As convenience store operators vie for foodservice customers, they need to ensure they are conveying a safe, sanitary image throughout the store.
By Erin Rigik, Associate Editor.
When David Miller, president of Chandler Oil Chevron, remodeled his 3,000–square-foot convenience store in Chandler, Ariz. last year, he had design team C7 Works give extra attention to the restroom.
First it was gutted and decorated with the same warm brown 18-square-inch floor-to-ceiling tile used throughout the rest of the c-store. A porcelain pedestal sink with a black-framed mirror and a decorative table adorned with a silk orchid flower were added to provide an ambiance unprecedented at most c-stores. Artwork along the bathroom walls completed the upscale look.
As a result, Miller helped to make his store a destination point for travelers and local consumers.
“I think a nice restroom is an important part of the c-store business that many operators miss because they don’t understand how significant it is for customers to find a clean, inviting facility available, and how people actually drive out of their way to use a restroom they know will be clean,” Miller said. “The restroom brings them onto our lot and into the store, and when they come in they’re also buying something.”
The extra touches in the restroom also helped to solidify the high-end image Miller was aiming to portray at the Chandler Chevron location, where the main store area features iron merchandising racks with woven baskets that display fresh fruit along with granite countertops to convey an almost boutique-like c-store setup.
“When we first did the remodel there wasn’t one customer that walked out of that bathroom that didn’t say, ‘Wow.’ We still hear comments like, ‘This bathroom is nicer than the one I have in my home,’” Miller said. “Everyone was so impressed, and I think a lot of people continue to come here because they know that anytime they need to use the restroom, they’re going to find a first-class, super clean, nice restroom.”
To ensure the restrooms stay in tip-top shape, the cashier on register two is assigned to check them every 15-30 minutes. “The facilities are monitored by the folks working the counter area, so it is easy for cashiers to do a quick peek after it’s used,” Miller said. “This allows us to consistently monitor the area to make sure it looks perfect at all times. If it gets messy, we immediately clean it.”
Cashiers initial a checklist after each peek to show they’re keeping up with the task.
Given the positive feedback from customers, Miller plans to revamp the restroom in a second location in Arizona to mirror the Chandler store. In fact, he said, he plans to build five additional stores over the next two years, all of which will be modeled after the Chandler location.
While a clean restroom can drive traffic, retailers need to understand the bigger role store cleanliness and sanitation play for consumers. As more c-store chains delve into foodservice, having an appealing bathroom becomes vital to growing food sales because customers equate cleanliness with quality.
“If your store offers clean restrooms, then you give a clean, accurate impression of what customers can expect in the rest of your store,” said John Zikias, vice president of marketing for Thorntons, which operates 162 gasoline and convenience stores, car washes and travel plazas in five states: Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee. “If customers walk into a restroom and it isn’t clean, and then you say, ‘Would you like to buy some food from us?’ it’s going to reflect poorly on your entire store.”
Therefore, especially for stores embarking on food sales, maintaining restroom cleanliness—keeping it smelling fresh, adding state-of-the-art equipment and taking the time to spruce it up with graphics—can actually compel your customers’ trust, and subsequently purchase your foodservice items.
Thorntons, Convenience Store Decisions’ 2011 Convenience Store Chain of the Year, calls its overall retail strategy Play To Win, and focuses on three key areas: people, priorities and food.
“One of the key priorities at our stores is to offer clean, quality restrooms. So quality restrooms have been a long-term focus for our company and part of our culture for quite a while,” Zikias said. “We know we can always get better and we work to make our restrooms sparkle for our customers every day.”
Thorntons’ restrooms feature tile, bright lighting and hands-free XLERATOR air dryers that are motion activated. When furnishing the restrooms, Thorntons looks for equipment that is durable and easy for its team memberto clean, which helps ensure they are more likely to stay clean.
The convenience store is charged with checking and cleaning up restrooms every hour using a checklist. Stores also feature a button that consumers can push if a restroom needs attention causing a light to flash by the sales counter to alert cashiers. Thorntons also relies on its internal maintenance service when restrooms need a deep clean.
To further ensure the staff is staying on top of the restroom schedule, Thorntons utilizes mystery shoppers twice a month at each store. Plus, Thorntons’ leadership team visits every store in the company at least once a month and includes a restroom inspection in their store visit.
When the leadership team visits a Thorntons’ c-store in daily life, they make sure to inspect the restroom and look at the store as a whole from a management perspective.
Developing A Prototype
Brett Giesick, chief retail officer of Temple, Texas-based CEFCO Convenience Stores, which operates 192 stores in Alabama, Mississippi and Texas, agrees with Zikias that a clean restroom is a key element for growing foodservice sales.
“We think there is a direct correlation between the course we’re trying to go in foodservice and having really great restrooms,” Giesick said.
CEFCO currently offers nine QSR offerings, and 27 stores feature its proprietary foodservice brand called Fresh Eats. Last year, the chain decided to delve deeper into foodservice, planning a sandwich and hot food program, and as part of its preparation took a hard look at its restrooms and decided a chain-wide remodel was in its best interests.
“A lot of our locations are interstate driven, and we have a lot of customers that are travelers. If I go into a restroom that is in need of repair or is dirty, there is no way I would eat food or any product at that location,” Giesick said.
CEFCO has grown to 192 stores through both acquisitions and new builds. As a result of the acquisitions, its portfolio features stores of different sizes and restrooms of varying qualities. “We’re a family-owned company,” Giesick said. “Culturally, our philosophy is that if the restroom isn’t good enough for our own family and friends, it certainly isn’t good enough for our customers.”
So in 2010, CEFCO began an internal committee that consisted of Giesick and the facilities, operations, training, marketing and foodservice teams to determine which attributes the restrooms needed and to look at the gaps between what its new prototype restroom would look like and where the existing stores were currently. The committee devised a project plan for every restroom in the company and assigned a scope to each one of the restrooms in terms of what type of investment CEFCO would make in remodeling it.
“Most restrooms going forward, and those at existing high-traffic stores, will offer a look that is very similar if not identical to the prototype restroom. Then we have some restrooms that are newer and may just need a minor remodel with added tile or updated equipment, etc.,” Giesick said. “Overall, we are looking to have a consistent restroom image throughout our retail network.”
Catering to Customers
The prototype restroom model features open entrances without doors—much like you’d find at an airport restroom—which caters to the many customers who don’t want to touch door handles. The facilities also offer beautiful tile and state-of-the-art equipment, including hands-free dryers, sinks and soap dispensers. Giesick noted that customers’ perception of hands-free equipment is that it’s easy to use. Stores also continue to offer paper towels to allow customers a choice. Today 10 locations currently feature the upscale look.
“We’re limited in existing stores in the ability to add the hands-free doors because of the space required, but in new stores we plan to add the hands-free entrance,” Giesick said. “There are a lot of folks who don’t like to touch the handle when they leave the restroom and, if they do, they usually use a paper towel and then throw the paper towel on the floor. So we’re trying to avoid that for our customers in our new locations.”
As the committee completed its restroom assessment it also took a hard look at the processes, goals and potential opportunities to improve overall operations and cost expenditures, such as the type of cleaning supplies used and the way the labor resources were deployed to check, clean and verify that the restrooms were up to company standards.
“We also recognized we needed an opportunity for customers to provide feedback if they were really pleased or disappointed,” Giesick said. “At minimum we now have a deep clean in every restroom three times a day, and we added a shift overlap time to ensure that happens, and there is a verification process for that now. Plus, at least once an hour, we have our associates do a quick pickup.”
The company partnered with Ecolab to help source the best cleaning supplies. A restroom cleanliness video is now shown to new employees and all potential new hires are told in the interview process that restroom cleanliness is part of job to ensure they’re up for the task. “If there are complaints, customers can call a number and the issue is routed to the appropriate store manager and we’ll respond within 15 minutes,” Giesick said. “We’ve had this in place a few months and so far we have only had only one call—and it was a compliment.”