It is hard to believe that just a few months ago, relatively few people wore masks in public and virtually no one knew what social distancing meant. Almost immediately, both became a way of life, and as an essential business that never closed, food retailers had to rapidly adapt. This often included one-way aisles, plexiglass shields at registers, and enhanced cleaning procedures.

Just as many of these changes will likely be with us for some time, the pandemic may also bring about other modifications at grocery stores and other food retailers, which could affect where and how refrigeration systems are applied.


Change Is Imminent

The pandemic will likely have some impact on grocery store designs, noted Katrina Krites, marketing and business development manager, food retail, cold chain at Emerson. For example, there has been a rise in “contactless” shopping experiences that limit patrons’ need to touch physical items and surfaces within the store.

“As the pandemic drives changes in consumer preferences, we could see that some of these short-term measures may have a permanent effect and inform a shift in in-store design strategy,” she said. “New store builds and remodels will likely feature layouts and case placement ... adhering to as many safeguards as possible. This may also affect the type of refrigeration architectures initially selected to give retailers the utmost in merchandizing flexibility.”

While long-term impacts of this pandemic on the customer are yet to be determined, the movement to online, pickup, and delivery sales that was already in the works has been accelerated, said Tony Welter, grocery practice director and vice president at Henderson Engineers in Kansas City, Missouri.

“Alterations to accommodate social distancing were made quickly in all stores, and employee spaces such as breakrooms, restrooms, and offices may be affected,” he said. “Flexibility may be a key to plan for a certain amount of capacity, but then to be able to scale up or down as necessary. This may include having the ability to add self-contained cases or walk-in variable capacity through busy and slower seasons.”

It certainly feels like the pandemic will change the way people shop and how they procure their food in general, said Glenn Barrett, engineering manager at DC Engineering in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

“I expect the trend toward customer use of online shopping, store-to-home delivery, and store pickup to increase as customers learn to use those service in a way that simplifies their life,” he said. “During the pandemic, those services were essential for certain subsets of the general population, and once firmly established as their normal course of buying food, I would expect those patterns to continue and even grow as operators learn to be more effective in providing those services.”

To accommodate these new paradigms, refrigeration systems for new builds and expansions will need to be more flexible, said Barrett. New designs will be needed to support both customers and the in-store personnel preparing orders for delivery or pickup.

“Currently in a standard grocery store, customer-facing display cases are used to sell product almost exclusively,” he said. “These systems must provide refrigeration 24/7, 365 days per year. Operational changes toward delivery and pickup could change some refrigerated walk-ins, in that they would no longer house product 24/7, allowing for some loads to be shut off at night. This would necessitate more focus on designing flexible refrigeration systems that can properly handle fluctuations in refrigeration load and low-load conditions in an energy-efficient manner.”


Trading Spaces

As demand for pickup and delivery services surged, many grocers needed to immediately find extra refrigerated storage space for these orders, which was often very difficult. Now that things have calmed down a little, many food retailers are looking to repurpose some of their existing spaces — or build new areas — in order to handle the uptick in pickup and delivery orders.

“Most stores do not have room to offer this service effectively,” said Barrett. “To account for this, stores may have to remove square footage from select departments to have space to process orders for delivery or pickup. The refrigeration systems themselves will largely be the same as they are today, although new equipment could utilize lower-GWP or natural refrigerants. Most existing refrigeration racks could be modified to support the cooling requirements of the new systems, assuming the overall refrigeration load doesn’t increase.”

Some stores may also add — or repurpose — cooler and freezer walk-in boxes in order to provide easier access for in-store pickup, noted Barrett. For this purpose, the functionality of the walk-in box may need to change, including door opening size and type, shelving locations and functionality, traffic patterns, and temperature zones, he said.

Most major retailers have been adding click-and-collect services to their stores over the past several years, and many industry experts and associations anticipate continued gains in its popularity; however, the degree to which that rises remains to be seen, said Krites.

“This emerging business model presents a variety of challenges, including cold storage, picking, and the associated labor requirements,” she said. “As retailers respond to the increased demand for online shopping, they will need to account for fluctuations in consumer demand and its impacts on refrigeration equipment loads. Refrigeration design strategies with modulating compressors such as digital or variable-speed will help balance loads more effectively. Retailers who operate dark stores that are dedicated to providing online fulfillment may find it easier to balance refrigeration loads.”

Ultimately, retailers will approach click-and-collect services differently, depending on their local demographics and store design strategies, said Krites.

“Refrigeration equipment ranges greatly, from repurposed cases or walk-in coolers to newly added capacity specifically for click-and-collect cold storage purposes,” she said. “There are special considerations when utilizing walk-in coolers, including frequent door openings/closings and air infiltration, which tends to be higher than walk-in boxes used for normal purposes.”

Welter agreed retailers will have varying strategies for handling online orders, noting that most want to dedicate a space for this operation within the store. These will likely be added as a remodel or a special project, he said, noting that the dedicated space could be as simple as having a few “staging” reach-ins, all the way up to a fully automated cold-chain sort facility — and everything in between.


Next month’s article will continue to look at how the lingering effects of the pandemic will likely affect the grocery sector.