As the convenience store market becomes more competitive, many retailers are upgrading their brick-and-mortar facilities as a means of reinventing their brands and differentiating themselves from the competition. This attention to facility design is especially important as c-stores continue to grow their foodservice offerings and compete for a larger share of the market. The adage, “We eat with our eyes,” does not stop at the plate and consumer perceptions of food quality are greatly impacted by how a store looks.
While innovative, upscale foodservice offerings -- such as sushi, espresso bars and organic produce -- can go a long way in enhancing a c-store’s image, research suggests that restrooms can play as large a role in defining the consumer experience as the dining room. A survey by Cintas Corp. revealed that 95 percent of people avoid businesses where they have had a negative restroom experience. Not just avoid the restroom, but avoid the business altogether.
Given the powerful impressions washrooms leave on consumers, operators need to ensure that their lavatories do not disappoint. In addition to brand building, intelligent restroom design can enhance c-store facility management in other meaningful ways, including improved sustainability, cleanliness, and customer and employee safety.
Reducing Resource Consumption & Costs
Despite the heightened emphasis placed on green design, restrooms remain hotbeds for waste, especially when it comes to water and paper towels.
In a time of growing water scarcity, commercial buildings consume more than 88 percent of the potable water in the United States and plumbing fixtures account for nearly half (47 percent) of total water use. The average low-flow commercial sink uses half a gallon of water per minute and many facilities have older sinks that consume far more water than that.
In addition, Americans use 13 billion pounds of paper towels each year at a cost of $2.3 billion. This consumption results in the equivalent of 270 million trees being flushed down the toilet or thrown in the garbage annually. We expect the issues of water consumption and paper towel use -- along with their associated cost implications -- to become more pronounced over the near term given the dynamics associated with growing demand for finite resources.
With these factors in mind, c-stores should incorporate next-generation technologies to reduce their environmental impact and achieve cost savings. For example, high-efficiency hand dryers can completely eliminate paper towel waste and new state-of-the-art faucets can reduce water use by 24 percent annually compared to faucets with the aforementioned half-gallon-per-minute flow rate.
Cleaner Facilities Mean Happier Customers
Restrooms are breeding grounds for bacteria. A 2011 research report conducted by scientists from the University of Colorado in Boulder examined the microbial biogeography of public restroom surfaces and identified 19 bacterial phyla across the surfaces of the restrooms studied. While some of the concentrations of bacteria were found in the usual suspects -- such as toilet seats and floors -- much of our exposure to bacteria in public restrooms comes during the hand-washing process. In fact, the exteriors of soap dispensers contain more bacteria than toilet seats.
A research report by the Maine Medical Center found that damp hands spread 1,000 times more germs than dry hands. This is particularly concerning because most restroom setups require consumers with wet hands to touch hand dryers and paper towel dispensers, making those fixtures bacteria hot spots instead of integral parts of the hand-washing process.
Consumers are developing a greater awareness of how to limit their exposure to germs and heightened sensitivity to coming in contact with public surfaces -- from door knobs to shopping carts. For these reasons, touchless washroom fixtures should be the standard for c-stores because they enable consumers to wash their hands while touching as few public surfaces as possible and improve the overall hygiene of the store.
Fewer Accidents, Fewer Headaches
Restrooms might seem innocuous, but they are actually one of the most dangerous places in a c-store. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 234,000 people visit emergency rooms each year because of injuries suffered in washrooms. Falls are the top source of restroom injuries – 30 percent of which result in head and neck damage.
Wet floors exacerbate the risk of washroom falls and outdated sinks, faucets and hand dryers are often primary culprits of causing water buildup. In response to consumer safety concerns, c-store operators should install washroom fixtures with design features that ensure water doesn’t wind up on the floor in order to minimize safety hazards and associated headaches such as lawsuits and negative publicity.
More Than a Water Closet
While washrooms might not be the most celebrated part of a c-store, few other areas can have as profound an impact on operations. As c-stores continue to focus their energies on improving brick-and-mortar facilities and expanding foodservice offerings, restroom design needs to be at the forefront of the conversation.
C-stores that invest in intelligent restroom design and smart fixtures will reap dividends over the long term by improving brand perception, enhancing the consumer experience and delivering tangible business results.
Jason Renner is the senior product manager at Bradley Corp., a manufacturer of commercial plumbing fixtures and washroom accessories. He recently led the development of the company’s Advocate AV-Series Lavatory System.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.