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Comment: Natural Refrigeration Can Change the Future of our Shop Floors says Eric Winandy of Emerson

It’s no secret that the look and format of traditional brick-and-mortar grocery models is continually changing. The way people are shopping is becoming more complex and, over the last 10 years, we have seen the square footage of stores consecutively shrink. This leaves grocery retail designers challenged with determining ways to better leverage shrinking space and adapt new formats to align with the way consumers shop.

A practical consideration that may be overlooked for improving store design is refrigeration. While many may consider refrigeration systems as a hindrance to design – as they often take up a significant amount of space and require a lot of piping – changes in the industry and new technologies mean we can be more creative with layouts than before.

In fact, right now is the perfect time to be reconsidering refrigeration systems. Following the Kigali Agreement last October which agreed to phase-down HFCs – environmentally harmful gases used in the majority of retail refrigerants – from 2019,  grocery retailers across Europe are under pressure to switch to new, natural alternatives quickly.

Many have already taken steps to swap out their HFC refrigeration systems with natural alternatives, including Waitrose in the UK and Colryut in Belgium. And while this is a great change from an environmental perspective, new research conducted by the University of Birmingham suggests that the retail sector overall isn’t acting fast enough, and may be rushing into selecting systems that don’t take advantage of other potential business benefits, such as store design.

For example, so far most retailers making the shift to natural refrigerants have opted for CO2 systems, which have a similar architecture to the HFC refrigeration systems they replace. With CO2 systems, all refrigeration display units in the store are connected and powered by a separate plant room which houses all of the cooling equipment.

An alternative to these large scale, often complex, CO2 systems is self-contained refrigeration units, which use other gases such as propane as a refrigerant.  The units are far more like domestic fridges, with a ‘plug and play’ set-up that makes them quick to install or move, and they require little maintenance.

By virtue of being self-contained, these systems make for far more flexible store design. Imagine a store where you could have all breakfast foods displayed together – from milk to butter to bread – followed by hot and cold lunch items. Or perhaps you could rearrange the store by region, allowing customers shopping for a continental breakfast to pick up their French croissants and brie at the same time. Self-contained refrigerants can allow this, whereas the architecture of CO2 systems means all refrigeration units, and the chilled and frozen foods within them would need to be displayed together in one section.

We’re not saying that CO2 refrigeration systems are not a great solution. They are a good choice for many retailers and can offer significant environmental benefits compared to HFCs. For stores in cooler climates in particular, CO2 systems are often a very efficient option. However, we would encourage retailers who are making the transition from HFCs to natural refrigerants to consider the potential design opportunities at hand. Store designers should have a seat at the table when a decision is made for natural refrigeration systems; they may be surprised to find more options should be considered than what may appear as the obvious choice.

Eric Winandy is director of integrated solutions for Emerson Commercial and Residential Solutions Europe, based in Aachen, Germany