Counter balance

During these financially-straitened times, is investment in a new and attractive counter display worth the outlay? Adam Baker investigates

The saying 'you have to speculate to accumulate' never rings truer than in a recession. And the fact that butchers and farm shops do not seem to be cutting back on investing in their shops and displays is music to the ears of companies that supply refrigerated serve-over counters. "Despite the tough economic climate, we are finding that demand for our counters is as strong as ever," says Kurran Gadhvi, sales and marketing manager at Valera.

Meanwhile, Euro'Cryer operations manager Nigel Smith says that, in general, butchers and farm shops are proceeding with planned extensions, refits and new counters. In some instances, he adds, they are even increasing their original budgets to get the right look and stay ahead of the competition. What Smith finds, though, is that clients are making enquiries further in advance than normal, are more cautious in making final decisions and are taking on more of the preparation work themselves. Smith adds: "Their businesses remain buoyant due to the increasing consumer trend towards purchasing fresh/cooked meat products from a local trusted source for home preparation, rather than relying on expensive mass-produced ready-meals."

Nigel Rumsey, technical director of Phoenix Retail Services (PRS), has found a tendency for some customers to delay projects, until they see some sign of a change in the economy. But other reports indicate that butchers are capitalising on the relative cheapness of materials and labour at the moment, by buying out whole shops and starting afresh. Creative Retail Solutions (CRS) marketing director Mary Irving says: "The kind of work we have been doing in the independent food sector has changed in the last year. We used to predominantly refurbish established businesses, but now we seem to be fitting out many more new or converted shops. There are lots of reasons for this, but principally, our customers have a very canny eye to the future and see the downturn in high street rents as an opportunity to get new shops established."

Reasons for change

Butchers and farm shops have a range of different tastes and demands when it comes to new serve-overs. Euro'Cryer's Smith believes clients look to maximise space, so that neither the staff serving area nor customer area are restricted. They are also looking for a serve-over counter that is versatile enough to accommodate several product areas, fitting into a single length of counter, rather than having separate counters dotted around the shop.

"While the serve-over counter within any independent butcher or farm shop will inevitably be a significant investment," says Smith, "it is vital to the successful merchandising and sale of fresh/cooked meat products. The serve-over is also one of the main face-to-face contact points between staff and customers and thus a major influence in maintaining a welcoming, personal and friendly 'community' environment in the shop."

Flexible design

Valera's Gadhvi feels that modular counters are the way forward for butchers and farm shops, as he feels they offer flexibility in design terms coupled with an affordable package. "While it is hard to justify a full refit, the addition of a modular counter can instantly update the shop," he says. "Of course, in these difficult times, every customer is looking for a Rolls Royce for the price of a Mini, but that is where modular counters come into their own. With a choice of style and design, a wide variety of lengths, 45- and 90-degree corners, plus the ability to marry ambient, dairy displays and hot cabinets in a single run, there is no easier way to create an eye-catching, modern and flexible display."

Gadvhi says Valera's Prestige counter range combines ultra-stylish contemporary design with the latest technology. The basic refrigerated units are available in six lengths, ranging from 600mm to 2,900mm, with the end walls measuring 55mm, although specific bespoke lengths are also available.

Optional step-decks, product dividers and paper holders can be added and the stainless steel look can be enhanced with a choice of colour options. The Prestige range comes with a two-year parts warranty as standard.

Gadhvi adds: "A wide choice of finishes makes it easy to match the existing shop colour scheme for maximum impact and you can choose from a range of options, such as matching open multideck displays for self-service products or integral refrigeration compressors. The Valera range makes it easy to be up-to-date, while keeping costs to a minimum."

Durability counts

A serve-over that can stand the test of time and can endure the wear and tear of everyday use is also a major factor in purchase. "It obviously depends on the customer," says PRS' Rumsey. "But generally, more established businesses are looking for something that lasts. They know a cabinet is going to get hard wear day-in day-out and they don't want to be replacing it in a couple of years. We have butcher customers coming back to us for spares on Smeva cabinets that are 15 or more years old. They may have been expensive in the first place, but if you annualise that, it's cheaper than a cabinet with a lower capital cost."

The Smeva Vision range from PRS is said to require very low energy to run, making it attractive for a client who needs to keep an eye on bills, and is listed on the Government's Energy Technology List (ETL). "Being on the ETL means the customer can get Enhanced Capital Allowance on the cost of the equipment - basically offsetting the capital cost against tax in the first year instead of over four years. In addition, the Carbon Trust offers interest-free loans for items on the ETL," adds Rumsey.

Butcher Peter Speaight of Tunbridge Wells, Kent, is one such client that has used PRS' expertise, after he was recommended the Smeva cabinets on a butchery course he went on in the Netherlands. PRS supplied Peter with a Smeva Vision corner case and a Smeva cold room, which Rumsey reckons helps butchers display their fare for longer. "The low velocity air-flow and under-deck cooling combine to give a very low level of product dehydration," says Rumsey. "A higher level of dehydration means the butcher is losing money for every hour his meat is in the case. Based on a beef price of 10/kg and a sale of 80kg/day a butcher would save approximately 10,000 a year in dehydration alone by using a Smeva case instead of a standard forced-air meat case."

Rumsey adds that, by using the Smeva Weightsaver humidification with night covers, the customer can create a closed environment in the case overnight, saving time in emptying the case at night and restocking it in the morning. The cabinet also goes onto a pre-set night-mode, reducing the energy consumption even further.

"All Smeva Vision cabinets are built bespoke and fully assembled in the factory. We don't have the problem of pairs of cabinets having to be made to fit together on-site; we know they're going to fit because they've been built as one in the factory," says Rumsey.

For butchers with a lower budget, a new Vision Economy cabinet is also on offer. This is based on the same Vision design with the same engineering, but with fewer options in length, colours and accessories.

Getting value

Yet butchers and farm shops who want to buy the cheapest serve-over, to save spending too much in the short-term, might be taking a risk for the long-term. Good value rather than the cheapest price is always encouraged when it comes to purchasing and Irving says the Criocabin range offers this. "Good value means a lifespan of 15-plus rather than six years," she says. "The majority of our customers use the serve-over counter every day of their working lives. Criocabin counters are reliable, easy to clean and keep the meat in the best condition and it is a difference that is worth investing in. The counter needs to maximise the display area for cost, which CRS is able to achieve, either though cleverly arranging standard modular units or through using bespoke sizes and shapes. We always suggest to our customers that, for this significant investment, they don't just replace their old layouts, but become fridge tourists and view as many other shops and ideas as possible. We provide a list of our installations for them to visit and ask them to get a first-hand report on the quality and performance of our equipment from the people who actually use it. In 30 seconds, they can see how well it maintains the fresh meats, how well it has lasted and hear how quietly it runs, as well as get a view on how other people merchandise."

Focal point

CRS managing director Andrew Drake adds that the run of serve-over counters in most butchers and fresh food shops is the main focal point of the shop, and provides the stage for the retailer to promote his best-selling and highest-margin goods. He feels it is usually the single most important feature of the shop, so the selection of a counter that fits the style of the shop is key.

The counter should allow meats to remain on display overnight and be easy to clean, says Drake, adding that, on average, he is installing serve-over counters into butcher's shops twice a week.

So with the market for butchers' serve-overs looking positive in a struggling economy, just think what it could be like when the finances of the country return to health.

Case study 1

Euro'Cryer has worked with Farmer Copleys Farm Shop in Pontefract recently and claims successful results. The brief for the shop was to maintain and further build on an upmarket feel to reflect the quality of the farm shop's products and the company appointed Euro'Cryor to provide the new display counters. Euro'Cryor devised the custom-built Horus model, which forms the centrepiece of the new shop extension, with an elaborate C-shaped counter for fresh meat, including a built-in wooden butcher's block with vertical front glass.

The separate Horus cooked meat counter is divided between self-service and service sections to help maximise sales of both open and pre-packed product.

The refrigeration system on both counters is done by gentle blown air to provide consistent and effective chilling, says the company, and this allows easy cleaning, with lift-up fan covers and an anti-debris cleaning gap beneath the evaporator. Meanwhile, on the fresh meat counter, a special feature allows the customer to isolate the radius corners into 'ambient' display area.

The counters are finished in stainless steel with pedestal-style legs and a chunky front bumper rail, all built to withstand the rigours of long-term usage in a busy and demanding environment, says Euro'Cryor.

Smith adds: "The custom-built range allows customers to have a counter that is built to their exact specification. We offer a huge array of lengths, shapes and bespoke finishes allowing us to satisfy many complex and demanding requirements. Our factory will always consider the manufacturing possibility for any custom-built serve-over counter design scheme, no matter how complex."

Case study 2

When Michael Hart of Michael Hart & Son in Cricklade, Wiltshire, looked to take a step up with his shop, he worked with CRS right from the drawing-up of the plans. Taking over a year in planning, a middle wall was knocked down in the shop, doubling the size of the shop, which was totally refitted and redecorated. To see the many options of serve-over counter available and, due to a project with very specific styling requirements, CRS took Michael to the Criocabin factory, to see the early stages of the counters being built and, working with CRS, he was able to personalise many of the features. The counter chosen was a large U-shaped Criocabin Evolution, run with a hot counter at one end, and bespoke lengths to tightly fit the shop plan. The counters were remotely engineered with refrigerated under-storage and with a granite back shelf.

Another CRS customer, Simon Thornton of Andrew Charles, Meatmaster, in Godalming, Surrey, approached the company following a personal recommendation. As part of the refit of Simon's shop, CRS helped him design a new cabinet layout, where the old traditional window bed was replaced with a counter, set back in to the shop and running into an L shape. Simon commented that this layout gave greater walk-round visibility of the meats on display. He was also said to be really pleased about the benefits the counters gave to keeping the meat in prime condition, allowing him to keep them merchandised 24/7. This, claimed CRS, saved many hours of work and ensured the counter was always full. "Previously, in the late afternoons, customers were put off as the shop gave the false impression that it was shut," Irving says. "Mr. Thornton reported that, during the recession, his catering trade had all but disappeared, but since his refit, the shop trade has increased by a third, making up for the loss of his catering business."



Refrigerated display unit manufacturer Techna Koude, based in the Netherlands, has just started to build its presence in England and has already visited several potential customers.

"Although times are a little bit tougher economically," says manager William Verhoeven, "we know that customers will go on, but are not in a hurry to make decisions. That said, a lot of refits are going on because butchers know a good refit will also increase turnover during these times."

Verhoeven reckons a new serve-over brings better presentation to the shop, as well as more choice for consumers - in turn increasing the possibility that they will buy more. Low-energy cooling systems also bring benefits. "In our serve-over they can leave the meat at night in the counter and it will keep fresh," he says, adding that the serve-overs require very low energy. "Also, we have a very solid building system and materials for our counters, so that we can guarantee a very long lifetime."

Verhoeven feels that adding a new serve-over is not all a butcher should be doing at the moment and that the best way to refit a shop is to start at the front. "The shop has to be inviting," he says. "Just putting in a new serve-over is possible, when the old one has worn out, but the best thing to do is to look at the whole shop, because customers' habits and demands have changed." n