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A convenience store's restroom often tells customers all they need to know about that location and the way it's run -- no medicine cabinet snooping required.
"Restrooms are very important," said Don Zietlow, president of Kwik Trip Inc., operator of 330 c-stores. "Customers frequently rate your store by the cleanliness of your bathrooms. The outside of the store, the inside and the bathrooms must be clean. We sell food in our stores; who would want to buy food in a dirty store?"
With Kwik Trip and so many other convenience retailers now placing a heavier emphasis on foodservice to counter declining fuel margins and establish a point of differentiation among their competition, it's fitting that restrooms are undergoing a renaissance.
"Bathrooms can be a huge driver, a real traffic draw," explained Tom Ertler, prototypedirector for design firm WD Partners. "If you have competitive fuel pricing and a competitive food offering, clean and attractive restrooms can be a very compelling addition."
In Ertler's experience, restrooms are rarely one of the first things discussed during the design process; that conversation usually happens farther down the road. However, he recently worked with a Northeast convenience store operator who made the lavatories a priority from Day 1 of the project. As a result, his client's new 12,000-square-foot interstate store -- opened just shy of a year ago -- features larger and more attractive men's and women's restrooms, as well as two family restrooms, Ertler said. He declined to give the retailer's name.
All the facilities are completely touch-free, including the faucets, toilets, and paper-towel and soap dispensers. Customers don't even have to touch a handle to enter the restrooms since the entrances are designed as blind corners, similar to airport restrooms.
"They've been very successful. They're seeing that what they anticipated is exactly what's happening," Ertler said of his client. "Customers walking in see the strong food offer, the competitive fuel pricing and then, when they enter the restrooms, they're pleasantly surprised. They're saying, 'Boy, those restrooms!'"
While most retailers realize restrooms are important -- that they must be clean, well-lighted and operationally sound -- he said, "You pick how you want to compete and others choose to be known for their food or fountain offering. They choose to put money elsewhere."
This retailer already decided that the next new store it builds will have the same type of lavatories," Ertler said, adding, "They're part of the reason people are returning."
Rutter's Farm Stores, a 51-store chain in York, Pa., also identified restrooms as an area where it can separate itself from the pack. President Scott Hartman said upgrading the stores' facilities has been on the company's strategic map for the better part of this year.
Rutter's research pointed out the obvious: "[Shoppers] view bathrooms as a reflection of the store's cleanliness, and that has an impact on whether they would buy food, particularly fresh-prepared food, in your store," he said. "We've built bigger bathrooms in the past. We've built nice bathrooms in the past. We haven't built something that people would say 'wow' about. We're looking at this as a competitive advantage."
Construction began in early September on the first of what Rutter's hopes will be best-of-industry restrooms. The chain's current bathrooms are nice, but more commercial and industrial. They were designed for high-volume usage and ease of cleanliness, making them functional, yet "on the colder side in terms of aesthetics," Hartman said.
The new restrooms -- which Rutter's designed with the help of a York County, Pa., firm that specializes in bathrooms and kitchens -- use lots of brown tones and wood textures to create an upscale, earthy feel. The lighting and fixtures are modern, and all of the devices are hands-free. Other additions include artwork and music. "These restrooms are something you would expect in a nice, upscale restaurant," he explained.
Rutter's is testing the makeover process at one smaller and one larger store to see how the overall effect works in the different footprints. Each took four weeks to finish, two weeks per room, during which time one unisex bathroom was available. Both sites are close to headquarters, which allows the company to gather a lot of feedback.
Assuming that the result is successful, Hartman said more makeovers will follow this year and next year, until the new restrooms are rolled out to all 51 stores. A few Rutter's locations, now with single-holder restrooms, also will be expanded in the process.
"In all, this will be a multi-year, $1 million-plus project," he said, noting the payoff is well worth it. "The nicer you make the restrooms, the nicer [customers] will treat it."
Clean & Stocked
No matter how attractive the restrooms are, they must be clean and well-stocked at all times to fulfill customers' highest expectations. Everybody wants a clean restroom whether they're at home or elsewhere, Kwik Trip's Zietlow pointed out.
The La Crosse, Wis.-based retailer is so serious about the cleanliness of its restrooms that a company pledge hangs in each one, urging customers to call Zietlow if the facility is not up to par. The toll-free number on the plaque connects to the chain's 24-hour help desk.
"I would go into our restrooms, and sometimes, I didn't like what I would see. I thought, 'How can I make sure we put an emphasis on having clean restrooms?'" Zietlow recalled. "The best way to do it is to put my number and my picture up there."
When a call comes in, the help desk immediately phones that store and tells the staff to check the restrooms. Also, every week, Zietlow receives a summary of help desk calls, and he makes sure to personally follow up the next week with each caller.
"I thank them for calling in, and then I explain to them that this is how we get better because now, we can identify the time of day, what store it is, what shift it is. We want our bathrooms to be clean," he explained. "The response has been excellent. I get the chance to talk with our customers, and can take a negative and turn it into a positive."
Kwik Trip serves 4 million customers per week, and that equates to approximately 2 million bathroom visits, according to Zietlow. When the chain started doing this about four years ago, the help desk was getting 20 to 30 calls per week about the restrooms. These days, the average is three or four, and some weeks, there are none.
The company's standards call for store restrooms to be cleaned at least three times a day, and to help better execute this at the store level, Kwik Trip has provided its locations with new power-washing equipment -- Hillyard Inc.'s C3 Cleaning Companion -- which makes cleaning the bathrooms quicker, easier and less grueling for employees.
"All of this makes us better," Zietlow said. "Today, we have cleaner restrooms than we did a few years ago and our people take ownership of them. We're not perfect, but we're trying to get there, and we're going to keep working at it."
Rutter's also is taking several measures to ensure its restrooms are always clean and stocked. For starters, the chain has an employee checklist requiring that restrooms be checked and tidied up at least two times per shift. To simplify the cleaning process, the company is testing a mini power washer with sanitation fluid for employees to use.
"You ask any employee what they like and dislike about their jobs, and cleaning the restrooms is always at the bottom of the list," Hartman explained. "We've seen [the power washer] used at some other chains and want to see if it works."
He noted that Rutter's already has all its restrooms power-washed monthly by an outside company -- something it's been doing for a couple of years.
To further guarantee cleanliness, the chain's new, upscale restrooms will have a switch that customers can use to notify store employees when the restroom needs attention. Once the switch is flipped, a light near the cash register will turn on.
"There are some simple things you expect people to tell you, like when you're out of toilet paper, and this is a nice way to make it easier on the customer to alert us to something like that," Hartman said. "The idea is to let them know we care.
"Our goal is to make our restrooms as nice of an experience as you can get in a c-store environment -- friendly, warm and clean," he added. "We want customers to have a favorable impression so that the next time they're driving down the road, we're top of mind."