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"You can tell a lot by someone's restroom," said Ron Meade, district manager at Friendship Food Stores in Freemont, Ohio.
When choosing a convenience store to shop or make a pit stop, the appearance and availability of its restrooms can make a big difference. Broken-down equipment, empty soap dispensers and a rundown appearance can result in lost customers and lost sales.
"If customers walk into a broken, messy bathroom, it can affect their preference of stopping at your location," said Rocky Sprouse, executive vice president of retail at Giant Industries, operating 127 Giant and Mustang stores and headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz. "But if you give them a positive experience it helps the outlook of your chain and what you offer."
While major repairs require maintenance from outside the store, the everyday upkeep falls upon the store manager and his or her employees. This includes stocking and cleaning several times a day.
"Minor repairs are done at the store level, but we have a maintenance department the stores call to do any major repairs like replacing a fixture or vandalism," said Sprouse.
However, everyday maintenance can prove challenging at times. "One challenge is having employees who actually want to clean the bathrooms," said Sprouse. To battle this, Giant implemented a checklist in each restroom and included restroom appearance on its image surveys, done by an outside company.
"We have a checklist posted on the bathroom wall in each store," explained Sprouse. "It's a letter to the customer explaining that we take pride in clean restrooms and to please let us know if there is a problem. On this list, the sales associate on duty initials the list each hour when they go in to clean the restroom, because the idea is they should be cleaning the bathroom once an hour."
Each new shift gets a notation as a reminder to review the restrooms and follow up on the checklist. "Employees should clean the fixtures, wipe down the mirrors and doors, clean the sink and toilet and mop the floors each hour," said Sprouse. "They also need to check and make sure all the supplies are available and see if anything needs to be restocked like toilet paper, paper towels and soap."
Additionally, once a month, Giant has an outside company come in and verify the checklists to make sure they are being initialed; they rate the cleanliness of the restroom as well as the availability of supplies, according to Sprouse. Giant also performs monthly internal checks in which management will visit the store and perform the same tasks.
When choosing equipment, Sprouse looks at what will last. While he looks at what is newer, he also wants something that will withstand daily use by the public.
"As far as flooring and walls are concerned, we have a mix, depending on how old the store is," he said. "Some of them have tiling and some have wallboard, which is very easy to clean, and even graffiti comes off of it. But if we have to replace something, we always upgrade."
In terms of equipment like paper towel dispensers, the equipment is supplied free and then Giant pays for the paper products, which covers everything from the fuel island towel dispensers to the restrooms.
"We have the basic equipment like soap dispensers, hand towels, toilet paper, a sink and a toilet," he said. "While a hand dryer is the most cost effective because there is no cost of paper, I believe hand towels are preferred by the customer because they don't have to stand there drying their hands once they are done."
Another challenge in restroom maintenance is vandalism and even theft. Restrooms on the premises at Giant are not locked, but off-premises restrooms, while they often require a key from the employee at the register, have been targeted for theft.
"We've had toilets stolen and sinks ripped out of the wall," said Sprouse. "We've also had sinks just broken loose from the wall as well as writing on the walls and writing etched into the mirrors. The vandalism tends to be in specific areas or stores."
Giant equips each store with a supply of paint, and the managers try to paint over graffiti, but mirrors often have to be replaced when vandalized, which can become expensive. "In several locations we just got rid of the mirrors because we would have to replace them so often and it got too costly," said Sprouse.
And while fixtures at most of the stores are standard commercial porcelain, in the stores where vandalism is an issue, Sprouse takes another approach.
"We just remodeled the restrooms at one of our locations on a heavy traffic highway and we went with more vandalism resistant products," he said. "We choose more stainless steel and less porcelain and glass. This location was one of our highest-traffic stores and our highest cost as far as vandalism and theft."
At Friendship Food Stores, operating 26 stores and based in Freemont, Ohio, the bathrooms have standard features, but the design and finishing touches are left up to the manager's discretion, giving each store a personal feel.
"The manager of each store has the choice of paint color and whether to put up a border or wallpaper as well as any decorative touches," said Meade. "We are all for that and we will supply whatever they need to do it. Our managers tend to dress up the bathrooms. Some of the women's rooms have flowered wallpaper."
As in most stores, everyday maintenance is left up to the cashiers and managers, who should be checking the restrooms anywhere between 10 and 20 times per day to make sure they are clean and stocked, according to Meade.
"The restroom is the most important from the customer's viewpoint," he said. "Our customers tell us they stop at our locations because our restrooms are so clean. The challenge is getting in there enough based on the customer demands in the front of the store, and not everybody respects other people's property."
But vandalism is not a major issue at Friendship's stores. "We have 26 stations and we only have vandalism at two or three," said Meade.
As far as maintenance is concerned, the company has its own department. But if the repairs are major, they will call in an outside source. "When deciding on equipment or flooring, maintenance is an issue because you don't want to replace something every six months or spend a lot of labor to clean it," said Meade. "You want something to look new all of the time."
The company uses four-foot fluorescent lights throughout the stores as well as in the restroom, and while hand towels are in the majority of the stores, newer locations have hand dryers.
"From a functional point, the hand dryers sometimes make it messier because people shake water and it leaves water spots on the floor," said Meade.
All of the equipment is American Standard; many locations have linoleum flooring, but tile is being used in the newer stores. "Tile is a little more costly, but you don't have to spend as much time cleaning or replacing it," noted Meade.
"The linoleum can get ripped and is more maintenance-oriented because the glue starts coming loose, or people can track in stones in their shoes and scratch it and then we have to replace it. However, the tile holds up very well. We also tiled halfway up the walls and painted the other half in our newer stores."
When it comes down to it, the cleanliness and appearance of the c-store restroom is a direct reflection of the store as well as the chain.
"I've been in the foodservice and c-store industry for 10 to 12 years and the restroom tells me a lot about how the store is maintained, and I think cleanliness is just as important as product availability and customer service," said Meade.