SEATTLE -- Energy will be the hot topic this week.
More than 200 attendees are expected to converge here for this year's Food Marketing Institute Energy and Technical Services Conference. The three-day event will focus on an unusually wide range of issues confronting the industry.
Among the critical issues retailers will be tackling: implementing energy strategic management programs, seeking ways to reduce utility costs and designing more effective preventive maintenance programs.
But the greatest concern among executives again this year will be the upcoming ban on the production of chlorofluorocarbons and the question of how best to manage coolant costs in the future.
"Every year attendance goes up, especially as we come up to that Jan. 1, 1996, drop-dead date when no CFCs can be produced," said Robert Bittner, director of engineering at
Giant Food, Landover, Md. "It's closer than everybody would like to believe. It's a scary issue that all of us are facing, to varying degrees."
In a session titled "Guidelines to Refrigerant Alternatives," moderated by Bittner, retailers will hear up-to-date information on refrigerant alternatives. Case studies of short-term and long-term solutions to the problem, from preventing leaks to revamping entire systems, will be presented.
The session is designed especially to sound a wake-up call to retailers who have not yet begun converting to non-CFC gases. "Some retailers think the government's going to reverse those laws. The answer to that is it's not going to happen. The government's going to continue to tax CFCs heavily and they're not going to reverse anything. End of story," Bittner said.
"The government's got a very good batting average to prove it. People said the automotive and the air-conditioning industries would fall apart [because of the impending CFC ban], and they haven't. Some retailers have not taken it seriously. They've got two more conferences to attend -- and then it's meltdown time," he said.
Although coolants remain the key issue, retailers agreed that the conference is moving toward a much wider range of topics, such as facilities maintenance and energy management.
"There's more of a smorgasbord of things to choose from," said Howard Price, manager of field services at Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C.
"Probably parallel to, rather than second to, refrigerants and CFC regulations is a focus pertaining to energy and energy expense of our supermarkets," Giant Food's Bittner added. "Energy is a key ingredient: energy required to run refrigerants and air conditioning and lighting; the cost of energy; tracking utility bills and energy expenses; energy management control."
For Benny Smith, director of engineering at Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., the seminar on "Energy Management Today" will focus on one of the key challenges facing the industry today. "I feel strongly about the need to redefine our energy management strategies." Retailers should use the conference as a means to explore their entire energy management program rather than focusing on isolated initiatives, Smith said. "Retailers should ask, 'What is the best system to put in? Why do we do it the way we do it? What should we do?'
"Nobody has any magic answers. We need to do more of what we are doing, but do it even better. Maybe that's the best way to do it, because there's no right or wrong way. It's only 'How can you do it better?' 'How do you know the right system is the right system?' " he said.
The importance of developing comprehensive in-store preventive maintenance programs also will be examined in a session titled "Cost Control Through Facilities Maintenance." The question of how to get the most out of the mechanical systems in the supermarket for the least expense will similarly be explored. "It's another way to put money on the bottom line. Everybody's looking to try to squeeze everything they can out of supermarket profits, and the cost of maintenance is a bottom-line expense. We have to figure out a better way to control costs," Harris Teeter's Price said.
Other sessions will explore how chains can reduce expenses in areas ranging from relamping programs to utility management and billing.
"The Energy Act [of 1992] has rendered several light bulb styles unavailable, and so switching to new bulb systems is becoming more attractive," said Leonard Micek, manager of engineering at King Soopers, Denver.
"There are other factors in this area as well, and they are not always economic ones. The disposal of lamps is becoming an issue. There are opportunities for all of us to get information and learn how to be more efficient," Micek said.
An innovative concept known as "retail wheeling" also will be discussed at the conference. Under that concept, chains with stores in various locales that deal with a number of different utility companies can consolidate their billing.
"Retailers will be able to buy power from many utilities as if it were one utility," Giant Food's Bittner said. "Right now, if they have stores in different geographical locations, they have to pay whatever the local utility is and that's it."
With retail wheeling, "you could have the purchasing power of the entire company instead of having to deal with local utilities in one state. If you had stores in the same state with five different utilities, it would be as if it was one bill."
Retail wheeling is only a concept for now, Bittner said. "As far as I know there is no location anywhere in America where it is on line. But it's getting to the point where it may soon become reality."
The main focus of the conference, however, will remain on coolant replacements.
"A lot of retailers have taken the lead on CFCs and are proceeding with a proper emphasis on it," said Micek of King Soopers. "But there are still those who don't believe [conversions] are really on their way. They feel they'll be able to muddle through it."
Keith Oliver, associate manager of facilities engineering at Kroger Co., Cincinnati, said the CFC situation is by no means a resolved issue.
"Many people have the opinion that the refrigerant dilemma is a done deal, but I think it's still very much an open question," Oliver said. "I think there's still a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done, so I see that as being the most exciting part of the conference."
Oliver said he is interested in hearing how other retailers have fared with refrigerant conversions. "A number of people have had ongoing tests in place or have had some tests in short time. It will be good getting an assessment back from them in terms of what their experiences have been, both good and bad."
One retailer said his chain has only partially converted its stores from CFCs and is looking to network with stores that are going through similar programs.
"We've learned a lot in the stores we've changed already, but we know we don't know everything," said the retailer, who asked not to be named. "There's got to be quicker ways of doing it. Certainly some of the presentations are going to talk about the CFC changeover, and it's a good opportunity to talk to people on how to convert cheaper and faster."