Sleek lines and tinted windows are selling points for automobile manufacturers, and — in some cases — janitorial supply distributors. Just ask Al Taylor, executive vice president and COO of Mid-American Chemical Supply Co., Nicholasville, Ky.

Taylor is installing thousands of towel and tissue dispensers as well as several hundred soap dispensers throughout an automobile manufacturer’s 12 facilities. And if you ask him what role aesthetics played in the sale, he’ll tell you it helped seal the deal.

Taylor met with representatives from each of the company’s facilities and showed them a variety of dispensers.

“I brought a list of added values to the table, and aesthetics was on my list,” he says. “It made a big difference. They loved the look of the dispensers.”

The group chose a hands-free paper towel dispenser with a sleek, modern look, says Taylor, not unlike some of the new cars on the market. And the unit’s dark-tinted plastic cover is reminiscent of a car’s tinted windows. The company was even sold on the dispensers’ colors: black, red and gray.

“The company’s corporate colors are black and red, so the dispensers fit right in,” says Taylor.

In addition to paper towel dispensers, Taylor is installing matching toilet tissue and soap dispensers to create a uniform look throughout the company.

“The dispensers in the plush office areas are the same ones I’m installing on the factory floor,” he says. “In the automotive industry you’re dealing with a lot of engineers. I think the new dispensers appeal to their training and their eye.”

The Look Of Hands-free
Like Taylor, many distributors are seeing their customers place greater emphasis on the design of dispensers. Some are even adding a personal touch by customizing their dispensers with company logos or colors.

“Customers, especially high-end businesses, tend to go with touchless dispensers in the restrooms, which is what we try to promote,” says Karen Adams, owner of The Mop Bucket, North Kansas City, Mo.

And although appearance still takes a back seat to functionality, today’s hands-free dispensers successfully marry form and function so customers don’t have to compromise when it comes to choosing a dispenser that not only works well but matches their décor.

“I’m always looking for the hippest thing,” says Adams. “But if your dispenser is out of whack, it doesn’t make any difference what it looks like.”

“Hands-free dispensers are nice-looking dispensers,” agrees Kevin Ervin, sales manager, Dee Janitorial Supply Inc., Chicago. “We supply a lot of high-end, high-rise condominiums in Chicago, and they don’t want anything that looks chintzy. Because hands-free units are newer, they have a more modern, curvy design to them and less corners and angles so they’re easier to clean.”

When it comes to restroom aesthetics, cleanliness is next to godliness. “A more modern restroom with foam and touch-free dispensers conveys a cleaner appearance,” says Rebecca Langelier, office manager, Twin City Janitorial Supplies, Herculaneum, Mo. “With the focus on sanitation, these updated dispensers help customers feel like they are more germ-free.”

Hands-free units are also less likely to leak and leave a mess — another important factor when striving for a clean, attractive restroom.

Distributors are also seeing a move away from crank-style paper dispensers and “boxy” units with sharp corners that are not only less attractive but also more likely to lead to injuries if patrons bump up against them.

Match Point
As customers upgrade their dispensers, they are also giving more consideration to making sure they match other restroom fixtures — when they can afford to. Alex Monteith, president of Quaker City Paper, York, Pa., is noticing the trend, particularly in upscale office buildings and luxury hotels.

“They’re more conscious about it,” Monteith says.

And companies that are remodeling their buildings are more likely to invest in matching dispenser systems, he notes, because they’re already involved in choosing colors and designs for items like tiles and carpeting.

Ervin observes that, more often than not, customers would like their dispensers to be of the same brand or color, but budget constraints sometimes prevent them from replacing all their dispensers at the same time.

“A customer might have a paper towel dispenser that broke, and they have to replace it,” Ervin says. “The toilet tissue and soap dispensers might be 20 years old, but if they don’t have the money they’ll just replace the towel dispenser. In the ideal world they’d like to replace everything at once, but in the world of budgets, they look at price and replace what’s broken.”

When it comes to colors, distributors observe that customers tend to stick with dispensers in neutral colors, such as black, white and gray. But there is growing interest in matching those colors to the restroom’s overall décor or picking brighter colors that complement fixtures and furnishings.

“There’s a much greater variety of color today,” says Taylor. “You can get dispensers in every color of the rainbow.”

In some instances, stainless steel dispensers are being replaced with lightweight plastics in a wide range of colors. Taylor’s automobile manufacturer chose plastic dispensers, which easily fit over the company’s existing stainless steel inserts.

Monteith, on the other hand, tends to promote conservative colors, such as black and gray, or navy and white for environments such as nursing homes and hospitals. “I can imagine the nightmare of having to stock different colors,” he says.

The Pennsylvania Dutch market that Quaker City Paper serves is slow to adapt to new styles and colors: “We’re about a year behind New York and two years behind California,” Monteith says.

Nevertheless, some of his customers are beginning to show an interest in hands-free restrooms — from towel and tissue dispensers to auto flushers and faucets.

A Site To Behold
To help customers choose dispensers that are eye catching as well as functional, distributors typically conduct a site visit.

“We would look at the décor in the restroom and see what color basins the company has, what color scheme they’re going with, and what they have on the walls,” says Monteith. “If the company already has bright colors in the restroom, we recommend something more conservative, like gray or black.”

Monteith sometimes uses color to influence a sale. For example, if a customer wants a bright color that he doesn’t stock, he might suggest a more conservative color that doesn’t show dirt as easily.

Distributors often arrive at the customer’s site armed with a wide range of dispensers. In addition to color and style, size plays a significant roll in the dispensers’ aesthetics, they say. Many restrooms have limited space that calls for smaller, more streamlined units. Often, customers need to see the dispensers in the context of the restroom to determine whether or not they will be a good fit.

Adams doesn’t do site visits unless customers request them. But she is taking a unique approach to helping customers pick dispensers that complement their restrooms.

“We’re not your typical supply house,” she explains. “We have a real retail store with everything on the shelf.”

Adams is creating a store display with a toilet, sink, and fake mirror to showcase the company’s different dispensers.

“The average consumer is walking in the dark,” she says. “They don’t know what they need, and they have tight budgets.”

Customers need to see the dispensers, Adams adds. “A lot of times they have a mirror or small area to work with, so the issue is, will it fit?”

A quick glance around Adams’ store reinforces her stance on aesthetics. The company’s colors are teal and pink, and the company’s logo sports a mop bucket and a woman that “looks like Carol Burnett with her foot in the bucket,” says Adams. “I’m always trying to do something new and different.”

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.

The Drive for Design
Dispensers haven’t always been aesthetically pleasing. So what’s behind the trend to revamp restrooms with more attractive systems? For some companies, high-end dispensing systems have achieved the status of worthwhile investments.

“Manufacturers are no longer giving dispensers away,” says Alex Monteith, president of Quaker City Paper, York, Pa. “Now that customers are required to purchase them, they’re starting to demand what they feel is desirable for their restroom area.” Dispensers that are personalized with logos or custom colors also seem to deter vandals, say distributors.

Investing in upscale dispensers is one way that companies can give back to their employees, says Al Taylor, executive vice president and COO of Mid-American Chemical Supply Co., Nicholasville, Ky.

While installing new dispensers at an automobile manufacturer’s plant, Taylor had a chance to interact with the company’s employees. “I got a lot of positive feedback from them,” he says. “They really like these new dispensers. It may seem like a small thing, but if the employees are pleased when they walk into a bathroom and see these dispensers and how well they work, that’s a morale lifter.” — K.K.