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A Road Trip to the NACS Show Yields a Few Dirty Restrooms

Frank Beard shares how important it is for c-stores to pay attention to the details.
November 8, 2017

​By Frank Beard

Rather than flying to Chicago for the NACS Show last month, I flew south to New Orleans, then drove to Chicago.

It was an opportunity to collaborate with Al Hebert, who writes about c-store food in his monthly NACS Magazine column, “Gas Station Gourmet.” While I often advocate for, and raise awareness of, convenience retailing’s healthful offerings, Al is more interested in the indulgent side of things.

Since we both would speak at the NACS Show (I on how to leverage online ratings, and Al on how to create a unique food idea), we decided to pilot his minivan on a more than 1,100-mile journey to Chicago to stop at the best convenience stores along the way. (You can read more on our road trip in the upcoming December issue of NACS Magazine.) From family-owned stores full of pride and passion to those with unique features like a custom barbecue smoker created out of an old butane tank, we saw a lot of what makes this industry special. But we also encountered a few issues that gave us cause for concern, like restroom cleanliness.

One convenience store featured such attention to detail that they took the time to remove a homemade spice rub from their chicken prior to cooking—a strategy that reduced the risk of blackening the skin when placed in a custom smoker. I took a temporary break from my usual nuts, berries and vegetables to devour some of the best barbecue that I’ve enjoyed since living in Kansas City.

But when I visited the restroom of that c-store before leaving, I was stunned. Toilet paper scattered about, random wet spots on the floor, a latch missing from a stall door, and a dim aura that felt anything but inviting. It was as if I’d suddenly stepped into a different store.

This became a recurring theme: Great stores, wonderful people, but dirty restrooms. One sink was in such bad shape that the faucet didn’t just leak—it poured.

I don’t believe this was an issue of direct neglect, but rather old habits. And that’s a huge mistake.

Today’s leading brands understand that inviting and clean restrooms are good for business. From Buc-ee’s to Kwik Trip, they’ve not only made the restroom an experience in-and-of itself, but turned this strategy into powerful marketing tools.Although restrooms are a minor aspect of store operations, excellence at every step of the customer experience is how retailers create the perfect pit stop—and generate the kind of loyalty that causes customers to say, “this is my place,” like they do every day on social media for Kwik Trip, Sheetz, Wawa and other leading brands.

Good restrooms also drive customers into the store. In GasBuddy’s Q3 2017 Foot Traffic Report, more than 61,000 gas stations near interstates were analyzed—stores like the ones Al and I visited. From July 1 to September 30, stores with above-average restroom ratings on GasBuddy had 33% more foot traffic than those with below-average ratings.

“I write about small family-owned companies and individually-owned gas stations,” says Hebert. “Without fail, the stigma of eating in a gas station comes up. Customers will buy fuel, but many are reluctant to walk inside and check out the menu. They will often drive just up to the very next parking lot and order fast food from one of the big chains. Good restrooms make a convenience store a destination, and they help erase that stigma.”

It’s small detail, but it goes a long way.

Frank Beard is a regular NACS Daily contributor who has traveled to more than 1,000 convenience stores in 24 states. He raised awareness of the industry's healthful food options with his "30 Days of Gas Station Food" experiment, and he's an analyst/evangelist for convenience store and retail trends at GasBuddy. Follow Frank on Twitter here.