By Erin Rigik, Senior Editor
Problem: Food sales are dropping despite having a world-class menu.
Solution: Inspect store cleanliness. Its sanitation and bathrooms are as important to food sales as the food itself. Developing a cleaning schedule and investing in touch-free dispensers can help ensure restrooms are presentable and even a destination for busy motorists.
Foodservice sales in convenience stores currently top $10.9 billion and mark a key area of opportunity for retailers, according to Technomic’s Convenience Store Market Intelligence Report, released in February 2014. The report showed that 57% of consumers have purchased prepared foods from convenience stores, and roughly one-third of shoppers seeking fresh food options purchase fresh food at c-stores at least once a week.
What’s more, 76% of customers who buy prepared foods from convenience stores report that these locations provide a convenient option, and two-fifths of customers told Technomic that they would visit a c-store for prepared foods more often if freshness and quality were improved.
So if food sales are down at your store, even as they are trending up across the country, start by taking an honest look at your food offering. If your store is featuring fresh, quality food and customers still aren’t buying, your problem likely has more to do with store appearance and cleanliness than the food itself.
A 2013 report by Chicago-based research firm Mintel, confirmed that cleanliness, menu selection and comfort are considered most important by customers when they are selecting a food establishment. In fact, cleanliness and menu selection tied at 96% as the most important component when visiting a food establishment.
“Because the vast majority of consumers find cleanliness, menu selections and comfortable seating most important, it is vital that restaurants address these areas first, before looking at the needs of specific demographics,” said Julia Gallo-Torres, foodservice manager at Mintel.
When it comes to rating an establishment for cleanliness, restroom appearance is a top concern among most customers. According to Mintel, 57% of patrons said they would be deterred from returning to a restaurant/foodservice establishment if the bathroom wasn’t clean. And that might as well go double for convenience stores already fighting the “gas station food” perception.
While the actual cleanliness of a convenience store restroom is vital, such as the sterilizing of bathroom equipment and floors, the perception of cleanliness can be given a boost with amenities, including touch-free hand driers and dispensers that suggest sterilization. Small touches to the ambiance, from a hung painting or a silk flower, to a beige-tile floor that disguises dirt and grim between cleanings can make a huge difference in the customer perception of your bathroom.
But while little touches can boost the appearance of your restroom, no amount of amenities can compensate for unsanitary conditions.
C-stores in Action
Roadrunner Markets in Johnson City, Tenn. takes its restroom cleanliness responsibilities seriously. With numerous foodservice options from a coffee program to Hunt Brothers pizza, Chester’s chicken and roller grill offerings, among other foodservice items, Roadrunner’s management team believes its food sales sparkle when its restrooms are spotless.
That’s why Roadrunner conducts about 350 restroom inspections a month at its 92 convenience stores in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
“We have an app that our area managers in the field use to inspect the restrooms, and it sends it to a centralized data base that we check. There are 32 sections of a restroom that we look at,” said Ryan Broyles, president of Roadrunner Markets. “Our restrooms, by and large, are cleaner than most people’s houses. It’s something we really focus on, and it’s kind of our calling card.”
John Kelly, Roadrunner’s chief operating officer and vice president of retail operations, noted that customers specifically seek out Roadrunner restrooms, not just because they’re clean, but because the restrooms have been remodeled with nice tile and fixtures.
“There is a cleaning process that happens, once an hour, once a shift and once a week. So our restrooms should be getting cleaned 27 times a day. It’s noticeable when you go in. Even older stores where they haven’t been remodeled recently are very clean,” he said.
Despite an already strong focus on cleanliness, Roadrunner continues to look for new ways to improve its restroom appearance, and recently upgraded restroom fixtures across its fleet of stores. Paper towel dispensers, new faucets and toilet fixtures are now completely touch-free, which studies show customers associate with increased sanitation.
When replacing the dispensers, Roadrunner also considered its employees who change out the soap and toilet paper, and searched for sturdy dispensers that made the process easier.
Roadrunner also added new toilet paper dispensers that release only one sheet of paper at a time. “It contains two round dispensers and customers pull out single sheets—as many as they want. The great thing is—if you’ve ever been in a restroom with a traditional roll, you know you have to touch the paper other people have touched and the paper can get stuck—with this dispenser you’re not touching the roll of paper someone else has touched,” Broyles said.
Roadrunner tested the dispensers at one store for four months before rolling it out across the chain. Customers said they were pleased with the change.
Time Tested Tricks
Convenience stores that keep clean restrooms indicate they’re a huge draw for customers, and can boost traffic to the store location. Many stores assign the job of restroom cleaning to staff members, putting a manager in charge of seeing that the tasks are completed. Putting a cleaning schedule in place with clear expectations and a checklist for employees is a crucial step in ensuring tasks are understood and carried out.
Cintas Corp., which runs the annual America’s Best Restroom competition, has advised that an effective cleaning strategy for restrooms should include a recurring combination of spot cleaning, daily cleaning and deep cleaning methods. C-stores should schedule cleanings between peak business times and train employees on procedures, as well as offer them a physical checklist to sign off on.
Spot cleaning might include picking up paper towels and wiping down counters and mirrors, where subsequent trips might require restocking of toilet paper and soap dispensers and mopping the floors.
If keeping your restroom in top shape remains a struggle even with a cleaning schedule and checklist in place, consider partnering with a facility services provider. In this case, c-store staff would continue to perform daily maintenance activities, but a service provider would be in charge of keeping restrooms stocked and deep cleaned.
Some stores look to more creative solutions to pair with cleaning schedules and checklists to combat dirty bathrooms. Rutter’s Farm Stores with 59 convenience stores in York, Pa., features a button inside the restrooms that customers can press if the space is unsatisfactory, singling an employee to respond. Rutter’s also provides its employees with a machine to deep clean the bathroom, which the staff uses to spray and sanitize the restroom several times a day.
Once your store has decided on a cleaning plan and employees have been trained in their tasks, consider having management members and mystery shoppers visit the store to confirm the restrooms are up to par.
Awarding the employees at your cleanest stores and impressing upon them the importance of these tasks and why restroom cleanliness is vital to store success, can help incentivize your front-line employees to take restroom cleanliness as seriously as you do.