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A Clean Slate

Cleanliness is next to … convenience. The importance of clean and well-maintained convenience stores is a hot topic lately as the bar is being set higher for operating standards at brick-and-mortar retail locations.

The in-store shopping experience, where consumers physically connect with a retail brand, is very much alive and well, especially in the convenience channel where operators have reached new heights, such as in foodservice. As the channel elevates its standards in foodservice, it is imperative it matches those standards in operations, industry experts assert.

Just as consumer health concerns are affecting food choices, they are also affecting where consumers shop. ISSA: The Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association is helping industries to realize the changing ways consumers view “clean.”

“We want to help people to understand that it is no longer good enough to clean for appearance; they have to clean for health,” said John Barrett, executive director of ISSA.

According to a survey conducted by the association, 95 percent of shoppers indicated that unclean restrooms and unpleasant odors would influence their shopping decisions, along with dirty floors, spills, stains, dirty shopping carts and other factors.

“Shoppers want to feel comfortable when visiting a retail environment, and ensuring a store is clean and healthy is a crucial part,” noted Dan Wagner, ISSA’s director of facility service programs.

Clearly, the bar has been raised on the importance of clean in retail. “The janitorial landscape has changed dramatically in the last five years,” explained Patricia Dameron, executive director for the Professional Retail Store Maintenance Association (PRSM). “We are entering a new normal for cleaning standards in retail facilities management. Retail brands need to be aware of this under-budgeted area and ensure all stores are meeting brand standards.”

To assist retailers in achieving a higher level of clean, PRSM recently launched a Janitorial Workload tool that utilizes an interactive spreadsheet using information about the store and the desired level of clean to calculate the number of full-time staffers required to accomplish the tasks.

Still, operations excellence goes beyond merely a “clean” store. It also includes maintenance and safety issues. Here are some tips for a more evolved slate of cleanliness and operational excellence at the convenience store level:

• Clean starts with restrooms. “We know that if we don’t have clean bathrooms, we won’t have a business,” a spokesperson for La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip Inc. said.

In the old days, bathrooms in c-stores were “a necessary evil. They were often out of order and not designated for a customer to use it, located in the back room,” recalled Ray Johnson, operations manager for Las Vegas-based Speedee Mart. “Now, they are part of the reason customers stop, much like the truck stop channel, which c-stores can take lessons from in restrooms.”

• Do the bathroom checklist. Stores with a bathroom checklist have cleaner bathrooms. At each of its sites, Kwik Trip has an employee check the bathrooms every 30 minutes to make sure toilet tissue is on the roll, sinks are wiped down and the overall bathroom appearance is clean.

Speedee Mart employs mystery shoppers for its bathrooms, as well as its stores overall — “and not on a manager shift,” Johnson said of the timing of these shops.

When building a store from the ground up, c-store retailers should design the bathrooms with maintenance in mind. “Anything you can do to reduce maintenance, such as going with larger bathroom tiles instead of smaller ones so there is less grout, should be considered,” noted Johnson. “You also want to be picking out heavy-duty faucets and putting up walls that are difficult to graffiti. So much of it is common sense.”

  • Incorporate industrial bathroom cleaning machines. Depending on how frequently the restrooms are used, c-stores can incorporate industrial bathroom cleaning machines two or three times a day that wash down the tile walls and suck up bathroom messes that can then be flushed down the drain. The process typically takes 20 minutes and can be part of the previously mentioned bathroom checklist.
  • For stores located in “problematic” neighbor-hoods, bathrooms should be accessed by a key at the cashier station. “You still want to make sure it’s accessible for customers, but you can’t ignore the fact that it’s a more challenging neighborhood,” acknowledged Johnson.
  • Don’t forget the store’s outside perimeter. C-stores in rural locales can often sit on large pieces of land, sometimes as much as two or three acres. Kwik Trip has its store-level employees check the outside perimeter of the store property, much as they would the bathrooms, every hour or half hour. They look out for garbage and other debris.
  • Well-lit stores are important for a feeling of warmth and security. And so are “open” windows that are not cluttered with signage and stickers. Seeing into the store from the gas pumps is an important aspect of safety for consumers. Well-lit retail environments should be balanced out with “green” illumination aspects, too, such as skylights, the Kwik Trip spokesperson pointed out.
  • Safety includes employee physical safety practices when unloading large or heavy pallets of items such as gallons of milk. Many c-stores operate with the principal that safety starts with employees — and that includes making sure they follow good stocking procedures. Kwik Trip has had a dedicated “safety department” in operation for five years, whereby safety and injury reports are generated for each district; employees are trained accordingly.
  • Keep a low shelving profile. Don’t fall to the tall side with shelving and racks if you want to keep a safe store. “My average employee is 5′2″ and my average customer is 6′2″, so I want to have a low profile with racks,” said Johnson. “We keep to 62 inches — a height I picked arbitrarily — because I want to be able to see across the store. There’s nothing convenient and nothing safe about racks that are 12 feet tall like we’ve been seeing from the dollar store channel.”
  • Observe customer movement and make display adjustments where needed. “I like watching people’s behavior and how they shop our stores,” Johnson commented. “For instance, I’ve noticed it’s very hard for people to shop off the bottom shelf in a narrow confine, so we’ve eliminated that. Also, there’s a difference between the way men and women bend to shop. Women are not going to bend over in a tight situation, whereas men are not as sensitive to that. To attract and retain female shoppers, you have to have enough space and lighting or they’re not going to shop in your store.”
  • Take note of the competition’s mistakes. This is a good way to learn, according to Johnson, who frequently takes his managers to observe other channels’ stores and even other stores within the company. “You can more easily notice what’s wrong with someone else’s store over your own. The nice thing is, they will usually run right back and change it in their store once they realize it in someone else’s. This is part of our training and grooming our people to be better managers.”
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