As part of A Free Man's Interview 2009, the Strange, Dark Gypsy Girl asked questions about Munich. She visited some years ago during Oktoberfest, and saw the city at its most strained. Her questions raised two issues I'd been pondering for a long time, and this post addresses the first. Neither the Gypsy Girl nor The Honourable Husband respect taboos, so prepare yourself.
In Munich, are there still any of those toilets where the seats lift up and automatically spin around and clean themselves? That was the best $.25 I've ever spent for a piss.
Cool, aren’t they? Just look at that fine German* engineering!
For those who've never used a Robo-Can, here's how it works. After you flush, the blue arm (pictured) extends from the cistern, and the seat rotates underneath. It doesn't actually clean the pan, though. For that, the Chef des Toilettes often employs an actual, brush-wielding human.
Nowadays, Gypsy, a trip to the can costs a good deal more than you paid. For example, the McClean® Lavatory at Munich Hauptbahnhof used to charge € 0.60 for the pissoir and a whopping € 0.90 for the bog. Remember, this is Euro cents we’re talking. Not the lousy marks and pfennig you tossed in the slot a dozen years ago.
The McClean® Lavatory complex, and its Premium Pissoir.
Many people thought me a pervert, or at least a flake, to take pictures of a public convenience.
But I braved their scorn, Gypsy, in order to illustrate this important discussion.
Let's see. Brand-name plus differential pricing structure? I smell marketing.
And as a marketing kinda guy, it intrigued me. It intrigued me more to discover that the pissing had recently changed hands, so to speak. McClean, a Swiss enterprise with lavatories across three countries, including a flagship toilet in Paris, seems to have surrendered its contract.
The lavs at Munich station are now branded WC-Center, with sub-branding to Hering AG, a major construction firm.
Hering builds, among other things, space-age public conveniences. It astonished me to learn how many German firms compete in this arena. My fave is Wall AG, which not only makes toilets, but also won a German design prize for its Dogpile Disposal Unit.
A Public Function
Out of curiosity, I typed WC-Center.de into my URL window. It led me straight to the Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) homepage.
Has this toilet reverted to public ownership? It wouldn't surprise me. Here's why.
In Europe, many businesses outsource the management of their lavatory. Often, a woman who acts as an independent contractor keeps your facility clean. In exchange, she earns the right to place a tip jar at the door, and to scowl at misers who try to pee for free.
The entrance to a mom-and-pop pissoir in Austria, near the Italian border.
Don't forget to tip, children!
Most people would call it a fair arrangement. Simple, and beneficial to all concerned. Others, however, lust over the highly stable cash-flow. That's why many German public toilets are now corporatised.
I witnessed the great corporatisation extravaganza which occurred in the state of Victoria, Australia, in the 1990s. Pretty much every public body was turned into a corporation, so it could function as a business. Electricity, gas, water, highways, public transport, tourism promotion...even, at a federal level, public broadcasting. Some were split up into several businesses, so they could compete with each other. Many were sold.
I thought that Victoria had corporatised every possible public function. But I was wrong. On my first trip down a German Autobahn, I encountered Sanifair. The Refreshingly Different WC.
Sanifair is part of Autobahn Tank & Rast, itself a corporatisation of the rest areas on Autobahns.
T&R installed a turnstile with a coin slot, to make sure no shirkers pee on the sly. The turnstile issues you with a receipt. A Douglas Adams-style joke, perhaps? Not quite.
At first, I thought this might be a used by travelling salesmen, who can claim a visit to the john as a business expense. ("Herr Schmidt, your lavatory bill seems rather high this month. Are your sure you weren't entertaining someone?")
But the document has another purpose. The reciept is, in fact, a bon, or voucher which you can spend in the shop or cafe. The Sanifair website imakes their business strategy quite explicit; the tidiness of a rest-stop lav affects your decision to use the restaurant. A big, automated squeaky-clean loo makes a good impression, which invites you to grab a coffee or Cola Light. That's where they make the Big Kina. In marketing terms, your visit to the loo is a loss leader.
Can a toilet stand on its own?
Now, here's where the toilet in the main railway station comes unstuck. It's a toilet qua toilet. The station loo won't entice you to catch more trains. Are such toilets a viable business in their own right?
Once you've established a cash-flow and set a price, it's very difficult to grow the business. At least not by standard commercial means.
You can't hold a sale. ("Today only! Stalls half price!") You can't make promotional offers easily. ("Special All-Day Family Ticket!")
There are seldom two or three competing brands of lavatory from whom you can steal customers. The capital investment needed to build the other competitive lavs would eat up any overall gains.
You can't offer Frequent Dumper Points to encourage people to choose your bog more often. Like many loyalty programmes, you would only reward people for doing what they already do.
Perhaps the owners can build revenue through added-value services? I have seen men's rooms where one can shower, enjoy a shave, shine one's shoes, or find oral sex. Problem is, most railway stations yield many acceptable non-toilet venues for such things. .
No matter how good you make a toilet, you only visit when you gotta go. Gee, honey, I don't really have to pee, but this toilet is so nice I'll pay an extra call! I don't think so.
That leaves two options to increase revenue. Raise prices, or cut corners. Neither, really, is acceptable. At the end of the day, it's a public service which must be provided fairly. One of the first things to change when the Hauptbahnhof loo reverted to Bahn control, is that they scrapped differential pricing. Now, you pay € 0.70 for whichever bodily function you need perform.
In the 1990s, Australians discovered that the private companies which had bought their water, gas and electricity faced the same dilemma. Simply being in private hands generates few efficiencies, but adds the burden of shareholder demand for growth. With few savings for the consumer, little boost in capital investment, and some high profile failures in supply.
One might make the same observation of health care when it rests in private hands. Health offers few opportunities for businesses to grow, using conventional marketing techniques. Look, honey, Kaiser-Permanente is having a sale on colonoscopies this week. I think I'll stop by for a quick poke up the wazoo. Unlikely.
Call McKinsey. They'll figure it out.
So, Gypsy. Your innocent question about toilets leads me to two conclusions. Peeing should stay in public hands. And for sheer satisfaction, nothing beats a high-tech tinkle.
*EDIT: It turns out that they're not German at all. they're Swiss, like the McCleans. I learned this yesterday from an ad at Munich Airport. Exactly what marketing purpose does it serve, I wonder?