By Mike G Zahajko

The battle lines in retail petroleum take to familiar trenches—Retail Basics—as the world implements drastic responses in the fight against COVID-19. Retail basics are safety, cleanliness and customer service.

These basic “customer experience” needs drive foot traffic and buying behavior. Gasbuddy data reveals the top three factors for c-store customers are outdoor lighting, cleanliness and customer service according to its 2019 “Best of the Best Gas Station Convenience Store Brands” report. The data shows that above average customer ratings in outdoor lighting, mostly connected to customers’ perception of safety, increases foot traffic by up to 15.9%. Cleanliness impacts foot traffic by 13.1% and customer service by 10.8%. Increased foot traffic is directly correlated to increased sales.

Still not convinced that the retail basics are critical?  In the mystery shop process, major oil company brands like Shell, BP and Chevron devote more than 60% of the total site score to the retail basic categories. If you are not sure that this applies to your location, take a moment and read through the reviews that your customers are writing and sharing online about their experience at your store. Top online review themes consistently mirror the same core issues of customer service, cleanliness and safety.

Safety has always been a critical component in the customer experience—even an imperative of doing business. Consumers perceive safety as a feeling and usually get cues from their environment in areas like lighting, employee uniform, even the improvement qualities of the facility. Since COVID, consumers now connect safety with cleanliness, merging the top two factors driving the customer experience into the single most important customer experience issue.

The International Council of Shopping Centers recently shared a study on the “Expectations for Businesses Reopening After COVID-19” that identified the top safety measure that would make consumers feel more comfortable visiting a physical establishment as “more frequent cleaning and sanitizing.” In another survey of nearly 17,000 c-store customers from Gasbuddy, customers listed cleanliness as the top factor in choosing which retailer to shop at–even above fuel price!  In the most recent report, cleanliness now drives foot traffic by up to 15.7%.

Clean stores attract more customers because they convey safety and security. When public safety and security concern is high, there is an easy way to signal “we’re open and you’re safe here”—let your customers see you cleaning. When customers drive up and actively see you wiping down surfaces and disinfecting high-touch areas around your sites, it gives them a sense of reassurance. You can show your customers that you care about their safety and well-being by cleaning and disinfecting your locations, without saying a single word.

Some retailers have special vests to identify them as the “cleaning crew.” Others utilize messaging over the intercom to remind employees and customers of the cleaning schedule. More than ever, consumers are paying attention to retailer messaging regarding the strategies taken to ensure safety.  In the Gasbuddy survey, 80% of consumers stated that they are “somewhat” or “very aware” of retailer response action communications.

Now that it is clear what customers want, delivering on the retail basics should be the easy part. Wrong!  If it was easy, just adding “cleaning” to the daily checklist would ensure a safe and positive customer experience in every store. And cleaning is likely already on most sites’ daily checklist.

Where to go from here? The retail basics require leadership support and engagement, which includes communicating priorities and expectations. Resources must be assigned and allocated. Labor usually makes up 80% of the cost of cleaning.  Another key to success is implementing a consistent cleaning program with products and training to fit your site needs. Use order data, mystery shop scores, online reviews and internal site audits to track the program success.

Too often key priorities start in the boardroom and are not properly communicated down to the store level.  Strong leaders clearly understand the vision and help front line employees by setting clear expectations. Once expectations are set, strong leaders provide communication to ensure understanding and properly train on the “why, how, what.”  Strong leaders also hold their teams accountable.

The final tip is to start with the most visible and high impact area first—the fueling area. About half of all c-store customers never come into the store and their entire experience is at the pumps. Maintaining a clean forecourt and being seen by your customer cleaning outside is the best first impression you can make and shows your customers that it is safe to come inside and shop.  As consumer expectations adjust post-COVID, there has never been a better opportunity to differentiate from the competition and win more business by delivering on the retail basics.


Mike G Zahajko, is the executive vice president, sales for CAF. CAF is a leader in outdoor cleaning and c-store image solutions. CAF helps convenience retailers eliminate their toughest cleaning challenges. Partnering with CAF means access to top-notch operational support, personalized training and award-winning products. For more about CAF, visit