Nothing says 'come on in' to a customer more than the open door of the local store. It may be the difference between the decision to walk on by, or wander in on impulse.
Paul Mather, who runs Sherston Village Store and Post Office in Wiltshire with his wife Gail, is keen on the symbolism of the open door. "Ours is always open from 7am all through the year, except when it's very warm and we have the air conditioning on," he says. "I think it sends a message of 'We're open, come in and see us'."
Similar thinking was behind the recent decision by the Threshers off licence and convenience chain to instruct its stores to keep the door ajar - a move which upset not only store staff, who didn't appreciate the cold draught, but also environmental campaigners who are concerned with the amount of fuel wasted and the CO2 emissions that go with it. Managers reported that several customers had questioned the effect the policy would have on the environment due to heaters blasting away at full pelt for long stretches of time.
Certainly, if your open-door policy (and that includes not closing it after a customer pushes it open) means you've been heating the High Street through the winter, or cooling the community this summer, you're doing yourself no favours. If it's hot outside as you read this, the warm air that is sucked into your cooler store, and the dirt and fumes it brings with it, are upsetting the delicate micro-climate which exists within the environment of the c-store. That means that every temperature-controlled piece of equipment is working far harder than it should.
It has been estimated that about £300m annually is wasted by shops because their doors are left open, and that many could cut their energy bills by about 25% if they kept them closed. So this is costing you a fortune, but potentially even more expensive is the chance that you're upsetting your customers, too.
Ever since an article appeared in The Times 18 months ago under the splendid title 'Shut That Door, You Energy-Guzzling Retail Halfwit' there's been a growing groundswell of opposition from the public to what they see as wilful wastage from shop owners. Even London mayoral candidate Sian Berry weighed in to condemn what she calls "the least environmentally friendly way of getting business".
She adds: "It's sad to see resources wasted on something nobody wants. It does not make anyone's life easier or more comfortable to have shops heating the air over London, but rising fuel prices and climate change do cause real hardship. Customers would really appreciate it if stores could do something as simple and sensible as keeping their doors closed."
Now there's even a campaign to change retailers' behaviour. Originating in Cambridge, the Close the Door group is spreading to other parts of the country. Its message is that retailers can save on their energy bills, reduce CO2 emissions and show their customers that they are environmentally responsible, all by the simple act of ensuring the door is open as little as possible. One of the campaign's initiatives is to issue stores with window stickers which explain to customers why the door is shut - a simple but effective way of not only saving yourself money, but also of demonstrating that you are sensitive to customers' environmental concerns.
All this puts retailers into a tight corner. The rules of merchandising say you have to dazzle your customers with bright lights, roast them over a hot bake-off, freeze them in the fresh aisles and put nothing in their way that will discourage them from entering in the first place, in order to maximise sales. But it appears that the public are brighter than
we give them credit for and may
be starting to think that retailers are using more than their fair share of
the earth's scarce resources in the pursuit of higher profits.
According to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, retailers use 275 kilowatt hours (kWh) of power per square metre, compared with factories (47kWh), warehouses (81kWh) and commercial offices (95kWh), so perhaps there's some justification in the finger-pointing. Later this year, an obligation for all commercial buildings in England and Wales to undergo an assessment of their energy efficiency and prominently display an Energy Performance Certificate could lead to further consumer pressure on what might then be revealed as the shockingly wasteful retail sector.
It's not quite an open-and-shut case, however. The closed-door lobby would have to accept that, even with the best intentions, it's not possible to get customers in and out of the store without some sort of hole in the wall, and a busy store with a closed-door policy is likely to have a volume of traffic that effectively keeps it open most of the time.
That's where air curtains come in. "What happens with an open door is that all the hot air in the store goes out of the top and cold air is dragged in at the bottom, or vice versa in summer," says Mike Price of manufacturer Thermoscreens. "An air curtain disrupts that flow and gives you considerable savings while still getting the footfall advantage of the open door."
There's another alternative, of course. Forget about what the merchandisers say about access and opportunity and subliminal signposting. Trust your customers' good sense; put a large 'We're Open' sign on one side of the door, and a "Please Shut The Door' on the other. Problem solved, bills slashed. Total cost, a few quid. Cost in lost sales? You'll know soon enough.
It's curtains for you
Manufacturers say a good air-curtain installation could be up to 70% effective at controlling energy loss through a doorway and give major savings on energy bills. The green lobby aren't convinced about the technology, or the idea of using energy to save energy. They say the savings aren't as impressive as manufacturers claim.
"It's true that our industry has had a somewhat bad name in the past," admits Mike Price, chairman of the HEVAC Air Curtain Industry Group, "but that's partly because people confuse curtains with overdoor heaters, which can be very ineffective and wasteful. Air curtains need to be installed correctly - the flow must be wider than the door, for example, and positioned close to the aperture. You'll need to talk to
a reputable supplier and installer about what's best for you."
He adds that controls on the curtains mean they function only when the door is open, therefore saving on running costs. Built-in thermostats allow you to vary the temperature of the air from the unit to heat the store, so there's no need for additional heaters.
If heating's not on your mind at this time of year, it's worth bearing in mind that the air flow can keep the cold in as well as out, and also keep out a lot of hot dust and dirt that would otherwise find its way onto your fresh produce.