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    Survey Finds Image is Everything

    Dirty restrooms and improper foodservice handling drive customers away, sometimes for good.

    Dirty-looking grocery and convenience stores and food handlers who don't wash their hands before preparing food were big turn-offs to consumers considering whether or not to shop at a particular store.

    A national survey, conducted for September's National Food Safety Education Month, found that 81 percent of consumers queried say their purchasing decisions are influenced by the cleanliness of the store. The survey of 997 adults was conducted in August by Opinion Research Corp. International on behalf of Kimberly-Clark Professional.

    When asked what they would be most likely to do if they visited a unit that appeared to be dirty or unsanitary, 64 percent of survey respondents said they would leave the store immediately without purchasing anything. Nearly one-fifth (17 percent) of survey respondents said they would purchase items at that visit, but they would probably not shop at the store again.

    Only 13 percent of respondents said they would complain about the dirty conditions to a store employee, and one percent said they would simply ignore the dirty conditions.

    "The general public has become more concerned with issues relating to food safety over the past few years," said Amy Walker Barrs, grocery segment manager for Kimberly-Clark Professional. "People often make an intuitive connection between the cleanliness of a store and the cleanliness or safety of the food found in that store."

    In fact, food safety issues are so important to grocery store customers that when survey respondents were asked what they would most like to see in the grocery store of the future, 42 percent chose services relating to food safety. Thirty percent of survey respondents said they would most like to see their grocery store install an automated device to check the safety and purity of food products, while 12 percent wanted to see up-to-the-minute food safety and product recall information.

    Food handlers who don't wash their hands when they should was another big turn-off for consumers. Survey respondents were asked what they would do if they saw a food handler at a foodservice establishment touch their food without first washing their hands. One-third (34 percent) of respondents said they would not patronize that store or foodservice establishment in the future, while 24 percent said they would tell their friends and family not to patronize the establishment.

    Slightly more than one-quarter (27 percent) of survey respondents indicated they would be vocal about the problem and would ask the food handler to start over with their order after washing their hands.

    "According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four foodborne illness outbreaks can be linked to poor hygiene, generally unwashed or poorly washed hands," Barrs said. noting that in addition to following the proper handwashing procedures as outlined in the Food and Drug Administration's Food Code, food handlers need to look at everything their hands come into contact with -- from the dispensers used for soap and towels to the door handle they touch on the way out of the washroom.
    And what about restrooms? When asked how they feel about using their c-store or grocery store's public restroom, 45 percent of survey respondents said they would only use the restroom in an emergency, or when their child had to go. For some respondents, no emergency would be dire enough to force them into their grocery store's restroom. "Never! I'd hold it in until I got home," was the cry from 11 percent of survey respondents.

    "While more stores today offer public restrooms as a convenience for their customers than in the past, they may not be aware of the image their washroom conveys to customers," Barrs concludes.

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