SEATTLE -- Stop & Shop Cos., Boston, has cut maintenance costs and reduced coolant leaks with intensive preventive maintenance programs.
The results of the focused, localized programs are also evident in cleaner stores, cleaner septic tanks and more efficient air-conditioning systems.
"Although we can't put our hand on actual savings, we do know we're saving money," said Paul Canavan, the chain's director of maintenance. "Maintenance costs as a percentage of sales have been reduced substantially over the last five years."
Canavan, speaking at the Food Marketing Institute's Energy and Technical Services Conference here earlier this month, described the maintenance programs currently in place.
"These are programs we feel keep our stores better-looking to our customers and operating more efficiently," he said. "They allow us to continue to operate profitable stores."
Traditionally, preventive maintenance was broad in scope and done when stores were closed. But with the advent of 24-hour "superstores," retailers need to learn how to work with shoppers still in the aisles, Canavan said.
"Some of our stores are open as many as 161 of the 168 hours each week," he said. "That doesn't give you too much time to work during off hours. It's been necessary for us to learn how to do our preventive maintenance while the store is open."
One new program has enabled the retailer to pinpoint and repair refrigerant leaks at a higher rate. "We've been fortunate this year in that we've seen significant reductions in the amount of replacement refrigerant we had to buy," Canavan said.
If a mechanic discovers a leak, he determines whether it constitutes a major leak -- a loss of 35% or 100 pounds of the system charge -- or a minor leak. "In case of a major leak, we have a nine-step program a mechanic must go through," he said. "He does the first six by himself and if he can't find a major leak in six steps, he calls for help. We stay with that leak until we find it.
"For minor leaks, we spend four hours," he added. "If we can find it in four hours, we fix it. If we can't, then we let it go until it becomes more of a leak."
Each repair now requires extensive paperwork to improve store records of leakage. "A mechanic must report where he found the leak, what caused the leak, how he fixed it and how much refrigerant is left in inventory."
Stop & Shop has also launched a program to fight rapid deterioration of store septic systems caused by fats and grease.
The retailer began the program when store septic systems designed to last 20 years began deteriorating after two or three.
Fourteen Stop & Shop stores now treat septic tanks with bacteria that consume excess oils. "The bacteria convert them into water and carbon dioxide," he said. "We have automatic battery-operated pumps that dispense bacteria into the inside grease trap at the end of every day."
With daily bacteria treatment, Stop & Shop has managed to keep its discharge levels under the limits of community sewer treatment plants.
A change in employee habits was also needed. "We said to people in our bakery departments, 'When you have frosting or muffin mix left over, you must dry clean the mixing bowls before you put them in the washer," Canavan said. "We use a lot of towels these days, but we've managed to make significantly greater reductions in the level of effluent going out of the store by cleaning everything dry before it's washed."
Other programs range from cleaning air conditioners and condensers each year before the summer season to periodically inspecting equipment and lighting fixtures.
As part of an annual mechanical equipment inspection, for instance, employees must check all back-room and store fixtures. "We work on all back-room equipment, all our coolers, all our freezers and all the sales area cases. We do whatever is necessary; anything that looks like it's getting ready to break, our mechanics are required to replace it."
Produce managers are responsible for keeping misters from becoming health hazards.
"[Misters can] cause illness if not cleaned properly," Canavan said. Mechanics are responsible for cleaning each mister every two months, and random checks are conducted to ensure the mechanics are doing their jobs.