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Open for Business

15 June 2007

Supporting companies in the retail sector requires a specialist approach from the service provider. Any failure of a shop's building services can prove very costly for the retailer making effective and responsive maintenance a top priority, as Mike Callender explains

BY THEIR VERY NATURE, retail operations have very clear and distinct facilities management requirements compared to other sectors. And of all the services provided, getting the maintenance right is probably the most critical. At the heart of these requirements is the need for stores to remain open without any downtime and to maintain a comfortable and safe environment for their customers and staff during that time. If a boiler fails in the middle of winter, or an air conditioner in the middle of summer, it isn't acceptable to just respond on the same day - within two hours is nearer the mark.

This is because shoppers have the option of voting with their feet - something that office workers, for example, don't have. If it's freezing in the fitting room, or baking hot on the sales floor, they will simply go to the competitor down the road. So any failure of the building's services can prove very costly for the retailer and effective maintenance is a top priority.

At the same time, retailers are operating in an evermore competitive environment and need to keep a tight rein on their overheads. As a result, service providers to the retail sector not only have to provide a fast and effective response, they also have to go the extra mile to help the client keep costs to a minimum.

This is where specialisation is so important. Not just because it provides a dedicated workforce for retail maintenance, but also because it ensures an understanding of the clients' specific requirements. For example, unless it's an absolute emergency, any work on the sales floor needs to be restricted to times when the shop is closed. So the service provider needs to know when those times are and be prepared to turn up either early in the morning or work through the night.

Specialisation also helps to provide a fast response because operatives are already working in those locations where the shops are rather then flitting from one type of building to another. As a result, with a company that has a good geographical spread of operatives and a wide portfolio of retail clients, there is a good chance that an operative will be working somewhere in the same high street or retail park when a call out occurs.

Clearly, this fast response also relies on the service provider having enough operatives on the ground to deal with the work load. In times of high volumes of reactive calls, such as air conditioning break-downs on exceptionally hot days, it also helps if the service provider has additional resources to call on from other areas of the business.

Getting an operative to site quickly is only part of the solution. Sorting out the problem quickly and efficiently is even more important. Simple expedients such as carrying basic spares and having nationwide agreements with wholesalers help to ensure a high first-fix rate. Similarly, any specialist sub-contractors that are managed by the main contractor (such as for fire systems, standby power generation etc) should be expected to comply with the same SLAs as apply to the overall contract. Ideally, of course, there would never be any call-outs because all of the equipment would be working all of the time. And while this will never be achieved in practice, a conscientious approach to planned preventative maintenance (PPM) will go a long way towards minimising plant break downs.

In this respect, the PPM should be tailored to the needs of each client to get the right balance between the cost of the PPM, the risk of breakdown and the cost to the retailer of that breakdown. For example, it probably won't be cost-effective to include an extract fan in the staff tea room on the PPM schedule as it is not critical to the commercial activities of the business. Consequently, we would normally recommend such relatively minor and noncritical items be covered on a reactive basis only to reduce the client's costs.

In other circumstances, there might be benefits to the client in increasing the level of PPM to avoid break downs of critical equipment. On a very hot summer's day, for instance, it can be disastrous for a store if its air conditioning breaks down. One of the common causes of air conditioning break down is clogged air filters and this happens faster in stores located close to busy roads, where pollution levels are higher. In these circumstances, the risk/cost balance might well fall in favour of more frequent replacement or cleaning of filters.

In businesses with multiple outlets, it may even be possible to compensate for this increased cost by reducing the frequency of filter replacement in stores where pollution levels are lower. In this way the maintenance strategy is focused on each client's business needs, rather than adhering to a rigid schedule based on manufacturers, recommendations. Filters in air conditioning and ventilation systems are also one of many factors that have a bearing on another major issue currently facing retailers - that of energy consumption and carbon footprint. In the case of filters, the more clogged they are the less efficiently the plant performs - so cleaning filters regularly helps to reduce energy consumption.

Now that a number of leading retailers have declared a commitment to achieving carbonneutrality within a relatively short space of time, they need to take a long, hard look at the energy performance of their buildings - right down to the detail of items such as filters. To that end, the maintenance service providers also need to take greater responsibility for the efficiency of the equipment they maintain. All too often the maintenance is judged on the availability of a service - whether it is working or not - rather than how efficiently it is working. Maintenance specialists with energy management expertise at their disposal are ideally placed to play a significant role in reducing their clients' carbon emissions, and ultimately energy bills, through a partnering approach that incorporates a high level of flexibility.

In fact, flexibility is the key to a successful partnership between retailers and their service providers. A service provider that understands its customers' business requirements can add real value in all sorts of ways. For instance, when overheads are being squeezed the capital review budgets need to strike the right balance between replacing old plant that is still functional but at higher risk of breakdown against the cost of replacing it. Here, the maintenance company can assist with annual plant/asset audits so that such decisions are based on meaningful information. Many maintenance companies charge extra for such services but, in my view, they should be part and parcel of a service contract.

Similarly, I believe the maintenance contractor has a responsibility to advise the client on changing legislation that will affect their building services plant. A good example of this is EC Regulation 2037/2000 which bans the use of new HCFC refrigerants (as opposed to recycled HCFCs) for maintaining and servicing existing systems from 2010 - with a total ban on use of HCFCs from 2015. Clearly this is information that needs to be factored into capital review decisions.

At the heart of all of these interactions between service provider and clients is the need for good communications. To that end, provision of a single point of contact - in the form of a dedicated national retail help desk - will enable fast, efficient and effective responses - complete with real time feedback/reporting in-line with KPIs and individual preferences of each retail client. Just as important, the help desk should be staffed with experienced operatives who have in-depth knowledge and experience of the specialized requirements of the retail sector. This will enable a focused response that can be individually tailored to meet clients' requirements

The nature of the retail sector often dictates that additional works are also agreed and implemented rapidly, so any quotations should be turned around and out of the door in the minimum time. In our organisation, for example, there is a maximum turnaround of three days and 85 per cent of quotes are turned around the same day.

Clients also need information for compiling reports for their own organisations, and each organisation has a different requirement for how that information is presented. This is another area where the flexibility to deliver information in a variety of ways, to suit the client's requirements, helps them to do their job.

None of the points raised here is exclusive to retail organisations but the combination of all of them is, I believe, unique to this sector. Without specialist knowledge and understanding, there is simply no chance of a service provider
delivering the level of service that is required.

Mike Callender is National Manager of Cofathec's Retail Division. He was formerly a senior manager with Deltec Maintenance Company acquired by Cofathec last year

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