New stores represent large investments, and food retailers are understandably anxious to open them to shoppers as soon as possible. But retailers who force their refrigeration contractors to rush the installation of complex refrigeration systems may be making a costly mistake.
That was the consensus of a group of contractors who met last fall to discuss refrigeration practices with a group of supermarket executives at the Refrigeration Roundtable, hosted by SN and ContractingBusiness.com, a sister publication at Penton Media. This is the second installment of coverage of the Refrigeration Roundtable. The first installment was published in the Dec. 10, 2012, issue of SN. The event was sponsored by Hill Phoenix, Danfoss and Emerson Climate Technologies.
“To completely start up a standard 50,000-square-foot store, we need a month,” said Steve Tibbets, owner, T&O Refrigeration, Fayetteville, Ga. Stores that receive less time than that risk having significant operational issues down the road, such as higher refrigerant leak rates. “When looking at stores that were started up 10 years ago, it’s easy to see the ones that were properly started up vs. the ones that weren’t.”
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In addition to Tibbetts, other contractors participating in the roundtable included Bob Axelrod, president, Cooling Equipment Service, Elk Grove Village, Ill.; Jai Hoover, vice president Remco, Allentown, Pa.; and Ed Mattos, president, Remco. Supermarket industry representatives included Jon Scanlan, director-refrigeration and energy management, Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa; Paul Anderson, group manager, refrigeration/engineering, Target Corp., Minneapolis; Joe Gallego, former manager of refrigeration and HVAC services, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Westborough Mass. (now special projects manager, Bay State Cooling, Bridgewater, Mass); and Ted Alwine, director, engineering, Martin’s Super Markets, South Bend, Ind. Also participating in the discussion on store openings was Scott Martin, director of sustainable technologies, Hill Phoenix, Conyers, Ga.
Axelrod asked the supermarket panelists to have “reasonable expectations” about the timing of store openings. He also urged food retailers to trust contractors’ judgment. “You have to believe what we’re telling you in terms of the logical time frame.”
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Mattos noted that certain installations require fixed time commitments, such as the guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency’s GreenChill program, but the result is a better start-up. “You can’t change physics,” he said.
Hoover described a rushed refrigeration installation as an “extreme makeover situation,” which inevitably leads to problems that are blamed on the contractor. “We need adequate time to get those stores started correctly and dial the system in,” he said.
Axelrod noted that a delayed opening may actually be attributable to the general contractor. “If you don’t get a quality general contractor to oversee the whole project, you’re asking for nothing but trouble,” he said.
Need for Planning
The supermarket executives at the roundtable were generally sympathetic to the contractors’ concerns and proposed solutions, such as better planning and communication. Anderson noted that Target begins meeting with contractors early in the building process. “Getting feedback from contractors before, during and after the construction will ensure that our plans and specs are clear, concise, and properly communicate the intent of our designs,” he said.
Prior to the installation phase, he added, Target executives meet with contractors to train them on best practices, expectations and common pitfalls; this enables projects to “run much smoother.”
In some cases contractors may not get what they are seeking, but “we need to take the time to explain why it won’t work so you understand what’s driving our decision,” Anderson said. “That will go a long way in building trust and partnerships.”
With sufficient planning, feedback and collaboration, Target was able to successfully remodel an entire store in one week. The timetable was undertaken “to understand what is possible,” Anderson said.
Target has also improved its relationships with contractors by forming a team of 25 highly qualified refrigeration personnel — retired contractors and equipment executives — who stay on the job during construction to answer questions.
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Scanlan of Hy-Vee agreed that a good partnership with contractors is key. “We’ve been known to make fixture changes right up to the last minute, sometimes just a few weeks before we open,” he said. “Without that good working relationship, it doesn’t work.” He pointed out that the store construction process is guided by a retailer’s operations department or the general contractor while a retailer’s refrigeration executives are “kind of a go-between.”
Former BJ’s executive Gallego was completely sympathetic to the contractors’ plight. “What we’ve come up against is that the property development/real estate group builds their ROI off the opening date,” he said. “This is just an unfortunate and unavoidable fact. We start making money on this date so it cannot move and we just have to pass that along. We know just as much as you that it’s going to hurt us and it’s going to drive you guys crazy.”
Gallego proposed that a case study be done comparing a building that didn’t have enough time to start up with one that did. Such a study — which Martin of Hill Phoenix heartily endorsed — “we could present to upper management as concrete evidence,” he said.
But Gallego acknowledged that BJ’s has already made an adjustment to its store opening schedule, extending it by four weeks. “The goal is to be substantially complete four weeks ahead of opening,” he said. “If there is a delay, we’ve got that little bit of extra time where we don’t have to really scramble.”
For Alwine of Martin’s Supermarkets, it comes down to proper schedule management. “Schedule management and updates will deal with scheduling problems early on and avoid an overload of work at the end of the project,” he said.
“However,” he added, “contractors must understand that somewhere in a project we reach a point of no return. Advertising has been done and product orders have been placed and there is no choice — the store must open on a specific date.”
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