By Brad Perkins, Contributing Editor
No matter whether it’s professional drivers or those who are just driving from point A to point B, choosing where to stop to use the restroom often follows the same logic as where to get a snack or buy gas: Is it convenient, clean and safe?
“In our industry, the core customer is someone who’s in the car all day long, so we’re their public restroom,” said Mike Thornbrugh, manager of public and government affairs for QuikTrip Corp. “They want to get in and out quickly, just like when they’re buying gas.”
Speed is important, but when choosing where to stop to use the restroom, the decision is much closer to that of choosing where to eat or buy a snack. Cleanliness and appearance are vital to the restroom. Having clean hands and not worrying about what is OK to touch is as important in restroom usage as it is in foodservice and preparation.
“We entered the fresh foods space around 10-11 years ago and one aspect of it being successful is not only having a clean store, but having a clean restroom,” Thornbrugh said. “We emphasize to our employees that for us to be successful in our food offerings, we have to be the best we possibly can be and get better at cleaning restrooms.”
With 759 stores across 11 states, maintaining a higher standard of cleanliness can be a challenge, but QuikTrip is up to the task.
“We do millions of transactions a week,” Thornbrugh said. “Not that many people use the restroom each week, but it’s a lot, and it’s the difference between keeping or losing customers. We prefer to keep the customer.”
And the customers have responded. QuikTrip has been consistently rated in the top five in restroom cleanliness nationally. In its “2017 Top Rated Restrooms in the U.S.” report, GasBuddy named QuikTrip the cleanest restroom overall and tops in nine of its 11 states. The survey rated chains with more than 20 locations, but the results are interesting for stores of any size because clean restrooms can be a source of pride for many.
Its reputation for spotless facilities is more than just putting cleaning on the schedule and checking a box. It is the constant reviewing, maintaining and improving in a location where even a questionable odor can drive customers from the store.
“To help ensure the restrooms at our nearly 8,000 Chevron- and Texaco-branded locations are clean and well-stocked, we perform regular evaluations, surprise and scheduled facility evaluations and regular customer surveys,” said Desmond Johnson, Chevron Image Standards specialist.
And it’s also cleaning, restocking and double-checking when needed.
“Bathroom deep-cleans and hourly checks are a part of our normal daily checklist for each shift, however because of the importance of bathroom cleanliness, it’s an area that will take priority for cleaning outside the normal routine if necessary,” said Kristie Bell, communications director at Kum & Go, which had the cleanest restrooms in Colorado in the GasBuddy survey.
RESTROOMS OF THE FUTURE
In GasBuddy’s listing of clean retailer restrooms, it also asked respondents what troubled them most about traveling. Sixty-four percent of respondents feared having to stop at a restroom and being unsure where the closest one is. And 69% indicated they wouldn’t stop at a restroom with a rating lower than three stars.
Ratings and feedback are vital to any business and addressing complaints is a key consideration. To maintain an edge, aesthetics are starting to go hand-in-hand with cleanliness. Designing a sleek and clean environment has earned interest from convenience stores in recent years.
“We have gotten a lot of great feedback from customers about our restrooms—especially those in our new Marketplace store design,” Bell said. “They appreciate the upgraded finishes, as well as amenities like touchfree sinks and hand dryers in addition to paper towels. We offer hands-free fixtures in the restrooms, including automatic flush toilets, sinks and hand dryers. Our newest store design features many upscale finishes not typically seen in a convenience store. This includes quartz countertops, stylish light fixtures and a solid wood door with industrial handles.”
And while there is not necessarily a silver bullet for every store, studies—like one recently commissioned by Cintas Corp. and conducted online by Harris Poll earlier this year—show that customers prefer both hands-free faucets and paper towels, so they don’t have to touch germs on doorknobs or spread bacteria using air dryers. The Harris Poll showed that 70% of people preferred paper towels, both because they dry hands better (70%) and faster (69%), but also because customers had concerns about dryers blowing existing bacteria around the area (24%), while some found them loud (22%). Responders also showed a preference for soap dispensers, auto-flush toilets and other touchless elements as well as the ability to use a paper towel to open the door.
STOCKING, TESTING AND TWEAKING
Keeping restrooms stocked with the right supplies will also improve ratings and the desire to return. Even if a restroom is aesthetically pleasing, not having enough toilet paper, soap or paper towels will sour the customer experience as much as bad smells or dirty floors.
As in foodservice, gas and other service areas, knowing what your customers want is key. And just like in foodservice, some things work better than others.
“We’re always testing different things to see if there a better way to go. Some work, some don’t,” Thornbrugh said. “You see all kinds of different things and techniques, but first the consumer has to embrace it and use it, and that doesn’t happen a lot.”
QuikTrip tests items for its restrooms before putting them in the stores so they are able to evaluate tiles, fixtures and other items to know when to replace worn items.