How a small complaint led to big sales.

There are three areas in which businesses compete; people, product and place. Investing in one area takes pressure off the other two. If you pay your nutrition staff well, for example, you can spend less on your physical space. Here’s a story about Frances, one retailer who—even though she leases her space—decided to invest in her store and reaped record sales.

A Small Voice

One day, a customer whose daughter is handicapped approached Frances to say that her bathrooms were really not as accessible as they should be for a handicapped person. At the time, Frances was reading Broken Windows, Broken Business, a book by Michael Levine about how the smallest remedies in business can reap the biggest rewards. While no one else had ever complained about the bathrooms, which were always clean, Frances saw her customer’s comment as a possible “broken window,” meaning a seemingly small thing out of place that signals a business is not doing well or doesn’t truly care about its customers.

Bathroom Stories
In addition to good supplement and grocery sales, Frances also has a strong lunch trade from her commercial kitchen, which requires lavatories for customers. “Most retailers don’t offer public bathrooms if they don’t have to, which can be a problem for shoppers,” Frances notes. Once she posted her construction permit in the front window, customers and employees began talking about how important bathrooms were to them.

“Everyone started to come out of the woodwork to tell their bathroom stories,” Frances recalls, continuing, “I had no idea that people always check out bathrooms before they eat. People told me that because it often is the least-thought-of part, the bathroom is the one place that reveals the true nature of a business. People feel if the store pays attention to that level of detail, it gives them confidence, and that feeling extends to the rest of the business and makes them loyal.”

One woman told Frances that she and other middle-aged women plan their shopping trips around who has the best bathrooms, and will buy something in the store when they visit. Frances believes having clean bathrooms has given people another reason to come to her store. “I needed and wanted to do this, but I didn’t know how much of a difference it would make,” she concedes.

Seeing-Eye Dog
On the day the new bathrooms opened, the first customer Frances saw using the family handicap-accessible third bathroom was a blind man with his wife and seeing-eye dog. Frances had not known she had a blind customer, and realized that the store had not been able to accommodate them until now. Although the bathrooms have been open for over a year, “Every single day, customers tell me—or my staff gives me notes about how customers have told them—that they appreciate the effort we’ve taken to make their shopping experience more comfortable,” Frances remarks.

“January 2009 was the biggest month we’ve ever had, and our largest single day was at the end of February. Our first quarter was our best yet and,” Frances smiles, “my sister teases me, ‘It’s probably the bathrooms.’ I can’t say that, but it sends a message to our customers that we are serious about doing business, are doing well and are continuing to upgrade,” she surmises.

This Smells So Good
“We used granite countertops in our bathrooms, so there is room to put soap and lotion from the store and cycle through the products we carry, so soap and lotion sales have gone up,” Frances says, recounting, “Customers regularly say, ‘This smells so good, I want some of what was in the bathroom.’” The store is long and deep, so the bathrooms draw customers all the way to the back, past all of the merchandising displays, spurring impulse sales—on the way back from the bathroom, of course!

Nice, but Not Too Fancy
“I wanted the bathrooms to be nice, but not too fancy,” Frances recalls when making the decision to use real walls and real doors, which lets customers enjoy a high degree of comfort and privacy. “The privacy issue is huge,” she avers. “We opted for two stalls in the women’s bathroom rather than three, so that it wouldn’t be too narrow, and make you stand behind the toilet to get the door open,” Frances says, continuing, “The stall doors are louvered, so there is air flow, but they are private. We picked an old-fashioned well-pump-type faucet, so the water flows up out of it rather than below. It didn’t really cost more than the regular, and the granite is not really more expensive, but those details make a difference. Until we made the change, no one, or very few of us—customers, employees or myself—knew how much better and more comfortable it would be, and how tended-to our customers would feel.”

“I never felt, and customers didn’t feel they weren’t being treated well before, but the difference is so great, it shifts something. The psychological impact is hard to quantify. I have been flabbergasted at the response,” Frances confides.

Next time one of your customers speaks up, they may be giving you the key to surprising success…if you are listening. WF

Jay Jacobowitz is president and founder of Retail Insights®, a professional consulting service for natural products retailers established in 1998, and creator of Natural Insights for Well Being®, a holistic consumer marketing service designed especially for independent natural products retailers. With 31 years of wholesale and retail industry experience, Jay has assisted in developing over 800 successful natural products retail stores in the U.S. and abroad. Jay is a popular author, educator, and speaker, and is the merchandising editor of WholeFoods Magazine, for which he writes Merchandising Insights and Tip of the Month. Jay also serves the Natural Products Association in several capacities. Jay is next scheduled to deliver a talk at Healthy Harvest in Long Beach, CA called “The Future of Natural Product Retailing” on October 11 at 10:00 AM (exhibiting at booth 223). Jay also will give a seminar at NPA Northwest, October 16-19 in Seattle, WA (exhibiting at booth 237). He can be reached at (800)328-0855 or via e-mail at

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, Oct. 2009