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Public washrooms: The peak-end rule to improve customer experiences

Customer loyalty: it’s a hugely important concept for any business, but one that’s been notoriously hard to secure. Think about your own experiences with the brands that you love. What is it that keeps you coming back? Is it the convenience of its location or the great customer service? Is it the stock selection, the products on offer? Or is it something else entirely: the overall experience of that business from the moment you walk through the doo to the moment of departure?

Common sense tells us that our perception of a brand or business, and our loyalty to it, will come down to a combination of all these factors and more. It’s the overall experience that matters: we weigh up the totality of any experience to decide whether we go back or not.

However, common sense can deceive us. What seems more likely is that customer loyalty comes down to our memories of experiences; and these memories can often be biased. In the study, When More Pain Is Preferred to Less: Adding a Better End, a team of scientists, which included Daniel Kahneman, found evidence of the peak-end rule. They found that people judge the overall quality of an event based on the moment of peak intensity and the final stage of the event. Our memories are therefore biased to these peak and end moments.

Dirty toilet

As businesses look to build customer loyalty, they must therefore do all in their power to limit any negative emotional responses which could come into play during the experience. For example, during a visit to a department store, if a bad bathroom experience is the most salient or the end part of the person’s experience this can impact their lasting overall impression of the visit. This subsequently could influence future behaviour and likelihood to return. And this example doesn’t just hold for retail: any business should look to optimise every part of the washroom experience to ensure it doesn’t become the most salient part of the customer experience.

Scent plays an important role here because no other sense is linked so strongly to memory and emotion: studies have shown that there’s a strong link between the systems in the brain used for smelling and those used for processing emotions and memory[1]. We’re also highly adept at distinguishing and recognising scents that we we’ve smelled before: even after long periods of time, scent associations are deeply rooted in memory and emotion[2].

People spent 2.5 seconds less in a bad smelling washroom

Our study, The Physiological Impact of Washroom Hygiene, further demonstrates just how important scent is in influencing our behaviours and memories. In the experiments we carried out for the study, participants were led into a variety of washrooms situations which included a range of hygiene conditions such as an overflowing Female Hygiene Unit, unflushed toilets and toilet paper littering the floor. Participants were exposed to these environments in both good smell and bad smell conditions. Significantly, we found that the memory of an unpleasant washroom lasted longer in bad smell environments. Following the bathroom experience, people rated their disgust higher in the bad smell environment (+24%) compared to the good smell environment, and cleanliness lower (-8%).

Our experiment also found that people are more likely to make a quick exit from bad smelling washrooms. The average time spend in such conditions was just 11 seconds, compared to 13.5 seconds for nice smelling washrooms. These findings align with the 2017 Aircare Report, which not only found that 88% of people would get in and out as quickly as possible upon entering a malodorous washroom, but that 67% would be less likely to shop there again.

Clearly, there’s a link between customer loyalty and the washroom experience. If an organisation want to keep people coming back, they must do more than optimise the front-end customer experience: they must also ensure there are no negative elements to the experience – and that includes in the washroom. Air care solutions can help. By creating a fresh smelling washroom, retailers can dampen the emotional and physiological effects of visiting a public washroom and help mitigate the peak-end rule. With this threat neutralised, businesses can focus on making the rest of the customer experience stand out.

Washroom hygiene and the peak-end rule


[1] Herz, R.S. & Engen,T.(1996). Odour memory: Review and analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 3(3), 300–313.

[2] Schab, F.R. & Crowder,R.G. (1995). Implicit measures of odor memory. In F.R. Schab & R.G.Crowder(Eds.), Memory for odours (pp.72–91). Florence,KY: Psychology Press.

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