Look, Ma, No Hands

Retailers consider touch-free restrooms to bolster image of cleanliness.

Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP

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From entryways that eliminate doors to motionsensor faucets and soap dispensers, more retailers are tapping touch-free restrooms as a way to project a clean image meant to reverberate throughout the entire store.

That’s the case for Scott Hartman of York, Pa.-based Rutter’s Farm Stores, which is halfway through converting restrooms at its 56 stores to touch-free.

“The more the public hears in the news about … fl u epidemics, the more conscious they are of touching public areas that can transfer germs,” Hartman says. “The younger generation in particular has been raised on hand sanitizers and germ-killing soaps … [and they] expect exceptional sanitation when they’re visiting businesses.”

This is no fad. Design consultants say touch-free restrooms are a defi nite trend. Michael Lawshe, president of Ft. Worth, Texas-based Paragon Solutions, says restrooms are part of the larger customer experience, with people remembering dirty, dimly lit restrooms as much if not more than clean ones—and associating dirty restrooms with dirty stores.

When considering a conversion to touch-free, Lawshe tells retailers:

Go “doorless”: Designers can fashion restroom entrances so people walk around a corner, taking the common contact point of the door handle out of the equation.

Get more for the money: While devices such as sensor-activated hand dryers are still more expensive than traditional dispensers, the equipment today is more sophisticated and more effective.

Consider the employee: Retailers can do a number of things to ease the cleaning experience for employees, increasing the potential for the job to actually get done on a regular basis.

Opting for touch-free restrooms is not cheap. Lawshe says estimating average costs for such a restroom is nearly impossible, because size and priorities among c-store chains differ. But if one were to compare touch-free with touch, add at least another $100 per fixture that will be hands-free.

For Hartman, president and CEO of Rutter’s, it’s a simple equation: “For us, it is all about what the customer wants.”

No Doors

In walking through the inventory retailers need to consider when going touch-free, Lawshe talks first of doors. A trend seen more today in truckstops and travel centers is to design a doorway with a bend akin to ones in mazes. It eliminates the need for a door and people possibly transferring germs by touching a common handle.

In addition to being more sanitary, such an option can cut down on graffiti and vandalism because perpetrators perceive a constant flow of people in and out. “They never feel it’s private,” Lawshe says. But besides costing more, entryways without doors also need more room, with the construction requiring space for the customer’s path. That said, building larger bathrooms is a general trend, says Lawshe, with his firm seeing restrooms go from an average of 7 feet by 8 feet to 7 feet by 12 feet over the years.

Inside, toilets flush, faucets run and soap dispenses through motionactivating sensors such as those used by Rutter’s, which takes the extra step of having both air-blowing hand dryers and paper-towel dispensers. “It’s amazing, but many people really have a firm preference as to which they like,” Hartman says. “We just thought we’d give them both options.”

The notion of touch-free also can apply to employees, says Lawshe, broadening the concept to include those who actually have to clean the restrooms.

In general, all surfaces in a restroom need to be hard and washable, with tile one of the cheapest options (but also potentially the most expensive depending on the type of tile). For employees, Lawshe suggests a pressurized cleaning unit that typically comes configured into a cart. Such units spray cleaner onto the walls, and it self-cleans as the chemicals drip down.

“You want to make it easy for employees,” he says. “If they’re schlepping a mop bucket around every time, how often are they going to do that? But make it easy for them and it will reap rewards.” More considerations go into taking the spray approach, Lawshe warns. Commodes bolted to the wall facilitate spray-downs, because they are suspended above the floor and allow room for the spray to clean. For a toilet attached to the floor, messes usually occur on the floor and around the base, areas that are difficult for employees to reach. However, toilets bolted to the wall require extra support from the wall itself. In addition, the cart needs its own storage space.

Good, Better, Best

In terms of cost, Lawshe says retailers can expect a “good, better, best” scenario, in that for every device in the restroom, there’s a top-of-the-line, mid-tier and bottom-tier price level. Take hand dryers, for instance: The Dyson Airblade runs about $1,200; an Xlerator hand dryer is $450 to $500; and a standard dryer is more in the range of $250.

Likewise, commodes can swing in price. Installing a wall-mounted commode can add an additional $1,000— and that’s without the reinforced wall. Partition materials also can vary widely depending on what a retailer wants. Metal partitions are one thing; tiled walls are another. Issues of wear and tear as well as graffiti and vandalism become considerations. Lawshe hesitates to put any price range on building materials such as tile and other non-porous materials used for walls, floors and even ceilings because they vary so widely.

Final touches

Ultimately for retailers such as Hartman, it’s about the experience. They’ve added touches such as music, as well as buttons that allow customers to tell the cashiers the bathroom needs cleaning. “[The button] makes it easier and less intrusive for the customer to tell us there is a problem,” he says.

Agreeing with the music idea, Lawshe offers even more suggestions. Restrooms ought to have a homey touches such as framed photos and other decorative elements, as well as baby changers (preferably with their own sinks) for both men’s and women’s restrooms. Lighting is critical; he suggests solar tubes to save energy and use natural sunlight.

Hartman goes further, extending the idea of clean to offering hand sanitizers at entrances and exits for people not wanting to make an extra stop at the restroom. The company also has been installing automatic doors at new stores so customers don’t have to touch a door handle.

“If you really want to understand customer perceptions and needs in restrooms, just do a focus group—we did,” he says. “And you will hear more than you ever wanted to learn about restroom habits and preferences.”

Helpful Hints for Designing Restrooms

  • Consider touch-free faucets, soap dispensers, hand dryers and toilets.
  • Give employees the proper tools to make cleaning easy.
  • Build in alert buttons for customers to push if the restroom needs cleaning.
  • Provide homey touches such as music, framed photos and other decorative elements.

Bathroom Breakdown

The restrooms in Rutter’s Farm Stores carry numerous elements to reduce the need to touch exposed surfaces and keep the facilities clean.

  1. A customer alert button: So people don’t have to go up to the cashier to say the restroom needs cleaning.
  2. A touch-free soap dispenser and faucet: Allows for hands-free washing.
  3. A touch-free paper-towel dispenser and hand dryer: Giving people the option enhances the experience 

Restroom Review

For retailers assessing their restroom needs, Ecolab Inc., Grapevine, Texas, and SSDC, Carrollton, Texas, have provided a checklist. Aside from checking overall cleanliness, what to look for:

  • Sinks and mirrors: Cracks, broken edges, leaks, drips, properly working faucets and handles, and properly working hot and cold water.
  • Toilets and urinals: Loose seats or fixtures, missing or damaged seals, leaks, cracks and missing urinal screens.
  • Stalls and handicap-support bars: Properly working doors, latches and locks, and securely fastened dividers and bars.
  • Walls: Cracks, missing tiles; stained or torn wallpaper; and chipped, peeling or old paint.
  • Tissue, towel and soap dispensers: Proper dispensing, cigarette burns and cracks.
  • Hand dryers: Check that warm air blows out.
  • HVAC fans and vents: Missing grills and properly working vents.
  • Trash cans: Liners present and in good condition, and one covered trash can for the women’s restroom.  

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