By Frank Beard, NACS Daily Contributor
Most of my writing and speaking has focused on the sale and availability of healthful food in convenience stores, but I want to switch gears and discuss something else.
They’re a true litmus test of overall store quality. Having visited more than 1,000 stores in 24 states over the course of the past year, I’m confident in saying that dirty and poorly-maintained restrooms are the proverbial “hole in the bucket” that causes a slow, steady leak in business.
Think about it. When consumers stop at a convenience store to use the restroom, they’re in a vulnerable position. They may be in a hurry, short on time, or have somewhere to be. Even if it’s not an emergency, they’re likely unwilling to get back in the car and drive to another location. Can they be expected to make a purchase if their experience is negative?
Restrooms bring people in the door. Nearly one in four (22%) customers used a restroom the last time they visited a convenience store (2017 NACS Consumer Fuels Survey), and the No. 1 thing summer vacationers plan to do at convenience stores is use the restroom (2016 NACS Summer Drive Survey).
Restrooms can help drive sales. According to an independent poll conducted by Got2Go staff, “7 out of 10 people using a public bathroom in a retail establishment such as Starbucks or McDonald's actually made a purchase after using the restroom based on either a 'guilt' or 'impulse' purchase.”
Bad restrooms are bad for business. According to a recent survey of GasBuddy users, restroom quality generates the highest volume of complaints. 69% of users say they wouldn’t consider visiting a store with less than 3 out of 5 stars.
So what’s a store to do?
Fortunately, many companies already are providing a phenomenal restroom experience. I always have a positive experience when I stop at Buc-ee’s, Love’s Travel Stops, QuikTrip and Kwik Trip. When speaking with their representatives, I’ve learned that they consider quality restrooms to be a core component of their business strategy. Buc-ee’s even promotes its restrooms on billboards.
Many independent stores are also leading the charge. At Kent Couch’s Stop and Go in Bend, Oregon, I encountered restrooms nicer than what many people have in their own homes. The bathrooms had fancy sinks and tile, artwork on the walls, and even industrial lighting fixtures with Edison bulbs. As a customer, I felt valued and appreciated. As an outsider who wanted to learn about Kent’s store, I saw behind the scenes and learned that yes, he did this because he cares about his customers.
But it doesn’t have to be complicated. From my perspective as a consumer and traveler in his 30s who’s visited a lot of stores, it comes down to three things:
1. Be inviting.
2. Maintain the facilities.
3. Keep them clean.
Even basic, simple restrooms have the potential to provide a stellar customer experience. It doesn’t have to be fancy. But the days are long-gone when customers will tolerate keys attached to hubcaps or signs that say “For Paying Customers Only.” Everyone is a potential paying customer if you invite them inside.
In the meantime, go online and see what customers are saying about your restrooms. Pull up your store on Google Maps and read the reviews. Download the GasBuddy app. Are your restrooms listed under “Best Bets” or “Watch out!,” and are the reviews positive?
Pay attention to your restrooms. Out of sight is never out of mind.
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.