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Scaling Solar Nationwide

BY Joseph Roth

Sustainability is a cornerstone of home furnishings retailer Ikea, its brand and its business plan, reflecting the company’s Swedish heritage.

To move this value set forward, the company has identified a sustainability strategy with three focus areas: sustainability at home, energy and resource independence and bettering lives in communities. Solar energy and enhanced energy efficiency are core components of this energy independence program, functioning to reduce the company’s electricity costs and minimize its carbon footprint. With solar costs at an all-time low, installing systems atop most of the company’s U.S. locations not only reinforces the Ikea focus on sustainability, but also makes good business sense.

Ikea has the ambitious goal of powering 70% of its energy needs with renewables by 2015. In order to accomplish this, the company has allocated approximately $1.8 billion to renewable and solar investments through 2015. Already, Ikea has installed more than 160,000 panels in the United States. Electricity generated from these solar systems powers everything from electricity to elevators, restaurant refrigeration, air conditioning, lights, phones and security systems at large stores and distribution centers.

As partners for this initiative, Ikea has worked with five different solar integrators on various locations across the country, and is now well on its way to reaching a generating capacity of 38 MW of solar energy. One of the major installers partnering with Ikea, REC Solar, a nationwide commercial and residential solar installer, worked to develop 18 Ikea solar arrays in the United States — or 17.4 MW of clean solar power — across 12 states, ranging from California to Florida to Maryland and beyond.

With just these systems, Ikea will generate more than 700,000 MWh of clean electricity during the next 30 years, the equivalent of planting 2.3 million trees. Installing solar at this scale provides useful lessons learned that can be applied by other large-scale retailers looking to go solar at multiple locations.

CHALLENGES

Adapting to regional differences was a primary challenge met by REC Solar and the four other installers. Ikea solar projects range widely in size — from 500 kW to 3.4 MW — and are located in varying geographic locations with unique climatic characteristics, including snow, tropical storms and high winds.

REC Solar optimized system design for the particular climate of each region. For example, spacing between each row of solar panels was increased or decreased based upon the latitude of the site to ensure there is no shade from the panels in the row ahead of them (called inter-row shading).

In addition, spacing was increased in areas with heavy snowfall to allow for snow shoveling between rows, if needed. Systems constructed in areas close to the sea were built with additional layers of galvanization or aluminum to prevent corrosion from salty breezes. Finally, some systems’ inverters were located within a building or under a shade structure to protect them from the elements and to ensure longer operational life. Many of the same situations applied to the Ikea projects led by other installers as well.

HARDWARE CONCERNS

REC Solar and the other installers also focused on addressing specific site-related hardware concerns and delivering high-quality installations, while completing projects on time and on budget. For example, REC Solar developed the SnapNRack 450 Series, a hybrid ballasted and attached racking solution, specifically to minimize the roof penetrations required by Ikea system installations.

By working with solar integrators that flexibly implemented solutions to address rooftop design concerns, Ikea has ensured that every roof penetration is sealed and in good condition today across all 39 system locations — critical for reliable system performance over time.

COSTS

Installing solar at scale has cost advantages as well. Ordering in bulk for multiple large systems can help reduce overall solar portfolio costs and increase a retailer’s return on investment. Certain fixed costs do not change from system to system, even if the size of the project varies. These costs include pre- and post-roof-inspection fees, structural engineering fees, site mobilization fees and equipment rentals.

However, with larger systems, these fees can be spread out across more watts — lowering the overall cost per watt and improving payback. Repeating business with a qualified partner can also generate savings for systems large and small. Partners are able to simply replicate their project proposals and legal contracts for work, based on successes at previous installations, which reduces the paperwork and logistics of the system development process, and in turn decreases overall system costs. As a retailer committed to offering affordable prices to its customers, Ikea has a keen focus on lean operating costs. For this reason, a large solar energy portfolio seemed like a win-win approach.

The strong Ikea commitment to building a large solar portfolio has brought great advantages to the company’s project development process and store operations. Ikea has been able to reduce costs and streamline efficiency by applying the lessons learned at one system to the next project. Choosing a strategic partner that understands first-hand a company’s specific needs has proven highly advantageous. With a diverse array of solar systems in place, Ikea looks forward to a future with clean, reliable electricity that will accelerate its business and keep operating costs low, to the benefit of many loyal home-furnishing customers.

Joe Roth is public affairs director of Ikea USA.

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AT&T Store Design Gets a Customer-Focused Reboot

BY Marianne Wilson

It’s not what you see as much as what you don’t see that defines AT&T’s new store concept.

Noticeably missing from the prototype, which debuted in La Grange, Ill., are traditional counters, checkout registers and printed signage. Instead, the 3,200-sq.-ft. store offers an inviting, modern and interactive environment that is focused on the customer experience.

“From the open floor plan to learning and community tables where customers can play and explore, every element of our new store concept was made with our customers in mind — and the experience we wanted them to have once inside,” explained Paul Roth, AT&T president of retail sales and services, AT&T, in a blog post about the new design.

Conventional counters have been replaced by café-style tables where customers can sit with store associates. And checkouts have been replaced with a mobile point-of-sale system that allows associates to help customers anywhere in the store.

“We’ve tossed out the traditional sales stations and equipped our consultants with tablets,” Roth wrote. “This allows us to help customers from anywhere in the store. We are turning what used to be over-the-counter transactions into side-by-side interactions. If a customer requires some one-on-one time for more complex questions, we help them in the Solutions Center, which is designed to allow our consultants to have sit-down conversations with customers.”

In place of window banners, product brochures and other printed promotional materials, the store uses high-definition digital screens for engagement, education and brand content delivery. The screens are intended to immerse the customer in a sensory experience, even before they walk inside the space, while providing AT&T with the ultimate in merchandising flexibility.

“From information on the latest promotion to the hottest product or service, the screens can be updated with the push of a button,” Roth explained.

In addition to the screens, E-brochures of product and service information are displayed on tablets. The digital focus extends beyond the customers: Mobile planograms show employees how and where to stock shelves and pegs, allowing for real-time updates as well as a reduction in paper.

The new format will be rolled out to new and redesigned company-owned stores across the country, starting in the greater Cincinnati area. Designed to bring to life AT&T’s mission and brand vision while helping customers better understand technology, it incorporates many elements — scaled back for a smaller space — from the AT&T flagship on Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue. These include a palette that blends warm woods with glossy-white, high-tech finishes and bold accents in the brand’s signature orange hue.

Other key elements of the design include the use of an open layout to encourage customer exploration, and flexible wall systems that provide the ultimate in design flexibility.

The layout highlights AT&T products and services in three distinct “zones” or departments:

The Connected Experience Zone includes lifestyle scenarios that provide shoppers with glimpses of how products/solutions are used in their everyday lives, spotlighting such categories as music, home security and entertainment.

The Community Zone features community tables where customers can play and explore apps, accessories and devices to see first-hand how they can all work together.

The Explore Zone allows customers to check out and demo the full lineup of AT&T devices and accessories.

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Signage Trends

BY Laura Klepacki

Signage continues to gain importance in overall branding efforts, as retailers seek to differentiate themselves with signs tailored to local markets and to create department ambiance. And increasingly, there is a lot more participation by marketing and advertising departments in developing signage programs.

“It is not just the construction or store planning departments anymore,” said Tony Camilletti, executive VP, D/Fab, Madison Heights, Mich.

Advancements in printing techniques have made available a wide variety of materials, helping retailers in their efforts to closely match signage to the store or department image.

“We are seeing the blending of graphics and signing become a key branding element within a space, versus just being a means to tell you where the restrooms are or what is down the aisle,” Camilletti added. “And the elements can be permanent or easily changed out to update as the brand is evolving.”

When it comes to retail sectors, “supermarkets and the food industry are still the pioneers and risk-takers,” Camilletti said.

“They take advantage of their space as a canvas to display, communicate and embellish what the brand is about through color, material, texture and lighting,” he added.

At Whole Foods Market, the signage is designed to reflect each store’s locale, creating a strong sense of place. In the company’s new Detroit store, the bakery header is made up of a series of raw metal conduits, recalling the tail pipes suggested by the famous “Motor City” moniker. The sign in the cheese department features a corrugated metal background, and is designed to recall urban graffiti. (The “Cheese” sign and corrugated metal bulkhead were designed by the store’s design consultant, JGA, Southfield, Mich., and refined and fabricated by D|Fab, which manufactured and installed the store’s interior decor and signing.)

“Whole Foods really celebrates the idea of being local,” Camilletti said.

Digital Solutions

Interest in digital signage solutions has exploded in recent years.

“Digital is now on everybody’s drawing board in some respect,” said Scott Jeffrey, chief creative officer, Interbrand Design Forum, Dayton, Ohio. “It depends on how adventurous you are as a brand for how far you go.”

Some brands are looking to digital tools for flexibility with price promotional messaging at the shelf, Jeffrey said, and “to have more latitude to attract attention in the aisle.”

Kohl’s, for example, has installed digital signs that display prices and discounts on fixtures and racks. The technology is also in pilot in supermarkets, drug stores and convenience stores.

“I think the next frontier is for stores to have a digital experience and a physical brand experience at the same time,” Jeffrey said. “There is some magic in that.”

Ridgeland, Miss.-based C Spire Wireless, for example, has introduced a new area in its new generation stores called Engage, an information hub with interactive high-definition screens. Customers can use the touch-screen displays to learn about the company’s reward program and products or tap into its community forum.

Innovations abound. In Japan, select fashion retailers have begun using the TeamLabHanger from Japanese tech firm TeamLab. The hanger has a sensor that triggers a related video on a nearby wall when it is lifted off the rack.

Brazilian fashion retailer C&A has introduced a high-tech hanger with a built-in digital display that shows the number of Facebook “likes” the garment has received. The counters, powered by the retailer’s website, are updated in real time to reflect the input of C&A’s Facebook fans.

Laura Klepacki is a contributing editor for Chain Store Age.

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