Brian Fricke and Bryan Becker installing meters and test devices behind a refrigeration unit.

The Science of Selling

Mechanical engineering professors use science to market groceries

A large part of marketing is trying to gain the emotional upper hand. Many psychological studies and experiments are used to decide the color and shape of an item; its location on a shelf or counter; the fragrance or absence of aroma.

Open or shut

Now, two UMKC researchers from the School of Computing and Engineering are adding some hard science to the mix in a research study to determine if grocery stores benefit more by selling beer and dairy products from glass-doored refrigerated cases or the open-style cases. Conventional wisdom says that open food and beverage cases attract more customers. The drawback is that supermarkets have one of the highest energy uses of all commercial buildings; and half of that energy is used for refrigeration.

The Independent Grocers Association (IGA) of Norfolk, Neb., found two stores in Kansas whose owners wanted Drs. Brian Fricke and Bryan Becker, professors of mechanical engineering, to do this kind of testing.

Beer and butter

In John Dyer's Wamego store, Becker and Fricke installed an open beer case. To establish base figures for a statistical comparison, they monitored sales from a closed beer case at Moon’s Hometown Market in Osawatomie.

A glass-doored refrigerated dairy case, described by its manufacturer as "high efficiency," was installed in Moon's store. Becker and Fricke's statistical control was an open dairy case in the Wamego location.

All cases are similar in size and are equipped with flow meters and kilowatt hour meters. The temperature, pressure and energy usage are also measured. To ensure greater accuracy in the test, beer and dairy sales figures will be noted for the two months preceding installation of the new cases; sales figures will then be tracked for two months after the new cases are in place. This is done to eliminate unpredictable phenomena, such as the economy or a favored sports team falling in championship play.

Mike Moon knows it is too early to tell much about sales, but he already likes the improved visibility the closed cases provide.

"Because of the color of the cases and the position of the lighting, items just pop out," he said. He surmises that these features may account for a little spike in some products that have been traditionally slower to sell.

His customers said that they believe the changes will affect the products and provide savings on some utility costs. Moon thinks that customers linger to shop from the closed cases because they don't feel the uncomfortably cold air that permeates the area around an open case.

The proof is in the savings

If the test results convince store owners to change their displays, overall energy improvements would be immediate. For instance, if all stores in the U.S. converted to glass-doored cases, it is estimated that the energy savings would equal the electricity produced by 7.5 coal-fired power plants.

That is an environmental plus. In addition, according to the manufacturer of the closed cases, store owners like Moon and Dyer would gain financially. Their energy bills are projected to fall by 60 percent a year because the refrigeration equipment for a closed case does not work as hard to maintain an even temperature.

Sponsors help owners warm to idea

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers is directing the study, hoping that grocery store owners will reap the same benefits that other merchandisers have found.

"It's important that store owners realize that being sustainable doesn't necessarily have to hurt profitability," said Fricke. "Thus, the goal of our study will be to prove whether or not doored cases in fact have a negative impact on product sales versus open cases."

The goal of the Air-Conditioning & Refrigeration Technology Institute (ARTI) -- another sponsor -- is to generate better information for store designers. Using the test data, utilities can develop incentive programs that help owners pay for the transition to more sustainable displays.

Fricke and Becker's research, entitled 'Energy Consumption and Product Throughput of Glass-Doored and Open Refrigerated Display Cases in Supermarkets,' will be presented at the Missouri Energy Summit in Columbia, Mo., April 22 and 23.

Local Grocery Store Becomes Part of Study, the Oswatamie Graph's story.

Posted: April 06, 2009

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"It's important that store owners realize that being sustainable doesn't necessarily have to hurt profitability."

Brian Fricke
Assistant Professor, Civil & Mechanical Engineering

Instrumentation is mounted behind the refrigerated display cases.

Detail of instruments that measure pressure and temperature.

Coriolis-type mass flow meter used to measure the refrigerant flow rate.