Poor safety and sanitation practices will turn customers away. Going above and beyond what’s required is the key to a healthy program.
By Howard Riell, Associate Editor.
The numbers tell an interesting story: according to a recent research study by Cintas Corp., fully 95% of people avoid patronizing a business in which they have had a negative restroom experience.
Clearly, the message has been sent: if you are not committed to cleanliness don’t expect your customers to return.
“Many customers will look at your restrooms as an indication of your store’s overall cleanliness, including your foodservice areas. This will impact their decision on food purchases,” said Rick Yost, operations manager of the c-store division of Dead River Convenience Stores, which operates 19 c-stores across Maine. Dead River, in October, announced it had reached a deal to sell its stores to Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc.
Yost believes that if an operator develops a reputation for clean bathrooms customers in their region will actually seek their stores out when they are away from home. “Irving Oil here built a great reputation for clean bathrooms in the Northeast before selling out to Circle K. Travelers throughout the Northeast could count on Irving for a clean bathroom.”
Clean bathrooms are also particularly important to female customers, so many companies put an emphasis on clean bathrooms. “Dirty bathrooms lead to negative perceptions about your food, whether related to cleanliness or freshness,” said Jeff Lenard, vice president of communications for NACS. “If you want to sell food or attract certain demographics, you better have clean bathrooms.”
Moments of Truth
One thing that retailers often forget is that restrooms have to be checked regularly. “Just like we measure food temperatures to make sure the equipment is working correctly, we must do the same thing with restrooms,” said Dr. Nancy Caldarola, education director for NACS CAFÉ. “It’s a two-hour interval at the minimum.”
Caldarola described restrooms as a key decision-making point for customers. “Jan Carlzon’s book (“Moments of Truth”) talks about things that drive people to or away from certain businesses. It’s called a ‘moment of truth’ for customers, and restrooms in convenience stores is one of them.”
Those who think such a mundane task like hourly restroom inspections can be overlooked should think again. “Many, many people use the restroom and we just don’t see them going in there. Inspections are a key proactive step,” Caldarola said. “I’m not saying that Americans are very careful in restrooms in public places—they may be at home, but they sure aren’t when they are in public. They will drop trash and not think about it. Debris hits the floor, dirt accumulates and we have to be there to pick it up.”
Another common, major mistake is using restrooms as storage areas. “That’s not what they’re intended for,” Caldarola warned. “They’re intended as a rest area for guests, and employees when needed.”
Managers also need to check restroom lighting. A dark bathroom not only indicates neglect to customers, but danger. “I’ve been in restrooms where there was no light,” Caldarola recalled. “I was like, ‘What? How can you have no light?’ In fact, I’ve been to some restrooms where I’d go back into the store and say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t use the restroom. There’s no light in there.’”
One thing an operator can be certain of is that all customers are going to use the restroom mirror. According to Caldarola, good, clean mirrors should be a priority. “Folks say we can’t have glass because customers are going to break the glass, so we put those metal pieces in there. This is not the old days, I’m sorry. You’ve got a sophisticated customer today. This is not the way we should be doing business,” she said.
Another thing that Caldarola said is upsetting to customers is poorly maintained restroom doors that either won’t close or lock, and stalls that have graffiti on the walls.
“Some restrooms have stalls that are not connected to the floor, so if they’re not cleaned correctly there is debris around. Women go into the restrooms and, unfortunately, have to sit on the commode, where men don’t have to. When you sit there and you look, your mind starts to go through this mental checklist,” Caldarola said. “You have to understand what your customers are experiencing in order to get things right.”
Safety—preventing slip and falls or objects left lying around—is obviously a major component in restroom maintenance. “Greg Parker, of Parker’s Markets in Savannah, Ga., has restrooms that are out of this world,” Caldarola said. “His brand new places have the most beautiful restrooms—beautiful lighting, upscale, really nice, because he knows this is important.”
During a store tour with Parker back in September, she added, they encountered an employee who had been mopping the restroom, then ran to the register to take someone’s money, leaving the mop in front of the door. “Greg went ballistic, and rightly so because it was a safety hazard,” Caldorola said. “But what this shows you is that the stores that are doing things right and are committed to outstanding service have leaders that will not compromise their offering, and that is what it takes to be successful.”
Caldarola takes a dim view of plastic flowers being used in an attempt to beautify a restroom. “I don’t mean to offend, but get rid of the plastic flowers. People have all kinds of craziness in restrooms. They should be functional, they should be clean, they should have liquid soap all the time and they should have both paper towels and air driers. What they don’t need is a gimmick. Clean and well-stocked trumps a gimmick.”
That last point can be a major one as far as compliance with the FDA. “Today, the way the FDA’s foodservice code is written, one has to have paper towels for food handlers,” Caldarola said. “They’re supposed to use paper towels to open the door on the way out.”
An additional tip, Caldarola offered, is to use the back of the restroom door to post training posters. “We did that all the time in places I used to work,” she said. “Every week I’d have a different training moment, a management tidbit that could be easily read in 30 seconds. Employees use the restrooms too. In addition to getting a bit of an education, customers notice that you are serious about training your employees.”
The Restroom Checklist
According to Cintas Corp.’s restroom study, which was conducted by an independent research firm and included more than 1,500 restroom users, owners and cleaning professionals, participants reported that restocking supplies was a critical factor for customers. Nearly 85% of participants cited empty toilet paper rolls, 76% empty soap dispensers.
“By implementing a complete restroom program, operators can improve customer loyalty,” said Brian Garry, director of segment marketing for Cintas. “We will use this research to help restaurants better understand their customers’ expectations and provide solutions to increase customer loyalty and ultimately improve their top and bottom line.”
A complete restroom program includes:
• Mopping the floor.
• Shining the mirror.
• Scrubbing the sink.
• Disinfecting the toilet (inside and outside.)
• Emptying the trash containers.
• Wiping the faucet and fixtures.
• Checking the lighting and air vents.
• Restocking the toilet paper, hand towels, disposable seat covers, etc.
• Noting the smell, using disinfectant if needed.
• Wiping down bathroom walls and stalls.
• Checking for holes in the walls or ceilings and repairing them.
• Checking for missing ceiling or floor tiles and verifying that existing tiles are clean.
• Removing graffiti from walls or stalls.
• Checking for leaks in toilets and urinals.
• Verifying that doors close and lock.
• Having the appropriate employee signs posted for employees.
• Sweeping cobwebs from ceiling corners and paper, dust and hair from floors.