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Making better use of retail space

Retailers continue to find new ways of making better use of space. For some time now they have been increasing the proportion used for selling and reducing that employed for storage. The latest trend is to install upper or mezzanine floors in existing buildings to create more room for showcasing a wider range of products. Specifying a suitable goods lift to handle items between the two levels is just one of the considerations when planning this type of development.

A generation ago most shops had a large storeroom where items were kept until they were needed on the shelves. Retailers realised that they could reduce the size of this store and increase the profit-generating selling area because improvements in supply chain management and processes such as just-in-time delivery allowed them to predict and fulfil demand more precisely. The phrase "I’ll see if we have one out back" was replaced by "we can get whatever you want by tomorrow", or even sooner. Home delivery and installation of items such as white goods and consumer electronics has taken the pressure off retailers to make everything available to take away.

The result is that many modern shops are effectively showrooms with little or no storage capacity. For retailers who want to offer larger ranges, and hence wider choice, the only option is to make more efficient use of the available space. Enlarging the footprint of the store is rarely possible because of adjacent developments, planning considerations, land prices and construction costs.

Most modern retail parks and out of town shopping centres have buildings which do not fully utilise the available vertical space. The supermarkets and DIY stores were among the first to realise they could use this to increase their floor area. More recently the electrical retailers have also begun to install mezzanine or first floor showrooms to offer an ever wider range of products. One of the key considerations for retailers who decide on this route is how to handle items they still need to move between the ground and upper floor. In most cases the solution is to install a mezzanine floor lift or goods lift.

Current health and safety legislation recommends that nobody should lift anything that weighs more than 25kg on their own. This is clearly much less than the weight of many electrical or electronic items such as washing machines or larger televisions. The only way for a retailer to remain compliant is to use some form of mechanical handling. The goods lift is often the simplest option.

Even when the load being carried is significantly less than 25kg there are reasons to think about a goods lift. Many work related accidents occur when staff slip or trip when walking up or down stairs. Although carrying items by hand between floors might seem simple it can increase the risk of accidents. This is especially valid if the employee cannot see where they are walking or are unable to use the handrail. Using a lift avoids these risks and promotes efficient and simpler handling without manual lifting.

There is a wide range of lifts available and selecting the right one can make a big difference in capital and running costs. A popular choice is a standard goods lift which is typically based on the same design as a passenger lift. These are versatile but there are drawbacks. The initial investment can be relatively high because of structural changes that may be required in the building in addition to the capital costs of the equipment itself. Most standard goods lifts will require a floor pit to be excavated to accommodate essential parts of the mechanism and allow the platform to recede and allow level access. A motor room is often required to house the motor and gearbox drive unit. This can be a problem if the building is leased but costs can be justified if it will be used for a reasonable time. However, situations can change and the lift might need to be repositioned. This is not easy if structural changes are required or have already taken place and need to be made good.

Another potential issue is safety certification and compliance. The typical size of these lifts and the way they are used means that they can carry people at the same time as the load. In these circumstances they must be inspected and tested more frequently and to a much higher standard than other types of lift. This is all proper and correct but it does add to the management and maintenance burden.

Instead many retailers are turning to simpler goods lifts such as the Mezz Lift manufactured by Penny Hydraulics. This robust, free-standing unit does not require a floor pit and the electro-hydraulic control equipment is typically mounted to the side of the installation, negating any requirement for a separate motor room. One of the principal limitations of other goods lifts is therefore avoided which means that it can, if required, be relocated more easily and with little or no work to the building infrastructure. It can also be installed outside the building.

Devices such as the Mezz Lift allow users to match the configuration very closely to the job in hand. It can be supplied with bespoke platforms while a wide variety of standard designs, including those which stop at waist height, allows operators to meet their individual requirements without taking up space unnecessarily. The maximum working load is generally in the 250-500kg class which covers the vast majority of retail applications. Robust construction and simple design combine to promote reliability and ease of use. Training is straightforward and maintenance issues are kept to a minimum, all of which helps to control overall life time costs.

One of the biggest advantages of the Mezz Lift is that it does not require the same level of safety certification as people-carrying lifts. However, like any other piece of lifting equipment, it is covered by the normal LOLER and PUWER regulations which means it must undergo a statutory thorough inspection at least once a year. These regulations are designed to ensure safety but are not as onerous as those covering lifts designed for people carrying.

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