Upon entering a store or mall, one of the first things customers notice is the appearance of the floors. Whether or not the floors look clean has a direct impact on how customers perceive the overall cleanliness of the building as well as the quality of the merchandise being sold.

“Floors are everything,” says Steve Gouterman, president of Accu-Clean, Inc., a cleaning firm based in Fairfax Station, Va., whose customers include large retail establishments such as IKEA. “If you walk into a place, what’s the first thing you notice? Would you possibly shop at a place that is dirty, especially if you are dealing with food? A bright shine solves all problems.”

Floor care in retail environments presents unique challenges for cleaning managers, but with a good cleaning program (and possibly the help of a trained contractor), managers can achieve showcase floors that customers will notice.

“We receive many positive comments about the shopping center’s aesthetic appearance,” says Sam Whitebread, operations manager for Fashion Show Mall, Las Vegas, Nev. Customers compliment the mall’s imported Bavarian limestone floors. “While this stone is very beautiful in its harvested state, its presentation is only enhanced by our detailed floor-care program.”

A different world
Office cleaning is a five-day-a-week job often conducted during early evening hours. Generally, there is no one around during cleaning and wear and tear caused by occupant traffic is limited. Not so for a malls, grocery stores, or other retail facilities.

Retail stores are typically open well into the evening and some are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Finding a time when customers are gone and employees are not restocking is difficult — limiting cleaning to the wee hours of the night and early morning. Plus, heavy foot traffic, shopping carts, food and drinks, and the like can trash the floors.

The difficulty of cleaning these well-worn floors, coupled with the sheer size of many retail spaces, means that it usually takes a larger crew and more time to clean a store or mall.

“In a high-rise you start at 5 in the evening and finish by 10 or 11. It’s only five days a week and the flooring is carpeting,” says Terry Hay, president of Scandinavian Building Services. The company cleans large retail spaces, including West Edmonton Mall, Alberta, Canada, which has nearly 1 million square feet of flooring and is open 24 hours a day.

“In retail environments, you work seven days a week, after midnight. And you’re working with hard surfaces that you have to wax, scrub and burnish. That’s all labor-intensive, slower mechanical work compared to using a feather duster and a vacuum cleaner.”

A well-laid plan
Retail housekeeping crews can spend 50 to 80 percent of their time dealing with floor care. As with any task, labor is the most expensive part of floor care. Therefore, it is wise to do everything possible to make floor maintenance easier and more efficient. The first step toward that goal is selecting low-maintenance floor materials.

Building owners and architects should work with their housekeeping managers to choose floor surfaces based not only on appearance but also on long-term maintenance needs.

“When owners and developers build a property, they can be their own worst enemy if they don’t take operations’ folks advice and choose the least labor-intensive materials,” says Joe Eugenio, director of maintenance service for The Rouse Company, which operates more than 150 properties in 22 states. “Let’s buy the right product up front so we’re not spending a lot of money replacing it or fixing it. Putting slick terrazzo in a bathroom, where you are going to have water on it all the time, doesn’t make sense.”

After spending thousands on flooring, don’t cut its life short with improper maintenance, contractors warn. A successful floor-care program includes a well-trained labor force, along with good timing and proper procedures, and equipment to maintain floor quality, appearance and safety.

Every floor surface is different, so cleaning procedures can vary. Generally, however, these are good guidelines to maintain the “wet look” desired in the retail sector:

    Daily maintenance is the most important step in floor care. This includes frequent dust mopping followed by damp mopping or auto-scrubbing. After removing dirt and grime, the next step is to burnish the floor, which can be done as often as daily. A mop-on restorer can be applied prior to burnishing once a month or more for extra shine and to preserve the finish.

    Interim maintenance should include scrubbing and recoating when floors show wear. This intensive and expensive step should happen every three to six months, depending on traffic levels.

    Restorative maintenance (stripping and refinishing floors) is the most expensive process in the floor-care program. It requires affected areas to be closed to shoppers. Vigilance in daily and interim maintenance can extend restorative care beyond the normal once-per-year frequency.

In addition to keeping the floors looking nice, a good maintenance plan must make safety a primary goal. Slip-and-fall accidents land 1 million people in the emergency room each year. They are also costly to businesses in the form of lawsuits and increased insurance premiums.

Customer safety
With 4.2 million square feet of floors and more than 400 million visitors in the last 14 years, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. has learned a thing or two about keeping its shoppers safe.

“A large percentage of that square-footage is hard flooring that needs continuous maintenance,” says Daminga Lash, the mall’s housekeeping manager. “In other words, we have a big job, and our number-one goal is the safety of our guests, tenants and employees.” The mall, which uses only in-house cleaning services, uses a slip-resistant product on its high-gloss floors to prevent falls.

The biggest obstacle to keeping retail floors clean and safe is time. When the store closes, it’s a mad dash to get in, get it cleaned, and get out. Businesses want the cleaning crew to be invisible to customers, which means the work has to be started after the store closes, and finished before it opens.

“It takes a tremendous amount of coordination,” Hay says. “We have a time frame that we can’t change. If we’re not done at 8 a.m., we’re in trouble.”

Other challenges include weather (debris tracked in on a shopper’s shoes can be carried as far as a block), employee turnover, equipment needs and failures, and extended store hours during special events or restocking.

Keeping on top of floor care in the hectic retail world is a big chore, but it is critical to get it right.

“If a customer walks in and you don’t have a floor that shines, that shopping experience isn’t a good one,” Hay says. “It’s extremely important to have consistently clean floors.”

Outsourced help
There’s help available for overwhelmed cleaning managers. Many retailers outsource all or part of their floor-care needs.

Cleaning the 2-million-square-foot Fashion Show mall is an enormous task that must be done daily. The mall contracts the work to Merchants Building Maintenance of Monteray Park, Calif.

“Outsourcing this piece of the operations has allowed us to control operating costs, improve focus, and free internal resources for other purposes,” Whitebread says.

When searching for a contractor, Whitebread looks for companies with a good reputation and competitive pricing. Three factors help him decide whether the contract will be renewed: if the contractor helps control costs, uses the most current technology, and exhibits a high level of customer service.

Most retail facilities outsource at least a portion of operations — managers like the efficiency benefits that come from hiring building services contractors.

There are enough retailers that want to outsource their floor care to keep Gouterman’s cleaning business busy and profitable. He understands his clients’ motivation.

“It gives them a chance to concentrate on their core business,” Gouterman says. “There’s no way they can be as efficient as we can. Leave it to the pros.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a free-lance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.