continue to cut, package, wrap and price, selling between $20,000 and $25,000 per week in meat. In the smaller facility, the Solo Prima -- a smaller, more compact unit -- worked well.
"It handles fewer packages, but also works better," Omoto said. "It is a small shop system that one person can use." It also requires less labor, enabling Potash to spend 60 man-hours per week operating the wrapper to less than 40, according to Omoto.
Omoto said that in addition to being clean and efficient, the Solo Prima is also quick and easy to learn. "Our previous machine was more complex because it involved inputting codes. If you were not versed in them, you would have to consult a booklet and that would take time," he said. Omoto acknowledged that although his machine generally runs well for extended periods, Potash has had some reliability problems with the wrapper's computer motherboard. However, Mettler Toledo has been quick to provide repair service.
While supermarkets have traditionally been concerned about presentation and freshness, HACCP regulations have become an issue for prepared foods. Thus, many supermarkets are looking for value-added thermometers for testing deli cases, premade sandwiches and salads, and baked goods, noted William Menchine, product manager at Raytek, Santa Cruz, Calif., a manufacturer of temperature-sensing equipment This trend is now more prevalent in larger grocery chains, and smaller chains are beginning to follow suit, according to Menchine.
Raytek offers handheld devices called Food Pro and Food Pro Plus for verifying temperatures in various parts of a case. The equipment provides a series of LED displays that provide a quick indication of the HACCP dangerous-temperature range, which is from 40 degrees (for perishables) to 140 degrees (for cooking). Menchine contrasted these devices with more common dial thermometers, which measure the air temperature that is blowing over a specific point only.
The handheld equipment uses infrared technology to verify safe (green light) or unsafe (red light) temperatures. In a deli case, users would scan at the top, in the middle, and at the bottom of the case. The Food Pros provide readings to determine that the diagnostic thermometer is accurate and that a specific set point is the appropriate temperature. The difference between the two models is that the Food Pro does not touch the product, whereas the Food Pro Plus includes a penetration probe, which tests the internal temperature of foods such as roasts.
Supermarkets also want the ability to measure temperatures faster. To that end, Metris Instruments, Los Gatos, Calif., offers infrared temperature measurement devices, recently introducing its model TN408LC to supermarkets. "A major shortcoming [of older units] is the time that it takes to reset as you move from a warm area to a walk-in refrigerator," said Alan Young, president, Metris. "The older models can take up to 30 minutes to stabilize for an accurate reading."
The TN408LC minimizes the delay effect to less than seven minutes, he said. In addition, the maximum temperature error is 0.7 degrees, vs. two degrees or more in other units. Also, older infrared devices are generally larger, have a relatively short battery life, and offer no built-in alarm limits, he said.