A Golden Opportunity

By Paco Underhill, CEO & Founder, Envirosell 

In 1978, I published my first column in a design magazine. The piece was called “Viva La Difference” and talked about the lines at Lincoln Center on a Saturday night. Forty years later, I am threading the same needle.

Legend has it that the first women’s public restrooms were installed in the 1830s in a Philadelphia dry goods store. It was the first admission that women might need to pee outside the home. It was a scandal even in a city known as a bastion of liberal thought.

We’d like to think that catering to women’s need for absolution might have progressed in 175 years, but I am sad to report that the evolution is still in progress. Go to a Broadway show, a popular concert or a train station, and there is always a line at the ladies’ room. I had a girlfriend in college who as a matter of course would invade the men’s room in movie theaters to get to an unused stall. She was captain of the field hockey team and a fearless six-footer. I have met few women since with the same kind of courage.

The Australian Government reports that roughly 13 percent of the country’s population has some form of incontinence trouble. Pregnant and aging women lead the list. We know the adult diaper section is real and merchants are just learning that merchandising baby diapers and adult diapers in the same section may be logical to those without a problem, but to those with, and those caring for adults with it, it is at best insensitive, and at worst counterproductive.

If you look at historical blueprints of stadiums, airports, shopping malls, movie theaters and other public buildings, the square footage allocated to the men’s and women’s restrooms tends to be identical. Architects believe in symmetry. Yet in a men’s room, you can fit roughly twice the number of “positions” between stalls and urinals. From our database in movie theaters, the average amount of time spent in the women’s restroom is twice the average time spent in a men’s room—even when there isn’t a line. The Envirosell basic playbook is that if you are designing a facility where half your customers are female, the women’s restroom needs to be at least twice the size of the men’s room.

This gets back to a very basic premise. Is providing public facilities an amenity or cost? Or in our 21st century parlance, could it be a guerilla marketing opportunity? P&G brand Charmin has run public bathrooms as a publicity stunt in New York’s Time Square (each stall reportedly is cleaned after each user). I applaud their effort, since remarkable bathroom experiences get remarked about. From restaurants to New York’s Bryant Park, particularly women both appreciate and recognize the effort.
I wonder—whether at airports or home improvement centers—if bathrooms, particularly women’s rooms, could not be a concession? Rent the bathroom rights out to P&G; ask Kimberly-Clark or bathroom fixture manufacturers to showcase their wares. Washlets, Japanese-style bidets, contoured toilet seats, fancy toilet paper and more are only bought after trial. Transform the dreary public restroom experience into a golden sales opportunity.


Paco Underhill is the founder of Envirosell and author of the books “Why We Buy” and “What Women Want.” He shares his retail and consumer insights with design:retail in this bi-issue column.


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