Like foodservice and friendly staff, having quality bathrooms is becoming an increasingly important part of building a c-store’s brand.
From consumer hesitation – only one in four people think public restrooms are kept appropriately clean and safe, according to an Essity survey – to Buc-ee’s fans who love talking about the chain’s fantastic restrooms, c-stores are being judged on their pit stop experience.
Michael Lawshe, president of c-store design firm Paragon Solutions, said he recently brought up Roaster’s Market, a convenience store in Ada, Oklahoma, in conversation with a client. The client said she knew the store for its restroom experience.
“First thing out of her mouth: ‘The cleanest bathrooms ever,’” he said.
Restrooms have also become an indicator of how well a store operates and the quality of its service — a particularly important factor as foodservice options expand, Lawshe said.
“When you go into a bathroom that is dirty, your likelihood of buying food in that establishment is reduced,” Lawshe said. “But if it's clean … you're going to feel comfortable going up to that counter and ordering whatever it is that they have.
Having clean, high-quality bathrooms can ultimately encourage repeat visits, Tom Brown, Yesway’s director of real estate acquisitions, said in an email.
“The repeat customers allow for us to spend our marketing dollars on the next new customer,” he noted
All this means that many c-stores designing new bathrooms or refreshing old ones aren’t just looking to replace the paint and tile the walls. They’re looking to improve the experience while also making restrooms easier and faster to clean and maintain.
“That's a brand statement,” said Lawshe. “That's telling people that they're important to [your company], and that you're thinking beyond the minimum.”
Improving the customer experience
At some c-stores, the bathrooms can feel like a complete afterthought, said Mike Lawson, owner of Roaster’s Market. When designing their store, his team wanted to avoid that issue.
“We wanted [the bathrooms] to be something people talk about,” he said.
Roaster’s restrooms were built to be as touchless as possible, and the company thought carefully about every decision, down to the colors and accent tiles, Lawson said.
Part of making a good statement to customers is addressing their specific concerns, which is why many retailers start by asking for input.
Pilot polled both customers and employees before implementing its New Horizons remodeling program, which included updates to retail floors, prep areas and bathrooms, along with the showers used mainly by its professional driver customers.
“Our team members wanted amenities that were easier to clean and maintain while the guests wanted consistency, expansion and a touchless experience,” said Shannon Stone, senior manager of store modernization for Pilot.
Yesway also built its restroom experience in new and refreshed locations around customer and worker feedback. The top concerns were cleanliness, lighting and spaciousness.
Enhanced space and lighting are key elements in recent c-store restroom updates. Stone emphasized these elements several times when discussing Pilot’s approach to revamped bathrooms. Both Pilot and Yesway not only looked at enlarging the bathrooms generally, but also at adding more toilets and urinals, in what Brown called “building for future growth.”
Enlarging the bathrooms overall addresses several customer concerns, including compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Every restroom is now equipped with an ADA accessible stall and or stalls and counter heights to ensure that we can accommodate all types of guests,” said Stone.
For Yesway, a second reason for widening entrances and walking areas was “feedback we heard from customers for infant stroller access.”
Finally, extra space just makes the bathroom visit more comfortable for every customer.
“Don't go with your minimum,” Lawshe said. “If you can spare an extra six inches wide [in the stalls], it makes a difference in the way that individual feels inside.“
Lawshe also said some stores are looking closely at family bathrooms to accomodate people who may need extra time, want a more private restroom to bring kids or grandkids to, or to have alternatives to binary restrooms.
“'I’ve got people that will put six single-use [bathrooms] in there,” he said. “And they make some of them a little oversized for the family.”
Another important part of modern c-store bathroom design – or any public bathroom design – is the installation of touchless fixtures.
“It has been for a while, but COVID just made it almost a standard,” said Lawshe.
It starts with touchless entrances, which involves “removing those doors and changing the orientation of the entrance of both the men's and women's restrooms so that you could seamlessly walk in without having visibility into the restroom,” said Stone.
Common interior fixtures include automatic-flush toilets and motion-activated faucets, soap dispensers, and towel dispensers or air hand dryers.
Another upgrade Pilot added was additional baby-changing tables – and in more places, to accommodate a variety of families. “These will be installed in both restrooms, not just in the women's restroom,” Stone said.
The chain even added baby-changing tables to stores that were only getting a light update as part of its New Horizons initiative.
Lawshe mentioned that he’s seen a number of small lifestyle touches at certain stores, like fresh flowers or even artwork that’s for sale in the restrooms.
At Roaster’s, there’s music playing in the bathrooms, just like in the rest of the store.
“We get multiple comments pretty consistently about how cool it is,” said Lawson.
Helping c-store employees
Addressing the needs and wants of the staff who clean and maintain bathrooms can also make for a better experience for the customers.
“Another thing I like to think about is the person cleaning the restroom,” said Lawshe. “What can we do to make it easier?”
He mentioned some tools that can help, like small power washing tools that can be used inside the store – not just in the bathroom, but even in foodservice or other areas to make sure they’re getting clean.
Another interesting advancement he’s been seeing is a sink setup that combines the water, soap and dryer, so the customer doesn’t have to move and the drier blows the excess water into the sink instead of all over the floor — or the customer’s feet.
One of the most important things businesses can do, he said, is think about the customer behavior and make it easier for them to help keep the restrooms clean.
“How many times will people take the towel, and they'll start walking, and there's no trash dispenser by the door, so it goes on the floor,” Lawshe said. “It's really because of bad design.”
When Pilot polled its employees, it found there were a number of ways to make bathroom maintenance and cleaning smoother and easier.
Removing the doors from bathroom entrances helped staff as well as customers. Not only did they not have to clean those doors, but they also didn’t have to worry about them getting stuck open or shut.
“We have a lot of traffic in our stores, so those doors were constantly opening and closing,” said Stone. “There was a lot of maintenance involved.”
Pilot also designed them using finishes that could be cleaned and maintained more easily, as well as making sure there was a maintenance room closer to the bathrooms so trash could be more quickly removed.
Roasters has a cleaning regimen that calls for someone to go in every 15 minutes and clean up where needed. The store’s restrooms also undergo a regular deep clean, as well.
“Once a week we have it professionally steamed for sanitation purposes,” Lawson said.
Roasters includes other features that reduce mess in the first place, like urinals that go all the way to the floor and combined units that include both the paper towels and a waste receptacle for the paper towels.
Based on customer feedback since the updates at certain locations, Pilot’s efforts are paying off.
“The majority of those surveyed said, yes, it's definitely better maintained. And it's cleaner. That feels good to us, because we are delivering upon what our goals were,” said Stone.