In today’s highly competitive retail environment, where margins are small and choices are plentiful, businesses are constantly looking for ways to gain an edge. Go-to options include lowering prices, increasing service speed and enhancing product quality and selection. But what about improving customer experience by making energy-efficiency improvements? The people at Playmakers — an award-winning footwear and fitness apparel store — think that might be the factor that tips the scale.

“This project did a lot for us,” says co-owner Brian Jones. “It saved us money and improved the retail space for our customers and the work environment for our staff.”

The project Jones is referring to involved making full-scale energy upgrades to the company’s historic Okemos facility — once home to Schmidt’s Super Food Markets, which opened its doors in 1958. By the time Playmakers moved in in 2002, the store’s once state-of-the art HVAC system was too big (taking up valuable floor and storage space), so loud it shook the floors (employees in shipping/receiving had to wear earplugs) and only about 35 to 40 percent efficient.

While the heating system performed fairly consistently, the store frequently experienced wide fluctuations with air conditioning, creating an inhospitable environment for customers and staff members during Michigan’s notoriously humid summers. Worse yet, when the cooling equipment broke down — which it did frequently — it took a week or more to obtain replacement parts, get them installed, get the system back up and running and return the air to an acceptable temperature.

At a place where creating an outstanding customer experience is paramount, the ancient, hulking system just wasn’t cutting it. Fortunately, Playmakers brought the same can-do attitude it has towards health and fitness to improving the comfort and function of its store.

“We’ve always been a business committed to doing what’s right, even when it’s hard,” says Jones. “This energy project was no different.”

In 2015, with the help of Doty Mechanical Inc., Playmakers completely overhauled its system — replacing two big carrier air handlers, two huge cast-iron hermetic compressors and all the associated duct work with a new, highly efficient heating and cooling system. As a result, the store recaptured 2,000 square feet of usable space and reduced overall utility costs by about 15 percent (or more than $26,000 a year). In addition, maintenance is now just preventative, employees no longer have to wear ear plugs in shipping/receiving and comfort has improved dramatically.

According to Jones, it’s the last part — comfort — that is most important.

“People have so many shopping choices these days, including going online,” he explains. “So you really have to find ways to welcome customers into your store and give them an exceptional experience while they’re there.”

It appears that the new energy-efficient system is helping Playmakers do just that. It had record sales last year and rarely has to advertise when hiring; once people come into the store — either as shoppers or workers — they typically stay for a long time.

To fund a portion of its energy upgrades, Playmakers looked at several different options and settled on financing through Michigan Saves. Its participating commercial lender, Ascentium Capital, was offering extremely competitive terms, which, when coupled with Consumers Energy interest rate buydowns, brought the APR to 0%.

“You can’t find much better financing than that,” says Michigan Saves executive director Mary Templeton.

But while the terms were great, the kind of work that was done was even better.

“When I think of everything that Playmakers accomplished with their project and how it has changed their store in all kinds of ways for the better, it makes me proud of our program and our partners who helped make it possible,” says Templeton. “It shows you what like-minded people can do when they pool their resources, energy and creativity toward a specific end — in this case making energy upgrades possible.”

If you visit Playmakers today to buy shoes, pick up a race packet, attend one of their Good Form walking/running clinics or sign up for Team Playmakers (a program where people of all ages and fitness levels join teams to help them achieve their walking/running goals), you no longer will notice either the temperature instability or the noise of an outdated HVAC system. Instead, because of its owners’ dedication to energy efficiency, all you’ll be aware of is its excellent product selection, the large and inviting floor space and the well-informed, helpful staff.

If you ask Brian Jones, that’s exactly how it should be.