Accounts in the retail sector can run the gamut from small, free-standing stores to sprawling shopping malls and big box, chain megastores. Art Rose, who has been servicing retail accounts since starting Mr. Clean Maintenance Systems in 1980, has cleaned them all.

The Bloomington, Calif.-based building service contractor has specialized in retail accounts since its beginning, and has built a strong focus on grocery customers.

Servicing retail accounts is in many ways no different from servicing any other type of account, Rose says; but every sector has its own distinct trends that dictate labor, product and service specifications.

In the world of retail cleaning, it's all about the customer's customer. The most important thing to customers is generating and growing business and revenue; attracting and keeping shoppers, in other words.

"The customer cares about their customer, which makes the sales floor number one, the highest priority," Rose says. "[Retailers] hire a contractor because they want to have a consistently clean look for their facility. In a sense, we're an image-maker."

Focus on Flooring

Retail accounts typically consider floor care the most important aspect of a BSC's job, Rose says. A clean, spotless floor goes a long way toward making an impression on customers, and conversely, a dirty floor can negatively affect a store's volume by turning off customers who won't return.

"So in that sense, there hasn't really been an evolution in retail cleaning," Rose says. "It's still the same result — how to make the store clean and presentable every day. The retailer decides what they want us to clean and we give them a price to clean it."

BSCs that service retail understand that those accounts typically require a larger investment in equipment, since machines are typically not provided by stores.

"Rather than just a maid cart and a vacuum cleaner, you have an auto-scrubber, a propane buffer, a swing buffer and possibly a vacuum. You have a larger investment going into retail than you do in most commercial accounts," Rose says.

Flooring types dictate the types of machines and chemicals used to clean and maintain floors, as well as the amount of labor required to do so. Carpeting has largely gone by the wayside in grocery store accounts, Rose says, and most grocery accounts now have either VCT, nonslip VCT or concrete floors.

"Probably the biggest challenge for us is that a polished concrete floor requires a lot less maintenance," Rose says. Part of the reason retailers are switching to concrete is that it costs less to clean and maintain, he adds.

Another reason is safety. Polished concrete floors are incredibly safer than waxed surfaces or surfaces that have floor finish, because concrete is not slippery when it's wet. One of the biggest problems in retail environments is that, while waxed and finished surfaces are relatively safe when they're dry, they are dangerously slippery when wet.

"When you spill something on a polished concrete floor, it's actually even less slippery than when it's dry," Rose says. "So safety-wise, it's a much more desirable flooring type."

Many retailers and grocery chains have climbed on board by installing polished concrete floors, but some have not had open minds when it comes to paying for ongoing maintenance, Rose says.

Over the last year or two, however, that has changed, as customers have come to the realization that regular maintenance with quality products and machines is crucial to preserving the look and life of a floor.

"One of the things that is frustrating for us is that all concrete polishers are not created equal. Some do an outstanding job and some of them do a really poor job. The poor performers have created a false perception in our marketplace that polished concrete doesn't deliver the long-lasting shine and reduced maintenance that it promised, " Rose says.

Mr. Clean uses a variety of different tools on concrete floors, including propane buffers, diamond-embedded buffing pads, and all-in-one machines that grind, polish, scrape, deep-scrub and strip. Some retail customers were sold a polished concrete program that only required one initial polishing, and from that point on, they expected it would only need to be cleaned, Rose says. But it has been proven that over a period of time, the polish on those floors does diminish, and they need further maintenance. Thanks to the company's expertise with grocery accounts, it is able to handle the full spectrum of polished concrete maintenance.

On a daily basis, polished concrete floors are dust-mopped and cleaned with an autoscrubber.

"The daily cleaning procedures are almost identical to the cleaning of a waxed floor except that you don't have to buff or reapply floor finish," Rose says. "You can just clean the floor. It's faster, it's more efficient and it's safer."

There are some challenges to polished concrete which you don't have with VCT or on a waxed floor; acid or oil stains that penetrate the concrete are much more difficult to get out, Rose says. At this point, the industry isn't offering a great solution to concrete stain prevention, he adds — but they're working on it.

Logistics and Liability

Retail accounts also present labor challenges — not only in training employees to use a variety of floor machines, but also in staffing and supervision. The logistics of operating in large geographic areas, and servicing chain stores that might suddenly add a BSC at new locations, can be difficult, says Rose.

"If you take on a large retailer, initially you may be awarded only a small number of stores. You need to take into account the nature of a 'chain' retailer. If you do good work and they like your service you may be asked to take on remote locations and/or locations outside the area in which you are currently doing business," Rose says. "Those are all things you need to think through when you decide whether you want to do retail."

Customer service in the corporate world is complex. Between store personnel and management, and corporate management, keeping customers happy can seem like it's next to impossible. Time and time again, Rose adds, store directors would express satisfaction with Mr. Clean's service at the same time a district manager or corporate staffer would have a problem with it.

"I think the high visibility of retail often makes it more intense than commercial accounts. It is complicated by having store employees, vendors and the general public as part of the equation. In comparison, commercial accounts are often empty or cleaned during off peak times," Rose says.

BSCs need to recognize the legal ramifications of taking on retail accounts, Rose says. No matter what a customer tells you, a janitorial contractor must be prepared to take liability. However, BSCs are not big enough to be able to provide all the liability insurance that a retailer needs.

"The transfer of liability to the contractor can't be the sole remedy for the slip-and-fall claims," Rose says. "The contractor can't survive it. There needs to be some kind of understanding of who is going to be responsible for what."

If a BSC causes an accident because of the work they're doing, they are going to be liable. Conversely, just because that contractor is working in that store doesn't mean it has to defend every slip-and-fall claim.

"You have to draw a clear line in the sand that says, 'We will only be responsible for the claims that are involving our work.' And then 'our work' has to be defined," Rose says.

Restrooms Important, Too

Another recent trend in grocery stores, which adds to the BSC's role as an image-maker, is an emphasis on consistently immaculate public restroom areas.

"These days, I'd say if any focus has changed, it's on trying to provide really clean restrooms," says Art Rose, president of Mr. Clean Maintenance Systems. "They're going to great lengths to make sure their restrooms are clean all the time."

One customer went so far as to install a two-lever hot water system in each restroom for Mr. Clean employees to use to clean and sanitize the room. Other customers have requested day porters.

The bottom line? Customers are willing to spend the additional money to provide a clean restroom for their customers. In an economic environment that remains rocky for many companies, an uptick in spending for attention to restrooms is a good sign.