Presenting patrons clean and comfortable restrooms is an important part of any convenience retailer’s customer service planning. Some c-stores, however, do it better than others.
Pat Pape, Contributing Editor
Buc-ee’s 37 convenience stores, all located in Texas, are popular for plenty of reasons: caramel-coated snacks known as Beaver Nuggets, dozens of gas pumps per location and a big-toothed beaver logo that has morphed into a plush toy bonanza for the chain, to name a few.
But when it comes to popularity and customer appreciation, the Lake Jackson, Texas-based retailer is best known for its superior public restroom designs. They are spacious and spotless, thanks to a full-time cleanup crew, and feature the automatic accoutrements today’s shoppers demand. The art on the walls is a nice touch, also.
In fact, Buc-ee’s restrooms are so unique to retailing that they were publicly recognized by Cintas, the Cincinnati-based bathroom and services supplier, as the best in the nation in 2012. But it wasn’t Cintas executives who selected Buc-ee’s restrooms above all others. The company held an online contest asking the public to pick the best seats in the house, and Buc-ee’s took top prize.
“Buc-ee’s brand of convenience stores knows firsthand that clean bathrooms mean big business,” said Gary Gonzaba, Cintas’ market development representative, as he presented the award to Arch “Beaver” Aplin, Buc-ee’s co-owner, who has jokingly dubbed the stores as the “‘Taj Ma-Stall’ of Texas.”
To top off that honor, Bon Appetit, recently declared that Buc-ee’s is the best rest stop in America.
Not so very long ago, a convenience store restroom was the last place a veteran road warrior wanted to stop for a break. The facilities were typically small, dark, dingy and dirty. They did not give customers an impression of freshness or cleanliness.
As the fresh and made-to-order food business has grown at convenience stores, a visit to the restroom has become a big part of the overall store experience. Today, industry experts insist that c-store restrooms serve as the public’s barometer as to the cleanliness of the entire store, and silently shape the perception of the quality of the food items that the store serves.
“The sales area can be nice and well-lit but if they go into the restroom, women will judge the entire store from the perception they get from the restrooms,” said Joe Bona, president of Moseley Bona Retail, a retail design firm headquartered in Franklin, Mass.
Convenience stores currently being constructed are built with that “first impression” in mind. Today’s biggest restroom trend is “touchless,” a feature that allows shoppers to walk in and avoid touching most everything.
To be fully touchless, there are no doors to the restroom entrance. Toilets flush automatically, and there is no need to turn the sink handle because the water faucet turns on automatically when a hand nears the presence sensor located at the lip or base of the spout. When hands are removed, the faucet turns off. The same technology works for the soap dispenser that provides the ideal amount of liquid soap.
To reduce the amount of waste in the restroom, automatic hand driers may be installed on a wall or built into the sink. Long-tasting tile floors and walls are attractive and easier to clean and sanitize than old surfaces. In addition, the new c-store restroom design is more spacious than those of the past.
Buc-ee’s isn’t the only convenience chain responding to the shifting expectations of convenience store shoppers.
RaceTrac, an Atlanta-based retailer, has 600-plus company owned and third-party contract operated stores across 12 states. That means more than a thousand restrooms that must be kept clean and shiny for customers every day. In its newest stores, the restrooms are designed to be larger and more comfortable.
“We elected to add additional fixtures and stalls in order to accommodate the growing number of guests in our stores,” said Brandon Collier, director of architecture and design at RaceTrac. “We also chose to incorporate a touchless format to accommodate guests’ expectations within the retail industry. Today’s retail environment has predominately gone touchless, and we feel the consumer expectation is to have a touchless [restroom] experience while shopping.”
While RaceTrac restrooms feature automatic faucets, customers can select from either automatic dryers or paper towels.
“We understand that the consumer continues to have a personal preference to use either a hand dryer or paper towels,” Collier said. “We continue to strive for convenience for our guests.”
Recently, Kum & Go of West Des Moines, Iowa, has opened several new stores featuring the company’s Marketplace format, an enhanced design that includes beer caves, growler stations, plenty of seating, complimentary Wi-Fi and upscale restrooms.
“Through the process of developing our newest store prototype, upgraded bathrooms was on the list of priorities,” said Kristie Bell, communications director at Kum & Go.
“Solid wood doors with stainless fixtures greet customers as they enter and leave, and the restrooms feature upgraded fixtures and design, including lighting, for a more pleasant experience,” Bell said. “Customers appreciate automatic water faucets and soap dispensers.”
Like RaceTrac, Kum & Go allows shoppers a choice of automatic hand dryers or traditional paper towels.
The 650 Pilot Flying J travel centers serve thousands of professional drivers and travelers daily. To ensure a pleasant environment, the chain installed imported Italian tile accents on vanity walls and LED lighting to brighten up the rooms. The hand dryers are eco-friendly, and the special toilets conserve water. The showers provide commercial travelers with premium towels, consistent water pressure and hotel-style shower heads.
When Rutter’s Farm Stores of York, Pa., constructed its 9,100-square-foot travel center in York Springs, just north of Gettysburg, the large, state-of-the-art restrooms were designed to accommodate the professional truck driver, as well as travelers and local shoppers.
“We increased the size of the bathrooms, installed larger sinks and continued our use of touch-free [features] throughout for ultimate cleanliness,” said Derek Gaskins, chief customer officer for Rutter’s.
It’s a challenge to keep a restroom clean when hundreds—even thousands—of people use it every day, and few stores can afford a full-time cleaning crew like those employed at Buc-ee’s. But careful planning, precise scheduling and follow-ups by store management can ensure that customers enjoy a consistently immaculate restroom visit.
Experts advise that spot cleaning be done frequently, and every 20 minutes during the busiest dayparts. Spot-cleaning chores include sweeping floors, wiping down surfaces and restocking products, such a toilet paper, towels and soap.
A thorough cleaning should be scheduled at least once a day, preferably during a slow period. In addition to previously mentioned tasks, sanitizing and disinfecting should be included. Extra attention should be focused on areas where bacteria accumulates, such as toilets, urinals and baby changing stations, and all fixtures should be checked to ensure that they are working properly.
A thorough deep cleaning involves extensive detail work, often requiring the services of a professional sanitation crew.
A spacious, comfortable and clean restroom will keep customers coming back. After all, the restroom speaks silently about the rest of the store and the food it serves.
“RaceTrac’s mission is to make people’s lives simpler and more enjoyable,” said Collier regarding the chain’s modern restrooms. “Part of delivering on that mission is to be as accommodating as possible with our guest experience.”