How do consumers define cleanliness in grocery stores?

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Jun 24, 2019

Cleanliness in grocery stores means much more than “clean up on aisle five.” According to a recent survey of Consumer Reports members, cleanliness standards in supermarkets, warehouse clubs and other grocery stores also includes bright lighting, shiny floors, gleaming glass and counters, and well-tended displays.

As part of the report, Cleaning Services Group (CSG), a janitorial and building services contractor that supports hospitals and retailers, provided its take on what qualities convince consumers that a supermarket is clean:

  • Spotless entries: Keeping sidewalks outside venues free of coffee stains, cigarette butts, gum residue and other signs of grit. Stores dedicated to cleanliness regularly power wash their sidewalks.
  • Sanitizers: Hand sanitizers in the vestibule and germ-prone areas such as the meat section reflect a concern for cleanliness. Some stores offer sanitary wipes for cart handles.
  • Gleaming floors: Polished concrete in its natural, light gray color is replacing tan and brown colored floors that look messy as their colors fade. Dedicated retailers wash and buff their floors daily.
  • Restrooms: In newer stores, restrooms can be found by the entrance and also near the fresh-prepared food dining area. Newer designs have bright lighting, multiple stalls, air fresheners and better accessibility. Dedicated stores inspect restrooms several times an hour.
  • Quick spill cleanup: Porters responsible for spotting and mopping up messes should be roaming the store regularly. A machine with an extractor should be used to suck up spills and prevent stains from penetrating the floor finish.

Among the six regional grocers that landed in the top rating tier for cleanliness were H-E-B’s Central Market, Wegmans, Heinen’s, Gelson’s Markets and Market Basket. Eastern grocers Tops and Key Food received poor marks.

Trader Joe’s was the highest-rated national chain, while Walmart Supercenters received poor marks.

Survey responses came from more than 75,000 Consumer Reports members who rated the one or two supermarkets they go to most often.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think registers as cleanliness at grocery stores in the eyes of consumers? Have standards changed with the expansion of prepared foods offerings? Where do grocers often fall short?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Cleanliness is important in every retail store; in a grocery store it’s imperative because grocers sell what we eat."
"With abundant competition among grocers, the customer can pass judgment by moving on to a cleaner store."
"Standards have not changed very much but independents do a better job than most chain stores."

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24 Comments on "How do consumers define cleanliness in grocery stores?"

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Zel Bianco

What registers as cleanliness in the grocery store? The bathrooms! As your mother said: if the bathrooms are dirty, what does it say about the rest of the store? Especially the back of the store where the food is being brought in.

Steve Montgomery

Consumers also associated messy with dirty. The includes product displays on the aisle shelving, endcaps, refrigerated cases and especially produce and meat cases. There is little question that the expansion of prepared food offerings has raised the bar for the expectation of cleanliness.

To paraphrase what we tell our c-store clients – supermarket clean is not equal to restaurant clean. Today’s supermarket shoppers expect restaurant clean.

Rich Kizer

We can all talk about the basics listed in the article which have an incredible influence on the perceptions customers generate about the store.

There are a few others:

The freezer containers on the floor. look under the merchandise and surmise how often the inside of the cabinets are cleaned. Also, a big factor in our focus groups is the black marks (perhaps dirty wax) along and below the lowest shelf of store fixtures. I know that is a hard place to clean, but it is also very visible. Still looking down, the produce area and the floor within must be literally perfect. And finally, not a cleanliness issue but a perception builder is the “air pollution” of store/vendor signs everywhere.

I know it is hard for grocers to keep a store sparking of near perfection but, with what they sell, the consumer expectations are pretty strict.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

In addition to the attributes noted in the article, in my research on customer delight in grocery stores, I found three attributes that customers related to perceived cleanliness and order in grocery stores: uncluttered aisles, shopper-friendly store layout and clearly marked shelf tags.

Ron Margulis

My grandfather, a ShopRite Supermarket operator and Wakefern member for many years, was fanatical about cleanliness. He was especially focused on the condition of the floor right as the shopper entered the store. He wanted it to be cleaned and polished all the time, the idea being that a dirty floor reflects badly on the conditions in the store, on the products being sold and on the owners. This kind of passion shouldn’t change due to the expansion of the foodservice offering or any other store modification.

Dr. Stephen Needel

I’m surprised they didn’t mention smell. I’m not thinking of enticing bakery scents – I’m thinking of bad-smelling cleaners (hello A&P, hello Winn-Dixie – they might have used the same foul-smelling detergent). If it doesn’t smell good, it can’t be clean.

Dick Seesel

Great points from both Zel and Steve. We’ve talked before about the importance of clean bathrooms — just as important in Kroger as in Nordstrom, and maybe more so because of safe food handling. And “restaurant clean” should be the standard, realizing that many restaurants don’t meet this standard.

I shop at a local Metro Market (a Kroger nameplate here in Milwaukee) and the cleanliness standards are good, with one exception — the freezer cases must have a temperature control issue because there is always melted water in front being soaked up by towels. Not a good look in terms of cleanliness or especially in terms of food safety!

Georganne Bender

We joke in our presentations that we can tell exactly how well a store is run by the state of its restrooms. It always gets a laugh, but it’s true. The ladies’ restroom is always the first place I visit when doing a consultation.

Cleanliness is important in every retail store; in a grocery store it’s imperative because grocers sell what we eat. It’s also important to note that to a shopper messy equals dirty. People want to shop for food in places they can trust.

Brandon Rael

Probably the most problematic and challenging aspect of running a grocery store operation is the maintenance, cleanliness, and overall multi-sensory strategy to appeal to our five senses ( sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch). It’s not just about product assortment, pricing and packing the products to the ceiling, rather the overall experience that matters.

If grocery chains are going to promote themselves as marketplaces, and places to feature unique and local offerings, then the store operation and overall cleanliness have to reflect this. During my high school days, I helped to run a produce department at our local A&P supermarket. A significant amount of my time was spent cleaning, sanitizing, and keeping up the overall appearance of the store.

It’s the five senses that matter, and customers will simply shop elsewhere if your store is not up to the standards.

Cathy Hotka

All the points my colleagues make are important. With abundant competition among grocers, the customer can pass judgment by moving on to a cleaner store.

Ed Rosenbaum

Part of my history included being in the janitorial service industry. We learned that a sparkling clean entry was important. The senses remember the beauty of the entrance long after going in a building. Next were the bathrooms. There was never any question that the bathroom had to be and smell clean. and stocked with soap and hand towels. I find the same needs are important in a grocery store or most retail establishments. We are reluctant to spend much time or money in an unsanitary environment.

Ralph Jacobson

For the thousands of supermarkets I have visited around the world over the past 30+ years, I can be “turned off” by simply the entrance. If the doors and floors are dirty, that store is already starting their shopper experience below an even standing with a cleaner store. From there, literally everything in the store matters, including all the points mentioned in the article. Remember, we’re dealing with food. If the fixturing is not maintained, how well will the product be maintained?

Neil Saunders

To me, cleanliness is basic hygiene and neatness – it’s about keeping everything orderly and spotless. On top of that comes the general ambience which is about the quality of the fixtures, lighting, flooring, etc. Most supermarkets are OK at the first part, too many are poor at the second part – they looks shabby and down at heel!

Frank Riso

The general appearance of the store is the first impression of the store. As mentioned, shiny floors and good lighting are key to the first impression with no clutter at the entrance. Standards have not changed very much but independents do a better job than most chain stores. I think a lot has to do with the cost of labor and trying to meet a payroll goal vs housekeeping. Most grocers fall short in their ability to see the need for clean stores. Since they see the store everyday it always looks the same to them. A once a quarter sparkle day is needed on which an outside supervisor inspects the store. This would help. Maybe having a health supervisor for many of the chains would also help keep stores cleaner.

Al McClain

One area not mentioned so far is the parking lot. When customers drive to a store, it is literally the first thing they see. Many retailers and specifically supermarkets have fairly clean stores inside, but do a terrible job keeping the trash out of their parking lots, and maintaining shrubbery, etc. so the place looks inviting on the way in. Locally here in South Florida, Publix does a bad job with their parking lots, which has always surprised me, and Walmart does a horrible job, which doesn’t surprise me. Costco is ok but not great.

Ron Margulis

Great point, Al. I remember my dad telling me he was touring stores with the CEO of a large chain in the Northeast and at the first stop they made they spent half an hour collecting carts. My dad was in his mid-60s at the time and the CEO wasn’t much younger. I knew that chain was doomed.

Cynthia Holcomb

Dirty checkout conveyor belts and counters. Yuck. Gross. After wiping the handles of the shopping cart with provided wipes and selecting the food to eat, it all ends up on a dirty checkout belt or counter. While the grocer may have a sparkly clean floor, and bathrooms are almost always less than clean, the final mile for grocery food is a grimy checkout. Worse, self-checkout scanners with smears of who knows what? This is sort of like dragging the food across the store floor before putting it into the grocery bag.

Paco Underhill

Our research suggests that if the customer sees cleaning in progress they are more likely to rate the store positively. Some Latin grocers have moved some of the cleaning process from off-hours to open hours – so the customer can see. We are asking the important question — at what point in the store design process are cleaning issues take into account? The simple truth is that the easier it is to clean/keep clean the more likely it is to be clean. Interviewing janitors and the cleaning staff can be very useful.

Craig Sundstrom

I suspect this is one of those “if you’re thinking about it, it’s become a problem” criteria and though it wasn’t mentioned explicitly, I would lump “cleanliness” into the general issue of maintenance. A missing floor tile, burned-out light, even an expired permit can create a negative impression: “I wonder how they’re treating the food!”

Shep Hyken

Every interaction and touch point a customer has with a retailer (not just grocers) is an opportunity for them to form an impression (Jan Carlzon’s definition of a Moment of Truth). The cleanliness at a grocer store is a VERY important moment of truth. If the produce truck delivering the fruit and vegetables is noticeably dirty, it could cause the customer to be concerned about what’s coming out of the truck and onto the retail shelves. Dirty floors, dirty restrooms, dusty shelves, etc., etc.; it all throws off an impression. And, the customer’s perception of cleanliness is the only one that counts. They are the judge and jury.

John Karolefski

Produce is typically the first department shoppers see upon entering the supermarket. The floor in this section needs to shine. As such, it will be memorable and will influence how shoppers see the rest of the supermarket.

Joan Treistman

Another way of thinking about this has to do with where the consumer spends his/her time. While bathroom cleanliness is extremely important, I would suggest the impressions made at the shelf and at the register are key.

At the shelf merchandising (the appearance of full shelves with labels pointing outward) as well as cleanliness are satisfying. The register is where the (almost, besides parking lots) last impression is made. It’s where shoppers wrap up a good experience or get distracted by stuff and wet spots from other shoppers’ purchases.

Chris Angell

A lack of organization can also be perceived as unclean, especially on the shelves and displays. If grocers can’t have neat, organized, and accessible shelves, what else is going on behind the scenes? A clean store attitude affects all aspects of a business.

William Hogben

Lighting is key — fluorescent lights, any kind of flicker, or a blue/cold hue spoils the feeling of cleanliness.

Consistency of signage is important, too — signs may be dirt and dust free, but if they look cluttered that will signal mess and dirt subconsciously. Pick 1-2 colors and fonts and stick to them.

The worst offender in most grocery stores is old tape and signage attached to surfaces — places where a sign was put up that has begun to fray/fall apart, a piece of paper that has gotten wet and begun warping and yellowing, etc. If cashiers are relying on handwritten notes behind the counter, the handwriting quality counts too.

"Cleanliness is important in every retail store; in a grocery store it’s imperative because grocers sell what we eat."
"With abundant competition among grocers, the customer can pass judgment by moving on to a cleaner store."
"Standards have not changed very much but independents do a better job than most chain stores."

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