Superior product selection and pricing will always be the keys to driving sales. But store ambience, including total floor appearance, also plays a critical role in ensuring retail success.Supermarket operators say it is essential to provide a clean, attractive shopping environment, beginning with the store floor, to attract customers and win repeat business. Yet, in today's age of Efficient Consumer

Superior product selection and pricing will always be the keys to driving sales. But store ambience, including total floor appearance, also plays a critical role in ensuring retail success.

Supermarket operators say it is essential to provide a clean, attractive shopping environment, beginning with the store floor, to attract customers and win repeat business. Yet, in today's age of Efficient Consumer Response, driven by demands to trim operating costs wherever possible, retailers are searching for new ways to keep up floor maintenance programs without jeopardizing the budget bottom line.

The prime importance of having a superior floor maintenance program for supermarkets was underscored by one retailer.

"Customers will judge your product by the floors. A dirty floor implies a disorganized store and poor sanitation. We take floors very seriously," said Steve Neumann, director of operations at Roundy's Milwaukee division, Wauwatosa, Wis.

Indeed, to meet the challenge of having clean, attractive floors on a consistent basis, retailers are re-evaluating -- and when necessary, refining -- their in-house and third-party maintenance programs to gain the greatest benefits at the lowest cost.

Increasingly, retailers are relying on a combination of the two approaches to achieve the most desirable and affordable results. They are using in-store staff for daily cleaning of floors, while turning to professional services for the time-consuming job of stripping off old wax and applying several layers of new wax.

One main factor in deciding how frequently to have the floor refinished with new layers of wax, however, is cost. Tom Gailliot, vice president of store operations at Basics & Metro Food Centers, Randallstown, Md., tries to limit "stripping" to once a year.

Achieving that goal, without sacrificing high-gloss standards, though, can be a tall order. Indeed, some chains redo the wax finishes on their floors several times a year. But Gailliot has his own recipe for floor shine success.

"After sweeping up the debris, we clean the entire floor every night with a machine-powered scrubber, and then we buff with a high-speed propane buffer," Gailliot told SN.

To save time, the interior aisles sometimes are only mopped or scrubbed, and the buffing process skipped. What really keeps the shine going, Gailliot said, is top-scrubbing and applying a new coat of wax to a different section of the store each week, so that the entire facility is covered in a six- to eight-week cycle.

This type of diligent daily and weekly maintenance adds up to savings, he said.

"The longer you can go between having to completely strip and wax the floor, the more you save, because that's probably the most expensive part of the process," Gailliot said.

When it does come time to strip off the old wax and apply a new layer, Gailliot said, in-house staff can handle the job in smaller, lower volume stores.

But in higher volume stores, it is necessary to hire outside contractors to free in-house staff to perform other functions, such as restocking shelves. Gailliot also said he prefers the convenience and consistent quality of professional floor cleaners, especially for larger high-traffic units.

That is the opinion shared by many other retailers who hire third-party floor maintenance contractors, especially for stripping and waxing.

"We're always trying to cut costs, but we still want bright, clean floors. The store managers prefer professionals doing the strips, instead of a courtesy clerk," said Barbara Free, maintenance manager at Homeland Stores, Oklahoma City.

Two outside contractors service Homeland's 76 stores, Free said. The best method for ensuring optimal floor care with minimal cost, she said, involves stripping and rewaxing the floors quarterly, which eliminates the need for daily scrubbing.

With quarterly strips, the in-store staff only has to sweep and buff each day, with spot mopping as needed. "That saves a lot of money, not just on labor, but on machinery. We don't have to purchase or repair the scrubbers, which can be expensive," Free said.

Neumann of Roundy's agrees. While most of the retailers Roundy's supplies are independent operators responsible for their own maintenance, the eight company-managed units are maintained by an outside contractor, except for sweeping.

"For consistency overall, we've never had much luck with in-house programs. The lower quality of work, the high learning curve, employee turnover and avoiding the purchase of the equipment -- these all led to the decision to have an outside contractor," Neumann said.

"We've evolved from one or two nights a week of professional cleaning to five and seven nights, with quarterly strips and waxes," he added.

Although the contractor offers a discounted price for more frequent service, the costs are still high. "But it all comes down to the quality of the work, and we're willing to pay a little more for the consistency," Neumann said.

Often, retailers rely on their own personnel to maintain floors, simply because that's the way they've always done it. However, more and more retailers are re-evaluating their strategy.

Craig Miller, director of store services at Jitney Jungle Stores of America, Jackson, Miss., said his company decided to try using full-time contractors as one way to help reduce the maintenance budget. But the chain eventually decided to stick with using its own employees.

"A lot of bigger chains are using professionals, so we decided to try it. We found that our in-house program is more cost-effective and saves us about $350,000 a year," Miller said.

Miller cited several reasons for the chain's in-house program's success: it was already well-established, it was backed up with good on-site management, labor rates are lower and employee loyalty higher in the Southeast, and the chain offers a two-week training program that includes a video, wall chart and manual.

Jitney Jungle tries to limit floor strips to twice a year, work which the chain does contract out, but has a rigorous cleaning schedule that includes buffing and recoating the floors on a weekly basis.

"Clean floors are one of our company's top five goals, but prolonging time between strips means that the stores save money. That encourages managers to keep up their floors," Miller said.

Randalls Food Markets, Houston, also believes in relying on an in-house program to maintain its store floors. The store employees do everything from sweeping to stripping floors.

Although the chain is exploring whether hiring professional contractors makes sense in terms of budget and labor scheduling, Randalls is pleased with the present program, said Steve James, supplies buyer.

"We advertise ourselves as 'the cleanest stores in town.' And when you have an outside crew come in, you only have them for two hours and then you still have to maintain your store. I find we get better results from our own personnel and equipment," James said.

However, Neil True, vice president of store development at Abco Foods, Phoenix, said personnel headaches are precisely the reason why his company is strongly considering moving from an in-house program to professional cleaners.

"Custodians come and go. We no sooner get someone trained than they leave," True said.

Although an outside contractor may be more expensive, the consistency and peace of mind would be worth it, he said. "It may be more expensive, but we'll know that our floors are consistently clean. Plus, if we don't like the results, we can hire another company. There's a lot to floor maintenance," True said.

"We make our living selling groceries. We don't need to worry about our floors," he added.