Why Basic Details Matter in Convenience Retailing

Frank Beard shares why attention to things like restroom cleanliness gives customers a reason to return.
February 09, 2018

By Frank Beard

I recently wrote about my visit to Farm 2 Counter—an innovative convenience store from Missouri that’s become a destination for healthful and locally-sourced products. But that wasn’t the only highlight of my trip.

A billboard caught my attention while driving south on I-49 near Harrisonville: “Mom Approved Restrooms,” read the text in an aggressive font, next to a picture of a mother giving two thumbs up. I had no choice but to make a quick detour.

It turns out that in the year and a half since I’d previously passed through that part of the state, a new Sapp Bros location opened. Its enormous fuel canopy and convenience store now sits where there was once only Pyro City. I parked the car and rushed inside to examine the restrooms.

Would mothers approve? Without a doubt. They’re some of the cleanest, most welcoming restrooms that I’ve ever countered at a convenience store. It’s not just that they’re large, that the stalls are separated by actual walls rather than flimsy dividers, or that the tile and fixtures would be at home in many people’s homes. The standard of cleanliness is what really stands out. Even as I marveled over the restroom, I observed an employee conducting a thorough, detailed spot check. 

I immediately shared my praise with the manager, who replied, “You should see the family restrooms. They’re really something else.”

Back at my vehicle, I noticed that the quality extended to the forecourt. Underneath a large, modern and minimalist canopy sat something I’ve never encountered anywhere else. Rather than squeegees in the black, plastic containers like virtually every gas station, Sapp Bros had installed attractive, red metal frames that hold five-gallon buckets. The squeegees are mounted on wooden handles approximately the length of a broom. The result is that customers can clean the windshield of a truck or SUV without bumping against the salt and dirt on the side of the vehicle.

“That’s basic stuff though,” said a friend of mine, somewhat dismissively when I told him about this. And he’s right: It is basic. But the basics are essential in any retail environment.

Consider this. In the recently-released 2017 Foot Traffic Report from GasBuddy and Cuebiq, we examined location data at stations near interstates to see if a correlation exists between foot traffic and outdoor lighting ratings. It turns out that in 2017, stations with above-average outdoor lighting ratings on the app saw 50% more visits during the overnight hours of 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. than those with below-average ratings.

Mike Zahajko, vice president of Sales at CAF Outdoor Cleaning, has said that the customer experience at the pumps is the “handshake” that welcomes customers into the store. It sets the stage for the entire customer experience while fostering loyalty and helping bring people into the store.

“Cleaning is considered basic retailing,” Zahajko said, “but when a business only starts cleaning once a customer has entered the building they’ve missed out on up to 70% of their audience. It’s proven that clean stores sell more. Cleanliness is a key determining factor when competing against cross channel options like QSRs for your customers’ visits. If you have any doubts, go online and read your customers reviews to see how often cleanliness is mentioned.”

This was on my mind during a recent visit to Miami. I had the chance to sample Venezuelan and Colombian fare at Panna—a popular restaurant chain with both standalone stores and gas stations. At the original location in Weston, Fla.—which feels more like an upscale QSR than a gas station—I noticed every type of customer was present. Late-model cars filled the fuel pumps, a girl in athletic clothes purchased food, a guy rolled up on a mountain bike, and a group of elderly locals enjoyed coffee and pastries at a nearby table, then a road crew arrived and ordered from the menu.

It’s no secret that many of today’s convenience retailers have an in-store offering that’s on par, or better, than local coffee shops and QSRs. A single-step Schaerer coffee machine can produce a cup that’s just as good as what many baristas will make. The difference, it seems to me, comes down to cleanliness, ambiance and the sort of details that are sometimes easy to overlook. Panna understands this, and every minor detail contributes to an overall positive customer experience. I suspect that the “fuel stigma” isn’t much of a concern at their stores.

Yes, it’s basic. But basic details matter.

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.