Shoppers must wash hands

Special notice #1: I am participating in an online event called the Bathroom Blogfest. A bunch of female bloggers are posting this week about ladies rooms.

Special notice #2: I am about to bare my innermost secrets, and I hope you won't think I'm a horribly gross person. Thank you.

So I've been thinking about bathrooms for the past few weeks, and the trend that's shouting the loudest is cleanliness. We are obsessed with staying clean. This means toilets that flush automatically, plastic seat covers that whirr and rotate, sinks and soaps that sense your hands, paper towels that release with a wave, and fewer and fewer doors. Fewer doors? It's one less thing to touch.

We don't want to touch anything in the bathroom. We think every handle, button and lever is covered with an army of germs. And while Google produces a plethora of articles stating that my desk contains 400 times as many germs as a toilet seat, the notion persists that bathrooms are the dirtiest places on earth.

Bathrooms may be germy, but I still think our germophobia manifests itself in strange ways. This sign in RJ Grunts inspired two reactions, one right after another. "Hey, that's resourceful," followed by "Wait, what? Who has the time?" The logistics of actually grabbing a paper towel, using it to open the door, and then turning back to reach the garbage can are a little absurd to me.

Then again, that door probably has tons of germs. What if I got sick from touching it? What if the flu was going around and some lady had it and she touched the door and then I touched the door? I better use a paper towel. On second thought, I should wear gloves and a face mask. You know what, maybe I'll just stay home.

I think that when taken to its extreme, all this sanitary behavior can lead to isolation (not to mention stronger bacteria). People don't shake hands because they are nervous of passing on germs. Fine, why don't we all live in sterile sanctuaries, germ-free and human-interaction-free? We wouldn't have any social skills, but at least we'd have our health.

I think that for all the convenience these amenities bring, the main goal of bathroom sanitation is just to get people to wash their hands. If we would all just wash our hands, every day, every time, a lot of these fears would go away. Because, as my dad used to say, "I trust you. It's the other people that I don't trust." I might wash my hands, but if the woman before me did not, then by touching the doorknob I am erasing the effects of my own good habits. In other words, bathrooms need to do more than inspire me to wash my hands; they need to assure me that everyone else washed their hands too. It's kinda like driving - the system only works if everyone follows the rules.

So here's the embarassing part. I...don't always wash my hands. I mean, I do, the vast majority of the time. But not every single time. Once in a while, I'm in a rush. The hot-air dryer takes too long. The soap dries out my hands. There's no more paper towels. Plus, if nobody else is there, well, I feel like nobody will ever know. (Of course, writing this post kills that theory, but until now, I had that).

And I have reason to believe I'm not alone. Some friends have said that they usually wash hands in public places, but not always in their homes. I asked my boyfriend if guys always wash their hands, fully assuming that they do. He said, "Not always. But I thought girls always washed their hands!" Each thinking the other was the cleaner one, we had a good little embarassed laugh about it. But he echoed my sentiment - if somebody else is in the bathroom, it's a no-brainer.

So that's the key here - I would never, ever skip handwashing if somebody else was there. Because that social pressure is huge. If I just walk right out, what will they think of me? I know that if I saw them beeline from stall to exit, I would certainly judge them, however hypocritically.

This story details an observational survey where Harris Interactive researchers stood in bathrooms. They recorded that 90% of women and 75% of men washed their hands. But my problem with this study is fundamental: a person was standing in the bathroom, watching. If they had used discreet video cameras, I'm guessing the results would have been lower.

Now, I am by no means condoning wash-skipping behavior. I should wash my hands every single time; so should everyone. Handwashing is one of those universal tenets, like "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day." We know it's the right thing to do, and there's lots of persuasive statistics around it controlling the spread of disease. But obviously, this message either hasn't gotten out, or hasn't resonated with its target. So how do we design bathrooms that motivate people to wash their hands?

1. We can force it. Employees must wash hands, why not shoppers? We think it's part of the process, and we take it seriously here at Target/Starbucks/Disney World. You must wash hands in order to leave the bathroom. Perhaps you pay a dollar to enter, and after washing hands, that dollar is returned to you. Perhaps the door locks until your hands are clean. Of course these ideas are silly, but you get the point. A big red sign saying "SHOPPERS MUST WASH HANDS" would probably work just fine.

2. We can improve it. Here's some good-smelling lotion soap and soft paper towels. Here's a clean, dry counter to put your purse on. In fact, here's a special holder just for said purse, because we know how awkward it is to wash your hands while keeping it on your shoulder. Here's some flattering lighting and an inviting faucet handle. Here's some warm water followed by some cool water. Here's a big mitt that massages your hand as it washes it. Surely we can think of ways to make the process delightful and interesting. None are silver bullets, but they might begin to alleviate some of the barriers. For example, I find that washing my hands is more fun when they have that foamy soap. Negligible change in infrastructure; big difference in the experience.

3. We can socially influence it. This to me is the only surefire way to get average Joes and Josephinas to change their ways. It's also the toughest to imagine solutions for, but here goes. We can make people go to the bathroom in pairs. We can install windows in front of the sinks, so the people in the club/restaurant/office can see in. We can set up a "clean hand check" outside the door. We can make the sink area unisex. We can show photos of hip, beautiful people washing their hands. Or, we can hire Harris Interactive to stand in every restroom.

Social pressure can be used in all sorts of ways, in order to get people to do the right thing. It's pretty powerful. More than their own health (a sometimes distant, intangible thing), social rejection is immediate, and we all know how it feels. I think people would do a lot in order to avoid being judged, even by complete strangers. They might even wash their hands.


For more Bathroom Blogfest, see:

Church of the Customer
Customers Are Always
Customer Experience Crossroads
Fast Company Now
Flooring the Consumer
What I Do For a Living

PS: After writing this incredibly embarassing post, I can assure you that I will never skip handwashing again.


Wine for smarties

Tell me, friends, do you enjoy a good glass of wine?

Surely you must. Who doesn't these days? Because wine is hot. Wine is the new champagne, the new beer, the new dinner table conversation. Wine is the latest product category to become massclusive - elite yet widely available. First there was Two-Buck Chuck, then the movie Sideways, then we all had wine tasting parties and before you knew it, Business Week had hired a freaking wine columnist. All bets are off; wine is here to stay.

But as vino finagles its way into everyday culture, I'm bothered by a vastly overlooked truth: interest has far outpaced understanding. I'm talking about a specific conversation. It's an exchange I've heard so many times, I'm willing to bet you've heard it too. This is how it goes:

"Hey, this wine you brought is great."

"Thanks. Yeah, I like merlot."

"Me too. Merlot is good. (pause, switch to whisper) You know what's funny? I don't know anything about wine. So you know what I do - (glance around the room) - I choose based on the label!"

"Me too! I go by the label! I just pick one I like! Oh my gosh, I hope nobody hears us. We are such losers!"

Am I right? You have heard it, haven't you? This conversation is so commonplace, it's driving me crazy. For a couple of reasons.

Number one, it's perfectly normal to choose a product by its packaging. How do you think we choose almost every other product? Surely, we don't refine our taste for macaroni and cheese. We don't subscribe to Mac 'n Cheese Monthly or take summer tours of mac 'n cheeseries. We simply look at the box, like what we see, and buy it. No big deal. Folks, the packaging industry is not going anywhere, because for all the websites, advertising and product education in the world, something like 85% of purchase decisions are still made in the store.

Yet wine is held to such high standards, and expectations are so elevated, that to choose wine by the label seems somehow pedestrian. It's as if by liking a nice font or colorful graphic, we are just not "getting it." I am here to say that it's okay to choose by label. For most people, label is as good an indicator as any.

But that leads me to my other gripe. For all the fuss over wine, we are not given a whole lot of help when it comes to choosing "intelligently" in the store. Now surely, one can subscribe to Wine Spectator. One can buy any of the 206,083 wine-related books on Amazon. But honestly, how much work does it take? Someone should be making it easier for us to shop this increasingly complex product.


So here's my situation. I attend a fair amount of dinner parties. I'm tired of grabbing the same old Yellowtail from the corner liquor store. I'd like to stock up on wine that is unique, tasty and will impress my friends. Where do I go?

My fellow Chicagoans all point me to the same place: Sam's Wine and Spirits. Sam's is supposed to be the store that brings a wide variety of good wine to the masses. People say the store is huge, the variety is outstanding, and the staff are knowledgeable. So I make the trip.

And my friends are correct - Sam's is huge. It's an absolutely enormous warehouse. My immediate reaction is to feel very small, and very overwhelmed. But the concrete floors, wooden pallets and utility ladders remove any air of exclusivity, which is good. Okay, where to begin? I grab a small cart and start wandering.

It takes me about ten seconds to realize that the products are not organized the way I'd expect. Now I may or may not be a typical wine consumer, but here's my decision tree: color (red or white), then style (riesling or chardonnay or pinot grigio), then label (is it unique? does it have a fun name?), then price (preferably under $10). That's how I understand wine, so that's how I'd like to shop it. But 30 seconds in, I'm utterly confused. I pass a white, then a red, then another white. Color is obviously no help. I start looking for styles, but here's one pinot grigio, with no others in sight. How about price? The bottles in front of me are $9, then $90, then $19. Finally, I look up and notice the signs. Guess how the aisles are organized?

They are organized by region. Region of the world, and sometimes region of the country within the world. Now I hate to sound like a shlemiel, but this is a framework that demands some prior knowledge. A first-timer simply cannot shop by region. I tried! I like France, as far as countries go, so I start to look in the France section. Not so fast - that section is further divided into Alsace, Bordeaux, Provence, etc. Great.

I try to use my existing framework. I ask a salesperson if they have any riesling, already feeling a little silly. The guy says, "Sure. Are you looking for French, German or Italian riesling?" The answer, of course, is I don't know.

So I arbitrarily choose German. What the hey, my car is German, might as well give German a try. Once I enter the impossibly tall aisle, an employee asks if I need any help. "Sure," I say, "I'm looking for riesling." But there is no riesling section, and so he starts walking up and down the aisle, bringing me bottles to inspect. At this point, all I care about is price and label. But since the price tags are on the shelves, not the bottles, I take each bottle and walk back to wherever he found it, in an attempt to check its price. This is both inefficient and embarassing, as I don't have the heart to tell him I'm only buying $10-or-less bottles. So I indulge him for a few minutes, chasing him around and checking price tags behind his back. It was, in short, a mess.

In the end, I found 5 bottles of wine that fit my specifications. All were white. Two rieslings, two pinot grigios and a gewurztraminer (all types I know I like). All had unique labels, and one had a funny name. All were under $10. I was pleased with my choices, but it took me half an hour to find them. What regions were they from? I still don't know.


Some people might shop wine by color-style-price; others might go price-style-label or just label-price. Surely some people shop by region, and appreciate that Sam's gives their framework top priority. But I just don't think that region, for most people, is the first decision they want to make.

Now region can become primary, and after shopping at Sam's long enough, it probably will. Region is interesting because it's an educating framework. You try a wine from Greece, you like it, you go back to the Greece section, and one day you realize that you are partial to Greek wines. Region helps you form a "wine identity," if you will. But region should not be the first decision point in this enormous store's navigational hierarchy. It is far too complex for most people. Not that I don't enjoy learning about regions - I just think it needs to come farther down the chain of choices.

So here's my ideal wine warehouse shopping trip. First choice: color. I head to the whites section. Second choice: style. I head for the rieslings. Third choice: price. I browse the $10-and-under section. Last choice: all my subjective final decision-makers, such as label, flavors, region, age and vintage. That's when I'm open to suggestions; that's where I want to be educated. Not beforehand.

I'm aware that a lot of Sam's shoppers would be upset. Having become acclimated to shopping by region, they would surely throw their arms up in frustration. "This was the only place where I could always find my Chilean wines!"

But they could still find their Chilean wines. They'd just be called out at the product level. And more people might discover them this way, because if they knew they liked red wine, and enjoyed cabernet sauvignon, and wanted to spend $10-20, and thought the "duo" label looked cool, and thought a dark, meaty, juicy wine sounded up their alley, they could pick this one, and discover it was from Chile. If they liked it, they could look for more wines from Chile. Or more dark reds. Or more from the brand, Alto de Casablanca.

Sam's is doing a lot of difficult things well. It's advancing the industry by democratically sharing great information through its website, blog, educational seminars and tastings. People enjoy getting lost in its aisles as they scan labels, explore regions and learn about flavors. Shoppers at Sam's taste, try and return. But I believe even more people would feel confident about their purchases, rather than ashamed at their lack of knowledge, if the store's basic organizing framework were as inclusive as its warehouse-style vibe.


She is the store

Excuse me miss, but are you knitting?

If you are one of thousands of young women who has heard that question recently, you know that knitting isn't just for grandmas anymore. Knitting was declared "the new yoga" at the start of the millennium, and more and more young people are taking up this calming, creative craft.

Everywhere you look, the knitting wave continues to grow. My trendsetting city has yarn shops in practically every neighborhood, and when my friend and I started a local knitting group last year, we had no idea it would grow to over 250 members.

But I find a slight gap between the hip chick making a scarf on the train, and the place where she buys her yarn. Many knitting stores are, for lack of a better word, uncool. They display thick cabled sweaters and pea-green shawls. They are run by disconnected women who make up in yarn skills what they lack in people skills. They have punny names like Knitche, Have Ewe Any Wool? and We'll Keep You In Stitches. It's a decidedly frumpy retail landscape.

However, a few knitting stores have started to get it, and I'd like to highlight one that rises to the top. It's a small boutique near my house, and it's called Nina. "Nina," you ask, "what kind of a name is that?"

Well, the best way to describe Nina is through a parallel example. The Apple Store is often praised in this way: "It looks like the whole store was designed by one person." Friends, meet Nina.

Nina is a store designed by one woman. While I don't know this woman personally, after spending some time in her shop, I feel as though I've been to her home, met her family, looked through her closet and heard her life story. I feel like I know her inside and out. This is because she seems to have touched each nook and cranny, made each careful decision and essentially put herself into every element of the space.

Nina's personal style is unique and enviable. Her often-homeknit outfits simultaneously defy and create trends - sweaters with flared sleeves and intricate color patterns, matching wristwarmers and wraps. And Nina seems almost ageless. She often wears her long hair down. Her modern glasses are green. She's soft-spoken and sweet and yet, at the same time, very very cool.

And this personal style spills out into every detail of the space. Oversized needles frame the front window, a space made warm by a modern couch and enormous low-hanging lamp. Nina herself is small, and these proportions make you feel a bit like a child, or perhaps Alice in Wonderland. Blond tile floors practically match Nina's own hair. The clean walls and minimal wood shelves make each brightly colored ball of yarn pop that much more. And each product itself seems hand-selected, each blue the newest shade, each alpaca yarn the softest blend. From the lovely bamboo needles, to the pristine white iMac, to the graphically elegant shopping bags, every inch of Nina looks like, well, Nina.

The coherency found in this store is remarkable; everywhere you look, you see the vision of one person. But how might this translate to the larger world? Knitting retail is fragmented and inadequate. Could Nina expand her empire? Could she open even one more store?

My answer is, I hope not. In an industry where the product is so personal, the decision so tied to creative expression, having the owner's physical presence can make or break all the good design in the world. If Nina herself weren't there, I would have said "Nice shop," bought some yarn, and left. I think that without Nina at the counter to say hello, advise on gauging and suggest projects, as well as knit and model her own creations, the cool vibe would die down pretty quickly.

Then, to turn the issue around, could larger chains ever be like Nina? We've all heard of "brand nazis" and design language so tight no air gets through. Some stores come close to this level of cohesion, mostly brand spaces like Apple and Nike. But standards become more malleable with each successive person who uses them, and rules are bent, then broken, with each new store. Furthermore, you can't have your company's top retail designer also work the register at all your stores. Sadly, the laws of physics won't allow it.

Now admittedly, I don't want to share Nina. I want her to keep her store in my neighborhood and sell her cool yarn to me. She's helped knitting become chic, and I'm grateful.

But I also think if Nina wanted to expand her horizons, new stores wouldn't be her best bet. Perhaps she should open a retail consulting business, helping people find their own personal style and translating it into their store designs. She may be good at knitting, but she's good at retail too.

And so, Nina's shop remains unique. I will continue to shop there for the product, but also for the person. You can take the store out of Nina, but don't you dare take Nina out of her store.