When Tevlock Singh Sagal and his brother Harpal took over Shepperton Food and Wine in Surrey last summer, they knew that the rather dated-looking store would need an overhaul in the near future.
As they drew up plans to rearrange the store to maximise sales, a chance remark from a customer persuaded the brothers to take another factor into account - the savings that a refit could make to their fuel bills.
As luck would have it, local resident Adrian Harvey is commercial director of British Gas Business, which is involved in a campaign to encourage small businesses to closely monitor the amount of energy they use. He quickly realised that his local store was a prime example of a business which could make significant bottom-line savings by using its heating, lighting and refrigeration equipment more efficiently.
Adrian arranged for Russel Pearce and Peter Stockwell of energy efficiency experts Energys to visit the store, and Convenience Store
tagged along to pick up some cost-cutting tips.
Put to the test
The first impression on entering the store was how warm it feels. Even in mid-winter, the sun streams in through the south-facing front windows - pleasant enough, you might think, but Pearce is already homing in on a common energy blooper.
The two ice cream cabinets occupying prime merchandising positions against the window are designed to eject heat from the condenser coils on the back of the units. In this case, the heat of the sun coming through the glass is heating the cabinets and making their compressors - the pumps which drive the cooling system - work much harder than they need to. Just imagine, then, how much more electricity they would need to keep their contents frozen in the summer when outside temperatures soar.
"The obvious solution would be to move these cases to a cooler part of the store," says Pearce. "Do ice cream chillers need to be fully stocked and in a prominent position in the middle of January? If moving them is not an option, blinds on the window would reduce the solar gain in this area. They won't darken the store too much, and you could also use them for advertising and promotions."
Opposite the ice cream freezers stand two open coolers, which were among the first investments the owners made after taking over the business. The warm sun falls across the bottles and cans on display, heating them up even as the cabinet struggles to cool them down. A quick look at the back of one display reveals that it is placed hard up against a wall, meaning that the rejected heat is unable to flow away from the unit's condenser, which in turn affects its ability to provide cooling.
Pearce floats another question: are these coolers, and the others in the store's off licence section, left on all night? There's no reason why they should be, he says - the contents aren't perishable and it won't take much time or energy for the cabinets to chill the drinks in the morning if they are turned on shortly before opening.
He suggests a trip to the local DIY shop to invest in a few timer switches. A small outlay here, and the cabinets could be turned off for eight hours a day, cutting their energy consumption by a third.
Away from the windows, the store is still very warm. There is no obvious source of heating and after a short investigation the culprits are identified - it's the two large chest freezers containing ready meals in the centre aisle.
"These are integral freezers," says Pearce. "That means heat is rejected from the unit itself, rather than moved outside as you find with air conditioning and some refrigeration installations. Basically, they are heating the aisles, which is a good thing at this time of year, but as soon as the temperature outside starts to climb it's going to be pretty hot in here."
And if it's hot in the shop, the freezers will have to work harder to keep their cool, which will eject more heat into the shop, which will... the cycle goes round and round and the electricity bills spiral, too.
The store does have an air-conditioning unit, which suggests that it has been unpleasantly hot in here in the past, but unfortunately the wall-mounted unit is blocked by a row of wine bottles which would reduce its effect were it to be turned on.
There is also an old fresh food chilled display at the back of the store. This was inherited with the premises and is already earmarked as the first to go in the refit. Just as well: it is an energy drain, a real money-burner. With perished rubber seals, no night blinds and a sick-sounding condensing unit groaning away in an adjacent store room, it has the look of a family pet that is well overdue a final visit to the vet.
From Pearce and Stockwell's point of view, things are looking up, but only because they've turned their attention to the strip lights running the length of the store. There are about 40 5ft fluorescent lamps on the ceiling and it's here, says Pearce, that major savings can easily be made.
"These older lamps could be made so much more efficient with new high-frequency starters," he says. "They cost about £12 each, so there's an initial investment, but they'll save about 30% on your lighting energy costs, as well as doubling the life of the fluorescent strips."
Stockwell, who has been looking through the store's power bills, quickly calculates that, based on their current tariff, the owners could save £9.60 per light a year with the new starters - paying back the initial investment in about 15 months and giving significant long-term savings after that.
"Also, the lights here run down the length of the store. If they ran across its width, you could turn off the ones nearer the windows for a large part of the day. You get natural light up to about six metres into a building like this, and you could be making better use of it."
Adrian Harvey of British Gas Business, the largest supplier of energy to small businesses, has some advice of his own for c-store owners. He points out that there are several different electricity tariffs and it's worth talking to your supplier to check you are on the best one for your business. Meters, too, are not all the same, and if your premises has had a change of use at some time in the past, there's a chance you are using inappropriate equipment. It's also worth checking your meter regularly and plotting usage for yourself, although your supplier should be able to give you this information. And don't rely on estimated readings - you can phone in the correct figures yourself so you don't end up paying for power you haven't used.
He says: "I realise retailers are under pressure to arrange their store for maximum merchandising potential, but there is plenty you can do. Drinks coolers don't have to be full, you can use spacers behind stock to make them appear full. Why cool 250 cans of beer if you never sell more than 50 in an evening?
"And why not make a virtue out of your energy saving steps? If you display a sign saying 'By moving our ice cream freezers to a cooler part of the shop we are helping to save precious energy resources,' I think your customers will give you the credit you deserve for taking your responsibilities seriously."
How to make easy savings
British Gas Business' Adrian Harvey says that £12bn of energy is wasted in the UK every year and believes that more retailers should reassess their energy usage. In many ways, the environmental benefits are an added bonus - the pragmatic business case is that c-store owners could find themselves shaving as much as 30% off their average annual power bill. Later this year the company will launch a website which will enable convenience stores to compare their energy consumption with similar sized businesses and work out where they could make savings.
"Independent retailers are not at the forefront of energy efficiency, maybe because of their lifestyle - they're too busy to give it a lot of thought," says Harvey. "There's also a common misconception among businesses that becoming energy efficient is just about the environment. Adopting basic energy efficiency measures which save you money is simply good business practice.
"The fuels we use are finite commodities and resources are running out. It's easy to blame your supplier, but that won't change anything - our message to small businesses is that you should meet us halfway. What's the first rule of business? Control your costs. Take some responsibility for your power consumption, because we believe energy efficiency leads to better business efficiency."
The Energys energy efficiency team made the following recommendations at the Shepperton store:
Refrigeration, which accounts for about 30% of the store's power costs, can be cut by 10-15% by following these rules:
Switch off cold drinks fridges (non-perishable items) at close of trading, or install plug-in timer switches and set to opening hours
Ensure night blinds are used at close of trading to retain cold air in fridges
Install PVC strip curtains on vertical cabinet fridge/freezers
Ensure glass doors on chest freezers are only opened as required
Move ice cream chest freezers out of direct sunlight or install vertical blinds
Ensure goods intended for cabinets are cool before loading
Don't overload cabinets - it reduces air movement around products
Don't obstruct ventilation grilles on fridges
Switch off cabinet lights at night
Ensure temperature set-point of freezers is not too low and is appropriate for stored goods (check manufacturers' guidelines)
Ensure fridge/freezer door seals are in good condition and seal correctly.
Lighting accounts for about half of a store's energy and a 30-40% saving can be made here:
Turn off lights in the sales area at close of trading
Use daylight wherever possible, especially at the shop entrance
Reduce lighting for out-of-hours shelf stocking. Label light switches to help staff choose which lights to use
Upgrade old and inefficient lighting and luminaires with retrofit T5 lamp technology
Turn off display signs when not required
A small saving can be made in air conditioning, which uses about 10% of the total power:
Ensure air-conditioning units aren't obstructed
Ensure temperature set-points for air-conditioning units are not set too low: 21°C is adequate
Install a warm air curtain above the entrance door and ensure it operates only during trading hours
If you have an open-door policy, consider enforcing it only at peak hours