Can you guess what it is yet? We're talking toilets, of course, and the fact that those little porcelain plumbing fixtures can be worth their weight in gold.
The squeeze on local authority budgets has prompted a 40%-plus decline in the number of public toilets on Britain's streets, and with a further barrage of cuts expected in 2010 and 11, the problem is only set to get worse. The issue is particularly pressing for the elderly and parents of young children, but hey, even Joe Bloggs can get caught short. And that's why a growing number of convenience store retailers are opting to step in and offer relief and make a few pounds as people spend their pennies.
"With their prominent high street and village centre positions, many convenience stores are ideally located to offer toilet facilities to local people," says the British Toilet Association managing director Mike Bone. And as this feature goes on to demonstrate, stores which offer good customer facilities can be rewarded with a rosier reputation and increased footfall and sales particularly if as Bone suggests, retailers plaster their toilet walls in promotional posters.
However, despite the many pros, plenty of retailers remain reluctant. Perhaps the biggest barrier faced by owners of older, converted stores is access. Toilet facilities in these stores tend to be nowhere near the shop floor, making it incredibly difficult to offer for public use.
Cleaning and maintenance are also concerns, as is avoiding damage and graffiti. "Close supervision of the facilities with regular checks and prompt rectification of any defects is a challenge that retailers would need to overcome," adds Bone. "Although research shows that the cleaner and better quality the facilities are, the less likely they are to be abused."
One retailer who is now reaping the rewards after overcoming these challenges is Chris Woodruff, owner of Jet's Darsham forecourt store in Suffolk. Less than two months after a significant refit, Chris' new toilets have become a vital part of his store mix.
"I needed to find a way of boosting the store's footfall, but being a service station means my customer base is incredibly wide, so there was no point in shelling out on local advertising. Improving the toilets was the best long-term investment," he says.
Chris more than doubled the size of both the men's and ladies' facilities, adding large disabled cubicles into both, and a new family room to enable men to take their children to the loo "without any awkwardness".
A smooth resin floor was laid to ensure that the facilities were easy to clean, and a hand blower was installed to avoid littering the floors with stray paper towels.
"The cleaning is done in-house, and now that we have some good systems in place maintenance is no problem," adds Chris.
The facilities are checked throughout the day and a proper clean done at each staff changeover. "The staff are happy to do it because they understand that good facilities lead to happy customers and repeat visits."
And so what do customers think of their new loos? Well, the figures speak for themselves. In the first month of opening the store took 20% more sales as thoroughly relieved customers filled up again on drinks and snacks.
"It's amazing how much people value good facilities, and word gets around fast," adds Chris. "I now regularly get people coming in who tell me 'We always used to stop at Wyevale garden centre, but your facilities are so much better'. We've become a real destination store."
Yvonne Todd, manager of Eurospar Hillcrest in Portrush, County Antrim, has had a similarly positive experience following her toilet refurb. Unlike Chris, whose forecourt store had always provided a toilet facility for shoppers, the design of Yvonne's store meant that customer toilets were not part of the remit. "We had toilets for staff, but these were located at the back of the stockroom," Yvonne says. "We would never have refused a desperate shopper use of our staff facilities, but it was not convenient as a member of staff would have to stop what they were doing to escort them through the stockroom and back out again."
However, the inconvenience to staff wasn't Yvonne's biggest concern. "Like most stores we weren't insured for customer injuries once they left the safety of the shopfloor," says Yvonne. "If a child had fallen and hurt themselves on the way to the loo we would have had a big problem. Something had to be done and fast."
As a result a new customer toilet was installed as part of a major refit. "Our customers are so grateful for the new loo. It saves so much awkwardness for everyone."
If you have toilet facilities, but are dubious of opening them up to the public, or lack the funds needed to do up and/or maintain a decent customer toilet, then joining one of the rapidly spreading Community Toilet Schemes (CTS) could be the way forward.
The UK's first CTS was launched in Richmond upon Thames in 2004, and a large number of local authorities have since copied the Richmond example. Street signage indicates the name and direction of participating businesses and stores are provided with window stickers to flag up their facilities.
"In addition to the increased footfall they get, stores signed up to the scheme also receive £600 a year from the council to cover any costs," Richmond Council's communications officer Pete Le Riche explains.
More than 40 shops, pubs and cafés are signed up to the Richmond scheme, but Pete would like to see more, and says that developers can play a critical role in making this happen.
"While older shops can be hindered by their design, when building a new store or refurbishing an existing one designers and developers should think about locating their lavatory facilities so they are more easily accessible and can be used by the public," he says.
This is exactly what happened at a Co-operative Group store in Enfield. Manager Sutha Raj said the new CTS facility has been welcomed by his customer base, many of whom are elderly. "The extra money helps us to pay a specialist cleaning company, who keep everything looking ship shape," he adds.
And if you're not able to provide an in-store solution, but keen to help the community with this tricky problem, you could always do what Kanna Jeyamugunthan's does. The Budgens Stoneleigh store owner has pledged to donate £7,000 a year to help keep the nearby public loos in business.
Admirable though Kanna's plans are, the Lanreath Village Store and Post Office in Looe (seriously), Cornwall, has gone a step further. Despite the pot plants and promotional posters, the store's sturdy stone walls and small high windows give away its previous function: yes, you've guessed it, the store used to be a public toilet.
The community owned store now provides free toilet facilities for customers and passers-by. "The toilet is probably one of the most vital services that we offer," volunteer worker Sue Miller says. "The area attracts lots of walkers and tourists who are always grateful to find a nice loo after a long journey, and if they come in to buy water or some cookies that's an added bonus."
Isn't it time it was all cisterns go at your store?
Always ensure that doors are capable of being locked from the inside
Never let supplies of loo roll and soap run dry l A mirror above the basins can maximise the sense of space and light in a small room
Hand driers might be pricier initially, but in the long run they can save time on cleaning up loose towels
Give one member of staff responsibility for the area and ensure that hourly checks are carried out
Smooth, level flooring, such as resin, will prevent excess water pooling in gaps where it can rot and create a slip hazard
If you provide accessible toilets for disabled people they must comply with the Disability Discrimination Act
Promotional posters on the back of toilet doors can boost sales, but be sure to replace them should they become dirty or damaged.