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    Convenience store operators generally agree that the cleanliness of a store gives customers one of their first, and potentially most lasting, impressions of a store. So retailers and their employees endlessly mop floors, wash windows, scrub bathrooms and sweep parking lots. But what happens to that dirt that gets swept under the rug or, in this case, behind the cooler? Although the cluster of dust bunnies near the cooler vent may look harmless and inconspicuous, it could be plotting trouble.

    Convenience store operators generally agree that the cleanliness of a store gives customers one of their first, and potentially most lasting, impressions of a store. So retailers and their employees endlessly mop floors, wash windows, scrub bathrooms and sweep parking lots. But what happens to that dirt that gets swept under the rug or, in this case, behind the cooler? Although the cluster of dust bunnies near the cooler vent may look harmless and inconspicuous, it could be plotting trouble.

    Much like automobiles, coolers require regularly scheduled preventative maintenance to function at their best, and a big part of that maintenance involves making sure that cooler parts, including those in hard-to-reach places, are clean. Dirt can damage moving parts on almost any type of equipment, but this is especially true with coolers.

    Every refrigeration unit has a condenser, which does the same job as the radiator in a car; it keeps the refrigerant compressor motor cool. Since most commercial refrigeration equipment does not utilize filters, the fan motor that pulls outside air through the condenser coil also draws in a great deal of dust. If the condenser becomes clogged or covered up with dirt, then it will become less and less efficient until it fails, ultimately causing the compressor to overheat.

    With cold soft drinks and beer being such c-store staples, a cooler breakdown could spell disaster. Yet even equipment that is running may not be working as efficiently as possible, and with energy costs continuing to rise, inefficiency also means money out of a store owner's pocket.

    Many c-store operators do not view professional preventative maintenance as a cost-effective proposition, and others often forget or simply neglect to perform simple maintenance tasks themselves said Jim

    Roberson, parts and technical service manager at New Albany, Miss.-based. Master-Bilt Products, a division of Standex-Intl. Corp., this is unfortunate, he noted, since equipment neglect can often lead to voided warranties and costly breakdowns.

    Maintenance Solutions

    This is not the case at Sundial Inc. "We have inspection lists and maintenance lists that are issued every two weeks," said Terry Ambrose, retail operations manager at the Aztec, N.M.-based chain. Two full-time maintenance people are employed by the 12-store chain to perform basic repairs and preventative maintenance service, such as regularly vacuuming cooler condensers and cleaning heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) vents.

    In order to reduce managerial responsibility for equipment, maintenance is kept separate from operational cleaning, such as washing windows or cleaning floors. All preventative maintenance is performed on a monthly rotation, ensuring that problems are caught before breakdowns occur. These schedules have saved several cooler compressors, according to Ambrose.

    Debbie Baumann, manager of four locations at Napa, Calif.-based Napa Valley Petroleum Inc., agreed. "Dust is easily attracted into the stores by our heating and ventilation system," she said. "You don't want a customer to pull a dusty can out of your cooler. So, we perform maintenance on our vents every six months to reduce dust."

    She explained that attentiveness to outside conditions can be helpful as well. Frequently, dusty conditions outside her stores require that she and her employees sweep interior floor mats several times a day to prevent excessive in-store accumulation.

    "We're on a schedule in which we use vacuums to clean condensers and compressed carbon dioxide to clean grates four times per year," said Gary Miller, operations supervisor of Pocatello, Idaho-based K&B Kwik Stop Inc. Miller explained that it was easy to make sure that these tasks were completed — he performs these duties himself at the chain's seven locations. Dust is reduced inside the stores by regularly inspecting ventilation filters and changing them at least once every 16 weeks.

    Miller noted that while only one employee generally staffs each K&B Kwik Stop during the day, the stores are always closed by two employees, allowing them to follow daily, weekly and monthly inspection and cleaning schedules. Mopping is a daily task, while weekly tasks included cleaning cooler vents and deli cases.

    Cooler-door tracks and rollers are also inspected and cleaned weekly. "Customers shouldn't have to grab a cooler door with both hands to open or close it," said Miller. Customers are, in fact, much more likely to leave difficult doors ajar after opening them, thereby wasting energy and straining the cooler motor.

    As Miller and Ambrose both noted, attending to the cleanliness of a store is quite a different task than maintaining the cleanliness and functionality of in-store equipment such as coolers. In fact, "it's a common misconception that cleaner stores mean cleaner equipment," said Roberson of Master-Bilt.

    Roberson explained that regular dusting, sweeping and cleaning causes dirt to circulate in a store, often becoming trapped on vents, coils and fans. In addition, airborne dust is less likely to stick to very clean floors. The intake fans on outdoor ice merchandisers and coolers are subject to even more problematic conditions in areas with high pollen counts.

    "Making employees realize the importance of performing maintenance and keeping a clean store is difficult," said Miller. "Periodically, I'll see that something has been marked off of a checklist, and the task hasn't been completed to satisfaction. You just have to keep following up. Explain the task, and make them do it again."

    If employees are aware that their work will be checked, they are more likely to do it right the first time, and achieving this awareness can be accomplished both by praise and by reprimands. "You shouldn't just try to find someone doing something wrong," Miller explained. "Try to find them doing something right."





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    PULL QUOTES:



    You don't want a customer to pull a dusty can out of your cooler

    -Debbie Baumann, Napa Valley Petroleum Inc.



    The most difficult part about performing maintenance and keeping a clean store is making your employees realize the importance of these tasks

    Gary Miller, K & B Kwik Stop Inc.

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