Chilling Out

Don’t let snow and sleet freeze your winter profits

Traci Carneal, Freelance writer

NOCO knows about cold-weather challenges.

The Tonawanda, N.Y.-based operator of 35 NOCO Express stores throughout western New York battles ice, sleet and upwards of 10 feet of snow each winter. Most retailers won’t encounter such frigidity, but unless you’re in the Sun Belt or on the West Coast, odds are you’ll face some sort of inclement challenge, and failing your preparedness test could cost significant profits.

According to Scott Robinson, NOCO’s manager of real estate, mounds of snow can threaten the best of operations, jeopardizing deliveries, employees’ ability to get to work and in-store equipment.

But for NOCO, there is no choice behind its “keep ’em open” mentality. For NOCO, it’s not just about keeping the register ringing—it’s about serving the community as snowplows and emergency vehicles rely on the stores for fuel, and local folks appreciate the java and social opportunities.

“Those in the communities surrounding our stores rely on us during good weather and bad,” Robinson says. “If it’s safe to do so, we try to keep our stores open and operational during weather events as our customers need fuel for their home generators and vehicles, along with other supplies. We also provide fuel for snowplows and emergency vehicles that keep the roads safe for all of us.”

NOCO’s wintry success can be attributed to preparedness. The company has a hotline number for employees to call for direction and where to report. It secures various plowing and snow-removal contracts to ensure customer access to fuel pumps and stores. And it employs preventative building maintenance.

“We have contracts in place that cover plowing, snow stacking, snow removal and salting for each location,” Robinson says. “Our contractors are required to plow a minimum of 2 inches of snow and salt at the request of the store manager.”

So when a blizzard drops several feet of snow, which is likely in western New York, NOCO’s plowing contracts guarantee a set rate for equipment needed for snow removal or stacking. “Most of the time our lots are plowed before the streets,” he says.

NOCO also has its own terminal and transport fleet, which allows the company to service its stations with smaller trucks in case larger trailers are not able to gain access.

Built to Withstand
Stores built in the Northeast are designed to absorb larger amounts of snow that can strain rooftops. For these facilities, the real concern lies in what happens after a large snow: temps above freezing, or rain. “It’s imperative the roof drains are clear before the winter months to accommodate melting snow,” Robinson says.

NOCO does not typically have to shovel snow off store rooftops like the “big box structures that have long joist spans,” he says. “Our largest store is 6,300 square feet, and to date we have not had any issues.”

Along with snow removal logistics, any retailer facing harsh winter weather should engage in regular preventative maintenance, says Steve Wallis, regional operations director for George S. Hall Inc., a mechanical-facilities-management company in New Jersey.

For areas with heavy snow, preventative maintenance is crucial. “It’s important to maintain air-conditioning units because you need the right amount of circulation going through the store, even in the winter,” says Wallis. “This means closing down the dampers correctly during the winter so the AC systems don’t leak cold air into the store.” While this seems like a minor detail, it’s the small things that can save a great deal of energy.

Wallis’ advice for smaller chains or independents: Fix it before it breaks.

“Many smaller businesses will take the approach of waiting until it’s broken to address a problem, and that is a much more expensive way to maintain a building,” Wallis says. As a start, he recommends a minimum of two inspections and two air-filter changes a year. Four times would be even better, but if the option is two, conduct these preventative actions before spring and again before winter, because these seasons tend to circulate more air throughout a store. Belts also should be tensioned correctly.

NOCO stores abide by this philosophy, conducting preventative maintenance on HVAC and refrigeration units twice a year, and conducting filter changes, coil cleaning, heating/cooling startup and any adjustments that need to be made.

Another tip is to make sure the heating system is operational, that the gas piping has no leaks in the heat exchanges or otherwise, says Wallis. And don’t forget about small gaps in doors and entryways. “Retailers can save a lot of money by managing leaks around doors that can bring the cold air outside into the store,” he says.

Customer Comfort
As awareness grows for energy savings, Wallis says many retailers are seeking more efficient HVAC systems, especially in retail, where comfortable conditions are critical.

“If someone feels cold walking into a store, they will turn around and leave, so stores need to make sure they have their comfort conditions right,” he says. “Some stores have different units on the roof—say, four zones within the store—and one is really cold and one is really hot. If customers can feel the extreme hot or cold, they may turn away and go somewhere else.”

More than just saving energy dollars, having an efficient, maintained system also ensures customer comfort while shopping—and then spending more money.