In a motorway service station near the Convenience Store offices is a big-name food outlet which must surely be in the running for the title of Britain's Coldest Shop.
Its sandwiches and fresh fruit are too cold to eat immediately and its aisles, as the poor staff wrapped up in fleeces and caps will confirm, have an Arctic quality to them. Even the packets of crisps and biscuits are cold to the touch.
Big name retailers rarely mistake the mood of the customer - usually because they set the mood themselves - and this store is not alone in turning up the refrigeration to create a feeling of freshness and cleanliness. It's becoming the accepted standard in the convenience sector, too - in fact, with their focus on impulse purchases, c-stores stand to do better than most now that cold is the new cool.
Let's put aside for a moment the environmental impact of excessive power use, and the rather shaky moral ground of those who claim green credentials which save them money - cutting plastic bag use, for example - but fall curiously silent when such a stance might reduce sales. At a time when retailers' power bills have risen by more than 50% in 18 months, how do you balance the trend for super-cooling and the need to keep your bottom-line expenditure to a minimum? Does chilling make a killing, or are we just freezing profits?
"This is very much customer-led," says Zoe Hurford, space planning manager at Spar Capper. "We have seen a very definite shift in the sector towards purchases of fresh and chilled food as customers become increasingly time-poor and are therefore top-up shopping more than ever before, for immediate consumption or for tonight's tea, rather than undertaking a main weekly shop. They want something that is attractively packaged, appealing and quick and easy to prepare. Chilled and freshly prepared foods tick these boxes for them."
The trend is also a point of difference where independents can outdo the multiples. "It is something that multiple retailers don't always offer because they generally cater for planned purchases," says Alison Braney of InBev, brewer and equipment supplier which is riding the cooling wave with the introduction of a cabinet which keeps beer chilled to -4°C, the lowest temperature at which it can be held without freezing. "Independent shoppers often make impulse purchases, for example on their way to a party, so they are looking for beer that is perfectly chilled and ready to drink," she adds. "Beer should still be cold by the time customers get home - our research shows that 70% of people drink their beer within two hours of buying it."
Other research suggests that chilling can raise sales by as much as 28% over ambient, and if product is in an open chiller rather than behind doors, the gain is even greater.
So there's no going back - but there's a snag. Convenience stores are just about the least efficient shops in the high street. Heating, lighting, air conditioning, bakery ovens, CCTV and electronic displays all conspire to keep the dials on that meter in the cupboard spinning at dizzying speed. Keeping the store doors open all day and half the night isn't helping, either. But it's refrigeration that accounts for about 50% of your power consumption, and both its use and its cost are on the rise. It's a high price to pay for increased turnover, even if there's room for a margin hike on chilled goods.
Paul Jordon of Jordon Refrigeration says that in recent refits involving the company's equipment, retailers have as much as doubled their refrigerated capacity. Hurford goes for a more conservative 20% increase in Spar stores in recent years, but adds that it hasn't necessarily stolen that space from other departments. "Remote chillers have lower bases and therefore capacity of each chiller is greater, enabling one or two additional shelves to be accommodated in each bay," she says. "This means that you can increase and improve your product offer to the customer without having to increase the number of physical units as dramatically."
Hurford adds that newer 'remote' chillers, which have an outdoor unit and effectively expel heat from the store, are more efficient than the older integral styles which are more like an overgrown version of the domestic fridge or freezer. "Integrals emit heat into the store from their built-in fan," she says. "This in turn requires the air-conditioning system to work that much harder to maintain the required temperature across the store. Although more expensive to purchase than integrals, the capacity within a remote is greater, so there's a double benefit."
Remote units will enable you to build up a run of uninterrupted display within the store, and don't need space around them for heat to dissipate, but they do require an external condensing unit to be installed on a wall or flat roof, and the noise these make can be an annoyance to neighbours in built-up areas.
If your wallet insists you take the integral route, part of the cost can be offset by selecting your new equipment carefully. Simon Robinson of Delta Refrigeration, which has been involved in refits of some of Budgens' flagship stores, points out that when it comes to energy efficiency, you get what you pay for. "Ask your supplier if their cabinets use low-energy fans, which cost a bit more but are up to 40% more efficient," he says. "Electronic expansion valves and centralised controls - where all your cases are monitored by a single unit - will give long-term savings, too."
Monitoring systems are becoming more affordable, and will check temperatures and report alarms to a front-end unit in the office. Some will automatically alert the refrigeration contractor, who will even make a few adjustments over the internet without you having to be disturbed.
Robinson also recommends night blinds - "Your best bet for cutting costs is to save energy when the store is closed" - and says that glass doors on cabinets are making a comeback elsewhere in Europe. Never popular with merchandisers, who don't want to put anything between the customer and the product, doors give massive energy savings, and recent developments in LED lighting and condensation reduction have increased their effectiveness and appeal.
It may hurt in the short term, but stripping out your dated equipment and going for a major refit with long runs of displays adopting all the new efficiency measures may well be the best way to cut your bills and please your customers. The more you invest initially, the more you'll save in the end.
Fortunately, there are incentives to invest in energy-saving equipment, such as the Carbon Trust's Enhanced Capital Allowance (ECA) scheme, which provides businesses with 100% first-year tax relief on capital expenditure on technologies it has identified as being the most efficient. ECAs allow the full cost of your investment to be written off against the taxable profits of the period in which the investment is made.
The heat is off
Retailers can keep their cooling consumption under control by remembering some simple rules.
Zoe Hurford of Spar Capper says: "The location of the chiller will have a dramatic influence on how hard it has to work to maintain temperature and therefore efficiency. Placing the chiller next to a source which affects the air flow such as air-conditioning units, or doors which are constantly opening and closing, has a negative impact on the efficiency of the unit.
"Also if the location is very warm, perhaps next to a hot food cabinet, in the glare of spotlights, or at the front of the store by a window, or if you are using under-shelf lighting, all this will again mean that the chiller is having to work much harder to keep its contents at the right temperature."
Paul Jordon of Jordon Refrigeration adds: "One common mistake is to load products over the lip of the shelf - this interrupts the air curtain which keeps the cold air in the chiller and pulls it out into the aisle. Blocking the vents at the top and bottom will do the same, as will having a draught through the store.
"You should also keep your chillers fully stocked - they are designed to operate best when there's plenty of product on the shelves."