ICS Magazine

Building An Effective Retail Cleaning Program

March 15, 2001
A clean, inviting atmosphere is a key part of retail viability. Since most retail cleaning is outsourced, it’s important to know the basics of setting up a good retail maintenance program and what to look for in selecting contract services.

Dean Goforth, who founded Southern Cleaning Services, Inc. (SCSI), 16 years ago in Birmingham, Alabama, understands how facilities can achieve and maintain such an atmosphere. SCSI employs 600 people, many of them directly involved in cleaning retail facilities ranging in size from 200,000-500,000 square feet, within a nine-state region.

Planning the Relationship

Goforth encourages retail management to thoroughly get to know a prospective contractor. Talking with prospects at length is necessary, Goforth emphasizes. “I tell potential clients that we’re interested in being partners for the long-term, and that this is a marriage of sorts.” Understanding whom you’re getting “engaged” to is vital, Goforth says, since management philosophies and priorities vary. Look for contractors who are open and willing to share logistical details.

Goforth says extensive program development and planning are necessary to bring the job in cost-effectively—and that contractors should involve facility management in the planning process. “We basically blueprint the facility in terms of desired results, surfaces, and frequencies, develop in-depth plans that realistically show what each area will require in time, materials, and downtime—then share this information up front with retail management,” Goforth says. This method provides a solid basis for the contractor’s bid proposal, provides a basis for discussing specific aspects of the program, and ensures that expectations and the means of delivering those expectations are clearly defined.

Retail facilities often require far more detailed planning than a typical office complex. Office buildings have specific schedules, typically 8am to 5pm, with few exceptions. Traffic flow is fairly consistent. With retail facilities, traffic patterns and cleaning needs vary widely based on sales promotions, on-site events, holidays, weather, and other variables. They are open longer hours, cleaning tasks vary from hour-to-hour and day-to-day, and the cleaning staff must often be able to work around shoppers, while addressing safety, public relations, and quality issues. Of course, the simplest strategy is to schedule major cleaning tasks during low traffic periods, such as evenings.

Staffing & Training Issues

Goforth also encourages management to review the personnel hiring and training policies of a prospective contractor to provide assurance that only workers of high caliber will be allowed to clean the facility. Prospects who will share in detail their pre-employment screening process and training program show they have nothing to hide and leave little to chance.

Since staff training is critical, it’s important to look for companies that take the time to properly prepare new hires for the diverse challenges they will encounter. Retail facilities include a variety of floor surfaces—carpeting, vinyl and ceramic tile, marble, terrazzo and concrete—and cleaning/maintenance staff must be prepared with products, equipment and training to properly maintain these surfaces.

Some contractors develop training facilities that include every surface that workers will encounter in a retail or mall location. “Training workers in marble floor care, for instance, is easier when they can learn (and make mistakes) in a training facility rather than at the customer’s site,” Goforth says.

Look for companies that assign a dedicated trainer or team leader to new hires. The team leader should introduce the new worker to all of the tasks being performed at the job site (not just those he/she will be completing) and then work side-by-side with him or her until satisfied that the person is properly trained, at ease in the new position, and fully versed in safety issues.

Safety instruction includes not only the correct use and storage of chemicals and equipment, but also the proper placement of caution signs, the prevention of slips, trips and falls, interpretation of material safety data sheets (MSDS), and customer communication.

Alertness and proactive communication with shoppers are vital, Goforth stresses. For example, when a localized area in a 24-hour grocery store must be stripped and refinished, the floor zone is roped off and marked, but workers must watch for shoppers who disregard cautionary signs. SCSI trains workers to politely but firmly intercept such shoppers, to ask them which items they seek, then to bring them those items so that they will not try to enter a hazardous area.

Look for a service provider that puts safety programs in writing, trains employees until they are fluent in program implementation, and documents all procedures related to safety it performs at each jobsite. This approach ensures optimum safety levels, and a paper trail that protects the facility and its contractor in the event of a lawsuit alleging negligence.

Beyond that, look for service providers that teach their staff to go the extra mile when needed. “We try to teach our people to care and be alert. We’ve had employees actually replace uprooted mall plants without prompting,” Goforth says.

Equipment & Supplies

Be sure your contractor has the equipment needed to do the job and an equipment maintenance plan in place to keep those tools working properly. Request a list of equipment and supplies the contractor will use on site, and a copy of their equipment service and backup plans.

“Providing prospective customers a master list of equipment to be used on site is a means of showing that you’re well-prepared and serious about acquiring the contract,” Goforth says. In addition, sharing maintenance schedules (e.g., auto-scrubber inspections and service, calibration for propane burnishers, etc.) for each item of major equipment demonstrates the contractor is thorough, methodical, detail-oriented, and safety conscious. (See sidebar, Maintenance Tips for Automatic Scrubbers).

Consider other reasons to practice sound equipment maintenance. Worn auto-scrubber squeegees leave excess water on floors resulting in a possible slip-fall hazard; maintaining squeegees properly can minimize liability.

Poorly tuned propane burnishers can emit hazardous levels of carbon monoxide; keeping engines tuned ensures worker safety and longer machine service life while saving fuel.

Keeping machines clean is also important. Dirty, unkempt equipment reflects poorly on the entire retail operation, while clean equipment adorns a facility’s image. Cleaning equipment also prevents build-up of deposits and debris that can create drag, friction, and heat, which may wear out gears, stretch drive belts, and even burn out circuitry. In some cases, dirt or other build-up can mimic an equipment malfunction, resulting in an expensive but unnecessary service call.

In one major supermarket, workers ran to the manager and announced the auto-scrubber had broken down. A service call revealed the scrubber had simply not been cleaned, and the pick-up nozzle was clogged with lint and would not pick up spent solution.

John Walker, associate consultant with ManageMen, a Salt Lake City cleaning consulting firm, recommends daily logs be kept for each item of equipment to record each step in the routine maintenance process. “Then a supervisor needs to check that log entries reflect work that was actually performed,” he says. Technical maintenance and expert repairs are best left to qualified service personnel, he stresses.

Contractors who have a reputable equipment service provider on call can be sure of getting the job done even when equipment malfunctions. Independent service providers (ISPs) range from local shops that provide regional repair to multistate full-service companies that provide a broad spectrum of equipment maintenance offerings, including training in-house or contractor staff to service their own equipment.

ServiceStar, a multistate multi-line ISP, provides equipment service and backup for building service contractors and clients such as Kmart, Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Sam’s Club stores. The company promises short turn around time for equipment repairs. But it also provides a loaner while a machine is being repaired, eliminating cleaning interruptions.

Kmart’s Alabama facilities have used an ISP when facing equipment breakdowns. Facility manager Laurie Smith was referred to such a company when she could not find a rental company to provide the size floor scrubber she needed to replace her broken one. “They not only repaired the equipment, but also provided a loaner in the interval,” she says.

“This [loaner arrangement] allows a service center to take the proper amount of time to troubleshoot, repair, and test equipment without leaving the customer in the lurch,” says Larry Bush, technical supervisor for ServiceStar.

Some ISPs also provide on site training of in-house or contracted staff who want to service their own equipment. “It’s possible for unskilled employees to perform day-to-day maintenance of equipment provided they have the proper training,” says Bush.

Since manufacturers know their own equipment best, be sure your service provider stays up-to-date by regularly attending manufacturers’ authorized training centers or schools. “This gives service technicians the ability to offer quality maintenance and instruction on a wide range of equipment,” says Bush.

Finally, look for a contractor that has a system mindset in assembling equipment and supplies rather than a hodgepodge approach. For example, a unified system of floor coatings, cleaners and restorers from one manufacturer designed to use with that company’s machines usually works better than separately purchased products.

In many cases, for a variety of reasons, choice of floor coatings and cleaning solutions has been made at the retail corporate headquarters level. In those instances, look for a contractor who can follow instructions and will implement prescribed products and plans. Goforth explains: “Major retailers with their own programs have made a large investment to ensure optimum results, floor safety, and reduced liability. Floor finishes are selected, not only on the basis of product quality, but based on the manufacturer’s ability and commitment to support the retailer legally in the event of a slip/fall lawsuit.” Sensitivity to the retailer’s concerns and respect for the investment made in program development helps build long-term relationships between the contractor and retail chain, he says.

Facilitating Other Services

Of course, shopping center managers have more on their minds than cleaning, and a qualified maintenance provider can often facilitate services beyond janitorial. Ask your prospective contractor if he or she can help you with jobs like repairing HVAC systems, replacing ceiling tile or fixing a plumbing problem. Contractors who’ve established a provider network, can help to meet those requests at the lowest possible cost to the facility, thereby strengthening client/partner relationships. “That kind of network takes a long time to build,” Goforth says. “However, the more you can bring to the relationship, the more valuable you are. It makes the client’s job easier while securing you as a long-term player.”

Keep Goals in Mind and Communicate

Maintaining an ongoing relationship with a quality contract service provider is key to success, and that includes continually discussing overall maintenance objectives. A long-term goal might be 100% tenant satisfaction with mall cleanliness, measured by periodic surveys. While progress toward the goal may be evaluated after the first month under the new contract, and each month thereafter, adjustments may be needed to achieve or maintain it.

“On a regular basis, we evaluate with clients our progress in reaching mutual goals,” Goforth says. “The existence of a plan doesn’t necessarily mean you will always be able to execute that plan on schedule, and you want to reassure the client, maintaining their understanding, trust, and support in the process.”

In short, proper planning, staffing, training, equipment, supplies, delegation, goal setting and communication are key to building an effective retail cleaning program with your contract services provider.

SIDEBAR

Maintenance Tips for Automatic Scrubbers

Larry Bush, technical supervisor for ServiceStar (an independent service provider based in Birmingham, Ala.) recommends regularly examining the following:

Squeegees
The squeegees at the bottom direct and contain the water that is released as the machine moves. They contact the floor and wear quickly. Most need replacing every 100 hours.

Fit and Alignment
Check the fittings and alignment of squeegees, pads, and brushes. These can bump walls or pallets and be knocked out of alignment or damaged.

Battery Fluid and Charge
Check the water level and the battery charge (a basic voltage meter will work).

Electrical Components
Check fuses and electrical circuitry (circuit board testing is best handled by a service technician).

Brushes & Pads
Check the downward pressure exerted by brushes and pads. If there is too much pressure, they will wear out quickly. If there is not enough pressure, they won’t clean properly.

Cleaning Solutions
Make sure the right solution is being used for each type of surface. The wrong chemicals can damage finishes and machine components. Excess foam may impair vacuum fan motors and reduce efficiency.