The frozen food market experienced something of a resurgence during the economic crisis as consumers realized the benefits of convenience food. The growth in the market was, in part, due to demand for fresh food that could retain its freshness, as opposed to produce with a shelf life. Consequently, this placed increasing pressure on cold store operators.
In July this year, John Maguire, Sales and Marketing Director of Narrow Aisle Flexi, the manufacturer of narrow aisle forklifts, observed that cold stores could eventually be required to adopt the same efficient order picking techniques as chilled foods warehouses.
In the same month, the UK’s largest frozen food logistics facility was opened in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. The store’s vital statistics are impressive; with space for 77,000 pallets it operates at temperatures of -27 degrees centigrade, while its floorplan comes in at 175 meters x 88 meters and is 36 meters high.
Ray Perry is Managing Director of Partner Logistics which operates the facility. He emphasizes some of the store’s key features: “The density of storage inside the building is probably higher than you’ll see anywhere else in the country and that’s achieved by drive-in racking. That’s important for making use of your building but it’s also important in terms of the economies for the energy usage.”
So cost per pallet needs to be kept to a minimum, according to Perry.
Maguire also recognized the need for long-term storage systems in many frozen facilities, such as drive-in pallet racking –used at the Wisbech site – powered mobile racking, double deep racking and block stacking.
Perry reveals that there are some rather unusual features to the Partner Logistics’ facility though, including its in-house warehouse management system. Fully owned by the company, this interfaces with the facility’s stock control system – “what is key is that the two of them talk without human intervention,” adds Perry.
While there has been growth in the frozen food market, Perry is seeing some rather different trends in the cold storage sector that have emerged in the last 18 months. He has observed that a lot of companies are in fact reducing their storage capacity, partly driven by economics. “It’s good practice for any company to hold the least amount of stock to service their customers,” he maintains.
Despite this emerging trend in some areas of warehousing, throughput is holding up, which could have implications for the warehousing industry in the future. Perry believes it could impact upon what customers look for in their warehousing partner.
Low energy usage is becoming a necessary response to environmental concerns from both customers and consumers. Cold stores may have to be accountable for their energy output in the not too distant future to help drive down costs too.
Perry has noticed that the larger retailers are keen to demonstrate that they are reducing food miles. “That may mean that more locally produced food has to be stored temporarily and chilling food is a good mechanism for that,” he explains. “I think we’re going to see a big uplift in the chilled area. Frozen is a specific facility that we offer but we’re looking to the future for a lot more chilled work.”
Maguire made similar observations about the state of the frozen food storage industry earlier this year when he commented that cold stores will need to acquire the storage and picking methods of the chilled and dry grocery products sector.
Product checks are a vital part of the process that allows goods into the cold store at Wisbech. Perry believes this is another key feature of the UK’s largest cold store. “During that inspection the product is checked for its physical characteristics and we also read the label on the pallet,” he explains. “If the pallet has made it through and is in our store, we know everything about it and it is in the condition that is required by our customer.”
Speaking to Perry, it is clear that much of what happens in the frozen store itself is controlled through automation. In fact, only one person is required for every 2,000 pallets that are stored. People are required mainly for the management of the facility itself and the systems within it. In addition, staff ensure equipment is maintained, are responsible for case picking and loading pallets onto vehicles.
The most recent frozen food facilities then are highly automated sites, with high density storage areas. Perry indicates that there are opportunities for growth still as he intends for the Wisbech site to expand further. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the cold and frozen storage industry responds to consumers’ and retailers’ demands for frozen and chilled food.