NATIONAL REPORT — Safety and sanitation have always been important to customers in the convenience store space — whether it’s a well-lit parking lot for nighttime fuelers or a clean restroom when stopping inside. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, and as it continues to be an issue throughout the United States, concerns about safety and sanitation are more important than ever before to both c-store customers and employees.
“We are seeing some COVID fatigue now in a new wave of research, and there are people being lax in a lot of the requirements,” said Nick Mercurio, executive vice president and service line head at Ipsos, a global market research company based in Paris, with offices in Seattle.
According to Ipsos’ Consumer Health and Safety Index study,there are actions and protocols that can and should be put into place for stores to send the message to customers that it is taking safety and sanitation seriously, and is actively working to keep the store, its customers and its employees safe — especially when there is foodservice involved.
With the COVID-19 pandemic waging on, everyone expects to see c-store employees wearing masks, and some type of social distancing signage at the entrance and throughout the store — especially at checkout, said Mercurio. They also expect plexiglass at checkout and sanitizing wipes to be made available, especially if there are carts or baskets in the store.
“Things that specifically drive trust are hand sanitizer at the store entrance and the checkout area, and having employees wiping down high-traffic areas with disinfectant,” he explained, citing the company’s study where mystery shoppers went to a variety of retail locations, including c-stores.
The first wave of research was conducted in May and June 2020 when mystery shoppers visited major gas brands such as Chevron, Shell and BP. Then, in August and September, they went to specific convenience store brands, including 7-Eleven, Wawa, RaceTrac, Circle K, Kwik Trip and QuikTrip. The research also included grocery stores, big-box stores, financial services, and food and beverage.
Of the five segments studied, c-stores ranked at the bottom of the list when it came to health and safety standards and consumer trust. Grocery was at the top of the list, specifically the Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, ShopRite and Costco chains.
During the mystery shoppers’ visits to c-stores, only 27 percent of locations had hand sanitizer inside the entrance and only 25 percent had it at the checkout — even though this is the No 1 driver of customer trust, according to the research.
Mercurio said c-store employees should also be wiping off payment terminals after each transaction, along with the counter space. For those selling gasoline, employees should routinely go out to the pumps and wipe them down so that customers can see them doing it.
“Brands have to perform actions that are highly visible, so customers actually see them doing it,” he explained. “Some brands may be saying they do a deep cleaning of the store every night, but I would recommend spending money on staff during the day so that when people come in, they see you cleaning the store.”
In fact, the study found that observing staff wiping down high-traffic areas is the No. 2 driver of consumer trust, but only 25 percent of the mystery shops observed this happening.
In addition to trust, there are other factors that drive return visits when it comes to safety and sanitation. An important one is a contactless entrance with some type of automatic door. “I’ve seen people do this with foot openers that are quick and easy to install,” Mercurio said.
Another factor driving return visits is clean restrooms with a visible, up-to-date cleaning schedule posted for customers to see. “If they see the restroom is clean, that is good. But if you have a schedule posted and they can see the last time it has been cleaned, that is a visible cue that you are taking health and sanitation seriously,” he added.
In the study, only 21 percent of c-stores had a visible cleaning schedule, which shows it is an opportunity to differentiate. The mystery shops also found that only 83 percent of the c-stores visited had employees properly wearing masks in-store — the No. 4 driver for return visits.
On the flip side, some of the highlights among brands that scored well in the research included employees not only wearing masks properly, but also wearing masks that were consistent (whether branded for the store or not). This offers a psychological cue to shoppers and increases overall confidence in the brand, Mercurio explained.
C-stores need to have clear protocols in place around safety and sanitation, and communicate them to every location rather than leaving it up to individual operators. They also need to ensure and measure compliance at the store level across their chains.
“You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Some brands do their own mystery shopping to ensure compliance and reward those who are doing it right, which is good,” Mercurio pointed out.
Overall, safety and sanitation are more important now than ever before and as customers take it more seriously, c-store operators need to do the same.
Research shows 62 percent of shoppers say that if a brand is not taking health and safety seriously, they would stop doing business with them, according to Mercurio.
“It’s also important to note that 25 percent of customers said they would be willing to pay more for brands that are doing health and safety right,” he said.