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While many grocers have launched corporate social-responsibility initiatives of some sort, little has been done to quantify what kind of deliverables -- aside from good will -- these programs bring.
Not that businesses don't want to. Research conducted by Boston-based industry analyst firm AMR Research says that companies are ready for an information technology solution to support such corporate responsibility initiatives. According to a survey of 150 individuals in midsize and large companies in Europe and North America, more than seven in 10 plan to use IT as a tool to manage corporate responsibility initiatives within the next two years.
"Efficient management of a growing portfolio of corporate social-responsibility programs will help retailers enhance their reputation among customers, employees, and Wall Street," Mike Ferrell, Safeway, Inc. group v.p., told Progressive Grocer from the floor of Lawson Software's user conference, held last month. "Adopting IT tools like Lawson is proposing to develop could help retailers achieve a real bottom-line benefit from their social and environmental initiatives."
The tools Ferrell spoke of are part of a new initiative to provide companies with software-based options to help them manage environmental and social programs. The initiative aims to harness information technology to automate and integrate the management of these programs, to help companies meet specific social and environmental targets, whether those targets are set by the companies themselves or mandated by the government.
"In many cases, there's a clear bottom-line benefit to these corporate social-responsibility programs -- they're not just a feel-good exercise," said Lawson v.p. and program champion Jeff Frank at the conference. "However, the study by AMR Research shows that companies are not managing their corporate citizenship efforts in any kind of comprehensive way."
The St. Paul, Minn.-based vendor is planning to package particular preconfigured Lawson applications and its Lawson Business Intelligence suite with implementation methodologies specific to high-priority environmental or social programs. It developed these methodologies to identify opportunities for which Lawson Business Intelligence could support a company's corporate social-responsibility initiatives.
The key is measurability: The methodologies are mapped against the indicators identified by the Global Reporting Initiative -- over 100 traits of environmental, social, and economic responsibility that organizations may be reporting on today, such as energy consumption, wildlife habitat protection, and greenhouse gas emissions, work force diversity, customer privacy complaints, and political donations.
One example of how this would work is a dashboard view of carbon dioxide emissions, created by facility and rolled up to the corporate level. Emission trends could be tracked over time, as well as against specific emissions targets.
"This is ultimately about risk management," added Lawson's Frank. "Many of these corporate citizenship issues are also regulatory compliance issues, and many others will become compliance issues in the future. If companies can effectively automate and integrate how these programs are tracked, they are likely to save money and can have more confidence in the information they're getting."
Farm Fresh has an energy-saving scheme that its shoppers can see right through.
It could be dangerous -- even deadly -- if a skier's goggles fog up in the middle of a downhill run. In the same way, fogged-up glass in freezer case doors can be dangerous to frozen food sales if shoppers can't see clearly what awaits them behind the doors.
That's why in many commercial freezer installations, the doors and frames are heated by internal frame heaters that operate 24/7 to prevent excessive condensation buildup. The heaters are directed by a local controller unit connected with a variety of sensors placed throughout the case, including an internal case temperature sensor, an external case frame temperature sensor, and a dew-point sensor.
The downside, of course, is that those heater systems sap energy.
Supervalu-owned retailer Farm Fresh wanted to clear the glass without using all that juice, so it decided to work with Pittsfield, Mass.-based GE Plastics, the same company that developed the technology that helps skiers see and avoid trees along the trail. Together they have developed an application of that technology, to prevent fog from accumulating on freezer doors, thus eliminating the need for door heaters.
"We have a strategy to save energy and be more environmentally friendly, and this technology fits right into it," says Jon Perry, director of energy and maintenance for Farm Fresh. "Plus, for shoppers, if the glass is clean and clear, it's more likely that they will find the products they are looking for."
The technology is GE's Clean Constant Clear film, which features a proprietary antifog coating and adheres to glass doors to prevent water condensation when shoppers open the freezer case doors.
"It flattens out the water droplets to speed up evaporation," says Mike Laurin, product manager for film, GE Plastics, Specialty Film & Sheet, and co-inventor of the Lexan Constant Clear film. "It's also used in ski and paintball goggles, and medical face shields. And because it's a film that can be printed on, advertisements can be incorporated into the material."
Laurin approached Farm Fresh about tailoring the application to freezer doors, and Perry jumped at the opportunity.
"Mike [Laurin] knows we are a progressive company," says Perry. "We do our own design and our own construction. We're a Class A contractor. We liked the idea because it is a more passive way of saving energy. There are other ways of doing it, but there is a cost in testing various equipment -- a lot of sensors are involved, and they can go off calibration. So this seemed a good alternative."
Perry installed the film on 10 Farm Fresh freezer doors in one store in Virginia Beach, Va., and in the entire freezer cases at three other Virginia Beach stores, as well as at one unit in Suffolk, Va. The compressors supporting the heaters on the coated doors were disconnected.
Following an 18-month pilot, Perry evaluated the energy savings from the installed film, and he liked what he saw.
"We verified that the anti-sweat heater amperage dropped by about 50 percent for the doors using the new technology, from 5.2 amps to 2.4 amps for a four-door frozen food glass door case when the glass door portion of the heater is disconnected," he says. "We also expect a reduction of between 10 percent and 30 percent in energy usage from our compressors, since they no longer have to work so hard to remove the added heat from the cases."
It was also easy to install and maintain, says Perry. "We have not seen any degradation of the film during our 18-month test. This is a simple, passive system that can be installed quickly and doesn't need special care or periodic reapplication."
The spare compressor capacity also means that stores that install the antifogging film can install additional freezer doors without the need for another compressor.
Energy conservation is just one of the benefits Farm Fresh is seeing from the installation. According to Perry, the film gives the freezer doors excellent clarity, even during warm months when the doors are opened more frequently.
"During the summer, conventionally heated doors still tend to fog up quickly when the doors are opened," says Perry. "Even the closed doors next to [the open ones] fog up, and they wouldn't clear for a minute or two. With the new film they remain clear."
While Perry hasn't tracked the marketing value of the film, its antifog and energy-saving capabilities alone have persuaded him to seek out other applications within the store. Areas where he sees a fit include some of the deli cases, or even the double-door entrances of some stores in hot or humid environments.