Grocers: Is Occupancy Sensor Technology Ready For You?

February 7, 2011


It was a fairly harmless, relatively uneventful Sunday afternoon. I was walking around the grocery store with my checklist in hand: peanut butter, wheat bread, my favorite Michigan-made wine (a brief, uncompensated, buy-local shout out to Saint Julian’s Winery in Paw Paw, MI… I will make you rich), granny smith apples, popcorn, extra sharp white cheddar cheese block, and oh… what’s this? I hadn’t snagged my ever-so-delicious DiGiorno’s flat bread melts! I scurried over to the frozen foods section to find a dark, barely lit aisle. Slowly, I pushed the cart forward being careful not to disturb the frozen peas or the ready-made burritos in fear that a frozen food zombie might jump at me and go for the jugular.

From Microsoft Images

Much to my surprise, the freezers on both sides of the aisles lit up one by one as I walk further. I felt like I was in a grocery store chorus line and my backup dancers (aka freezers) were unveiling my grand entrance onto the stage. I was enthralled for a moment – occupancy sensors on grocer freezer doors! I knew they existed but I never thought I’d actually get to see them in action! I persevered on, half-excited and half-nervous about seeing these things in action. I kept walking, squinting through each glass door hoping to find the comforting and familiar DiGiorno logo amongst the frosty darkness. I struggled for a while, making multiple passes up and down the aisle looking for my pizza delight. It was nowhere to be found! By the time I get to one end of the aisle, the other end was dark again as the lights had gone out.Stupid occupancy sensors on grocer freezer doors! I had finally found an energy efficiency technology that let me down.

The excitement faded quickly as my inability to keep the freezers illuminated persisted. I finally found the DiGiorno’s pizza section, got my flat bread melts, and huffed and puffed my way to the checkout line. While I stood waiting (read: brooding) to pay for my grub and get on, I couldn’t believe what just happened: A) I was grocery shopping on a Sunday afternoon and there was NO ONE in the frozen food section and B) I was actually angry that a grocer had implemented an energy efficiency measure that I, myself, often market to customers! Hello, alternate universe… my name is Megan; Have we met?

Controls are a hot ticket item in the energy efficiency and building performance world right now. There are controls to turn lights on and off, controls that modulate how often a fan blows the hot air from a furnace into a building, controls that regulate how fast a pump actually pumps based on how much you need it to pump at a given time, there are controls for everything these days. Controls are being talked about by utility companies, small businesses, retro-commissioning professionals, industrial giants, and even mom and pop movie stores. Why? Because they’re typically huge bang for the buck. Most control mechanisms can reduce an area’s energy consumption by at least 30% – sometimes as much as 80% depending on the application. These grocer freezer door occupancy sensors are a fairly cheap control that can be implemented to turn off the lights in the cooler/freezer doors while no one is there. Novel idea, right? Why highlight merchandise when no one is looking at it? Well, you highlight it because most people will think one of two things when they see a freezer aisle of darkness: either the freezers are broken and all the food is thawed/spoiled or that a frozen food zombie will jump out at them and try to eat their face. And I’m betting most people are a little smarter than I am when faced with a potential zombie situation on their hands – they probably wouldn’t proceed down the aisle out of curiosity as to what a real zombie looks like. So what happens? People don’t buy the possibly unfrozen zombie food. The grocer loses out on sales as the shoppers head off to the grocer across the street to get fully frozen non-zombie items. I have actually marketed this technology to grocers and I am ashamed of myself for potentially hurting their bottom line!

Sometimes we get so caught up in doing what’s right for the sake of doing what’s right that we forget about application. Occupancy sensors, as well as other controls, have their place. They are great for warehousing facilities, office spaces, and public restrooms. They’re fantastic for low-traffic industrial production areas and churches. They, as I’ve now discovered, are not good for grocery stores who sell frozen pizza to non-culinary experts such as myself. What’s good for one customer can be a detriment to another and vice versa. The moral of the story here: no matter the industry, don’t just market what’s new and what’s exciting to all your customers – make sure to consider all their needs before suggesting a product.

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4 Comments on “Grocers: Is Occupancy Sensor Technology Ready For You?”

  1. Amanda Says:

    Hi Megan-

    It’s funny you mention this type of lighting for grocery applications because Target has been using this technology in their grocery aisles for years. I think this technology can be used for grocery stores, but the grocery store you were at probably needs to tweak it to make it more sensitive which is what Target has done. My friends call me a walking advertisement for Target but check out a SuperTarget- they’ll probably have this technology.

    Thanks for the post!


  2. Megan Atkinson Says:

    Wait a minute. Hold up. There is such a thing as SuperTarget?! I may have just soiled myself with excitement. (I, too, am I walking advertisement for Target)

    I think if the entire aisle were to light up when someone passes the threshold of the end cap, it would work well. The common technology for this, the door sensors, typically are pretty sensitive. The problem lies in the fact that many stores want to use the sensors on existing linear fluorescent lamps which take a handful of milliseconds to ignite. Target might be using LED cooler/freezer lighting which would yield a quicker return from sensor to light.

    Definitely food for thought there. I’ll have to see if any of the Target’s in Michigan have done this. Thanks for the heads up and for informing me that my addiction to Target can only get stronger.



  3. Vincent Says:

    Hi Megan,

    Great post. It sort of brought up issues of “for your own good” for me (meaning it might not make any sense to the layperson but among those in the industry, it makes perfect sense). Motion sensitive lights make energy efficiency sense but require a change in browsing habit for the layperson in the supermarket.

    I wouldn’t bet on the layperson not wandering down the dark aisle. I mean how many times have you sat in a movie theater watching a scary movie and thinking to yourself “Why on earth would so-n-so open that door or go into that unlit room?”

    Though I do agree that there is that potential to lose sales, I am counting on marketers figuring out clever and efficient ways to highlight sale items and grow their sales.


  4. Madam Energy Says:

    Vincent, thanks for reading! I’ve been doing some serious research into what grocers with this technology are experiencing – and it’s mostly complaints. Rather than the “avoid and go elsewhere” loss of sales I mentioned in the post, I think they may experience just a small amount of “let’s go to X Grocery instead next time”. Some grocers aren’t getting any complaints at all though… and I’ve noticed that certain brands/models of sensors are the ones with the most success. Hopefully the demand for reliability irons out some of the kinks I experience because increased efficiency is only achieved if the same results are produced with less energy – altering the shopper experience shouldn’t be part of the equation.


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