CHICAGO — Even if you’re not a literary scholar, most of you are probably familiar with William Shakespeare’s famous phrase: “To be or not to be.” For self-service laundry owners, “To be or not to be” may come to mind when deciding whether to open an attended or unattended store.
While industry representatives have long claimed that there is no “magic” formula when it comes to the attended/unattended decision, most agree that there are basic factors that affect one’s call. For example, if you have a large store (more than 2,000 square feet) and want to offer extra services, the attended route is the way to go. The larger stores require more cleaning and have more equipment that needs to be cared for. The extra equipment also generates extra revenue, which helps pays for the attendant.
If you have a small store or two (1,500 square feet or so) and don’t want to spend time at the store(s), being unattended is an option. If you don’t have extra services or enough work for an attendant, why do you want the hassle of dealing with employees? With fewer machines there is also less revenue. Do you really want to cut into your profits by paying an attendant?
Are you thinking about opening a new store and wondering if you need attendants? Now is a great time to take another look at this age-old industry debate.
American Coin-Op recently spoke with industry representatives about the attended vs. unattended issue. The self-service laundry industry continues to evolve, and some of the following opinions may cause you to look at this question in a different light.
FEWER UNATTENDED STORES ON HORIZON
Bowe believes many investors are attracted to the industry because stores are not required to be attended. “This can be a very good investment for absentee owners. Store owners will save roughly 14% in labor expenses as compared to overall gross income.” (The 14% figure varies, depending on the geographic area, he adds.) Owners also have the challenge of overseeing employees, he says.
Bowe believes that the No. 1 concern for unattended store owners is losing business to attended competitors. “Many customers look for a safe, clean and family-friendly facility when deciding where to perform the weekly chore of laundry.”
There are two main reasons for having attendants, Bowe says. First, laundries are similar to other on-street retail businesses in that consumers continue to demand better products and better services. “In our business, the typical customer is a female with children. Knowing this, Laundromats should be designed and operated with safety, cleanliness and superior customer service as prerequisites. Having your store either fully or partially attended is really the best way to execute this strategy.”
The other reason for having attendants is offering extra services. This includes common services such as drop-off work and other services such as alterations and offering food.
One common mistake owners make is believing that one employee can perform multiple tasks at the same time and do them well, he says.
From a site analytic standpoint, unattended stores make sense in areas that have little competition and are considered safe from crime, Bowe opines. “Typical demographics most likely include rural areas with small populations.”
Bowe also believes that most stores, regardless of size, should be at least partially attended. “Today’s consumer has a plethora of choices with most retail options, and laundry is no different. Offering superior services and offerings is important for all store owners.”
Offering superior customer service factors in when introducing new technology. “I think it would be very risky for a store owner to introduce any new payment system without also investing in attendants.”
If you are set on going unattended, Bowe suggests hiring a cleaning service, designing the store for safety, and including visible video surveillance. However, artificial equipment doesn’t make up for a smiling face welcoming customers and making them feel safe, he adds.
If Bowe operated an attended store, he would market the fact that attendants were on duty. “You can do everything right, but if you don’t let anyone know what you are doing, you are only taking the strategy half way.”
Bowe predicts that unattended stores won’t totally vanish, but will slowly disappear to historically low levels because so much has changed during the last 10 to 15 years. “Stores are larger, cleaner and offer more amenities than ever before. Likewise, today’s store owners are also becoming more sophisticated and more in-tune with consumer behavior.”
YOU STILL NEED HELP
In Pennsylvania, he estimates about 50% of the stores are unattended because the state has the largest rural population in the United States. “It’s also an older population, and you just can’t have big stores in some of those rural areas,” he says. In the larger urban areas of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, almost all the laundries are attended, he adds.
The average rural, unattended store is usually between 1,500 and 2,500 square feet, he estimates, although size isn’t the only factor in determining if a store should be attended. “It’s all about having the revenue to pay for a person.”
Owners of unattended stores still need someone to work at the store for several hours a day, he advises. Someone must clean up and open and close the store (unless the store has self-locking doors). A dirty store will lose customers, he believes. “Customers can be lost forever.” A lost customer means losing $500 to $1,500 a year, he estimates.
Another unattended concern is introducing new equipment. “There is a learning curve with new machinery. The new machines use less detergent. People don’t read the signage about machine usage.” LaMaina advises store owners to spend some time at the unattended store when new equipment is installed.
Store refunds are another concern. When it comes to refunds, make sure to have the proper signage and have a working phone number for customers to contact you, he suggests.
The No. 1 concern for an attended owner is managing people. “Labor is more than a pricing issue,” he warns. “The owner of an attended store must deal with budgeting, bookkeeping and supervision.”
LaMaina would market the fact that his store is attended. “Being attended is a great benefit. All things being equal, some customers would rather go to an attended store. Customers want help at times and feel safer with someone around. People like people.”
Even though unattended stores present certain challenges, LaMaina says they will always be around because some stores don’t generate enough revenue to pay employees.
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