Last year, a test of fiber-optic lighting in refrigerated display case doors at an Albertsons store in Fullerton, Calif., demonstrated that fiber-optic technology consumed one-third as much energy as traditional fluorescent lighting while providing comparable luminescence.
Since then, Supervalu, Minneapolis — Albertsons' parent — has ordered the technology for all 120 refrigerated doors in the Fullerton store, and other retailers such as Brookshire Grocery Co. have retrofitted refrigerated case doors with fiber optics.
Fiber-optic lighting is now being applied in other store departments, such as seafood and wine, as food retailers take note of its ability to cut energy costs while giving off less heat compared with fluorescent lighting. Fiber-optic technology transmits light through very fine, flexible glass or plastic fibers. LED lighting, which offers similar benefits, is also being tested by retailers.
Albertsons has recently run a successful test of fiber-optic lighting over open seafood cases in about 30 stores. Like the technology used in the display-case doors, the fiber-optic lighting used for the seafood cases, called EFO-ICE, was provided by Fiberstars, Solon, Ohio.
Albertsons now plans to employ the EFO-ICE lighting with open seafood cases in new stores and remodels as part of its Premium Fresh & Healthy Design program, launched last summer. Under the new look, seafood displays are being changed from one closed case to three five-foot-wide open cases filled with ice.
The advantage of using fiber optics over seafood is that the lower heat output helps conserve the product. “I know it significantly reduces shrink,” said Keith Tarver, manager of electrical systems criteria and design for Albertsons. For open cases, the chain wanted a way to reduce heat, because “you're dealing not only with the heat from the lamp, but the ambient air around it,” Tarver said.
Although Supervalu has not tracked energy savings in its seafood cases, last year's test of fiber optics in refrigerated doors, conducted by Fiberstars and Southern California Edison, found that fiber-optic lighting consumed about 267 kilowatt-hours per door per year, compared to about 803 kWh per door per year for fluorescent lights. Albertsons executives expect similar energy savings for the open seafood cases.
That savings is part of what Tarver sees as a return on investment for the technology. “Considering the heat we're talking about here, and the lowered amount of ice we have to put on, I can't imagine we wouldn't see a good payback on this,” he said.
Supervalu executives are also happy with the way fiber-optic light presents the seafood. “The product jumps off the table, and that is what this game is all about,” said Kevin Keicker, director of interior design for Design Services Group, a division of Supervalu. “Hide the light, get the product to pop, then we can get the customer's eyes focused on the product.”
The fiber-optic lighting, which emits a blue hue, works especially well in seafood departments, whose color tones are mainly blue and white from the fish and ice, Keicker explained.
Supervalu now plans to run small-scale tests of fiber optics in departments that have more varied color schemes, starting with floral and deli. “If you could reduce the heat and produce no ultraviolet or infrared light [in deli cases], you would have less deterioration on cheeses and all the encasings,” Keicker said.
Eventually, Supervalu may test fiber optics in produce departments, though company executives worry that the technology might be difficult to install there. However, a University of Idaho study, which tested Fiberstars' EFO-ICE against other lighting systems in produce departments, found a 20% to 25% savings in shrink and spoilage there.
Wine could be another good category for fiber-optic lighting, because wines are sensitive to heat, Keicker said. “We've investigated doing that in some higher-end wine areas.” Currently, Supervalu is testing fiber optics in a wine department in one store.
Fiber optics is also being used by some retailers for outdoor signs, said John Davenport, chief executive officer, Fiberstars. The longevity of the lighting makes it suitable for outside application, he noted, adding that any maintenance can be done from inside the store.
Redner's, Reading, Pa., which operates 40 stores under the Redner's Warehouse Markets banner and Quicke Shoppe convenience stores, will likely expand its use of Fiberstar's EFO-ICE system from reach-in refrigerated cases in one store to frozen cases in several stores. It will also be used in all new refrigerated doors and is being tested in frozen doors in a remodeled store.
Doug Emore, operations manager for Redner's, said that while the initial cost of fiber optics is “a little more expensive” than conventional lighting — about 10% more — he expects to make up for that difference by cutting energy use by two-thirds. “With the reduction in wattage being consumed, and the energy credit you get by not introducing heat in the case, savings are tremendous over a very short period,” said Emore.
Energy credits come in the form of rebates from power companies. Some Supervalu stores, particularly in California and on the East Coast, are also getting credits for installing fiber optics. “We see those credits quite often, especially when we use something like this,” Tarver said. Although some of the credits are not that high, some eastern utility companies have given good credits for fiber optics in Shaw's Supermarket stores (another Supervalu division), he added.
In addition, some stores using fiber optics are obtaining zero-interest loans. Richard Heath & Associates, Fresno, Calif., a management firm for supermarkets and other businesses, is obtaining such loans for some stores where it is retrofitting refrigerated display cases with fiber optics.