Easier, faster, more efficient -- and smaller. Those are the attributes retailers look for when they shop for new production and merchandising fixtures, according to officials with equipment companies that supply supermarkets with everything from scales and knives to merchandisers and ovens.
Manufacturer sources said some supermarkets are reducing the size of the deli department's footprint without necessarily removing stockkeeping units. The trend is building the department up with creative fixturing, rather than out in a departmental sprawl.
"We see in some instances stores getting larger, and delis are getting smaller," said Todd Griffith, the national sales manager for Alto Shaam. "They're making better use of the space they have. We're integrating equipment solutions into that space to give them the capability to do the job."
To accomplish that goal, retailers want new fixtures that offer space-saving features, perform multiple tasks and include high-output capability, according to company sources. Of course, equipment buyers also demand products with simplified controls.
New to the market, Alto Shaam's hot and cold self-serve island merchandiser is unique in that it incorporates a hot food holding area on top, with a sneeze guard canopy over it, and a refrigerated display base on the bottom with optional shelves for dry goods on either end. The compact unit is just five-and-a-half feet long.
Alto Shaam, based in Menomonee Falls, Wis., is also seeing increased demand for the latest combi ovens -- hardworking, multitasking models that are capable of performing the duties of convection ovens, rotisseries and steamers in an energy-efficient closed system.
"We've had a lot of success using the combi ovens to supplement or replace the rotisseries," said Griffith. "In the past, they may have bought three or four pieces of equipment. Now I'm seeing a consolidation of equipment."
One of Hobart Corp.'s newly designed food processors for salad bar and sandwich preparation features a full-sized throat big enough to handle whole heads of lettuce and other large items, with no preliminary cutting required. The unit has a small base, designed to take up minimal counter space. The components are also dishwasher safe, eliminating the need for time-consuming hand washing.
"It has a small footprint with higher output," said John Evans, a business unit manager with the Troy, Ohio-based manufacturer. Retailers "are looking for products they can shrink in size, but still have the capacity. They want to find methods to conserve on space, but they're just as busy."
Combining multiple functions on a single piece of machinery could create operational complications, but manufacturers have thus far been able to offer equipment that is smart and simple to use. In turn, the retail workforce made up of inexperienced and unskilled associates can operate them without difficulty. Equipment company officials said they field requests all the time for machines with simplified controls.
The latest scales from Hobart are equipped with touchscreens -- which ease operation -- and are just over five inches high, not quite half the size of the competition's scales, a Hobart official said.
The No. 1 feature that retailers look for in scales, though, is wireless communication. The programs result in speedier transmissions compared to serial communications systems. The scales tap into databases and create labels for multiple uses -- customer loyalty programs, cross-merchandising promotions, recipes, and product or food-safety information. The scales are designed for use throughout the fresh departments, and in supermarket back rooms. Stater Bros., Colton, Calif., recently purchased 1,300 of the wireless units, a Hobart official said.
Compared to traditional weighing systems, the wireless systems offer greater quality and reliability, said Ray Bittikofer, a product line manager with Hobart. "Fifty percent of service calls are cabling problems," he said, referring to conventional scales.
Though not new, wireless systems have generated fresh interest in recent years, and that should continue now that installation prices have come down.
"Most of the other new enhancements center around the wireless communications protocol," Bittikofer said. "It'll keep growing and growing. We're starting to see demand from smaller retailers."
Also new is an advertising display, a scale accessory that attaches to the back of the scale. Visible to customers, the six-inch-long display can be programmed to show special sale prices, loyalty club prices, or even promote related products in other departments. "So far, we've had a lot of interest in it," he said.
Improving efficiency remains at the top of the priority list for many retailers. Hobart's new slicer blade was designed to improve yield efficiency -- the amount of sale-able cut meat -- by about 1%. The blade has a cobalt-based super alloy on the outside cutting surface to enhance resistance to wear. Introduced in the spring, the patented stainless-steel blade is used in delis and meat rooms in several markets, including units of Wal-Mart, H-E-B, Winn-Dixie and Stew Leonard's.
"In the past, the knife was 94% to 98% efficient," Evans said. "Now it's 95% to 99% efficient. It's the only knife we produce now. We've made it the standard."
Good looks are important when equipment plays a visible part in creating in-store theater. Alto Shaam recently unveiled new lines of rotisserie ovens with sleek European styling. The gas unit is an open, upright system with an open gas flame in the back, with a capacity to hold 36 to 42 whole chickens. The smaller electric model has a curved glass design, with seven rotating spits with a capacity to hold up to 21 chickens. Designed for countertop placement, the oven may also be stacked with a matching holding cabinet. That allows operators to cook and hold the chickens in the same place.
The electric rotisserie cooks the birds almost twice as fast as older models on the market, Griffith said. The new units look attractive, which is crucial since they're out there in front of consumers.
"People still buy with their eyes," Griffith said. "You want to get more of an upscale look to the machines."