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A Bahamian Fact-Finding Holiday

Howard Scott |

PEMBROKE, Mass. — So, what will you do on vacation? The last time I went on vacation, I jogged the beach, went swimming, biked around the island, read several books, ate at a few good restaurants, and visited a Laundromat called Stop N’ Wash.

Yes, this was my itinerary during my month-long winter vacation in Freeport, Grand Bahama Island, Bahamas.

When I found the Laundromat, I went several times to see how business was, what was going on, and to get a sense of customer satisfaction. It wasn’t that I needed to use the Laundromat either. Our condo had laundry facilities down the corridor. It was just that I wanted to learn something. And on vacation, so should you.

Here’s what I learned. Freeport is the only city on Grand Bahama Island. The island has a population of 52,000, and more than 80% live in Freeport. There are two or three Laundromats in the city. I say two or three because businesses often close down and/or reopen. One never knows for sure if something is a going concern. The economy is extremely weak.

Unlike its sister island, Nassau, Grand Bahama Island hasn’t successfully integrated tourism into its economy. Possibly that’s because of the port authority, which is controlled by a Chinese consortium, The Hutchison Group, and tariffs raise prices dramatically. Possibly it’s the local politics, which seems to be stuck in rhetoric.

The island is plagued by failing condos, high hotel mortality, and crime. Everywhere you go, you see half-built concrete-block structures alongside modern, 9-story hotels. It can be said that this beautiful island, with tropical weather all year long, just can’t seem to get its act together.

Against this backdrop is Stop N’ Wash, a seemingly successful Laundromat that’s been in business for seven years. Although small (only 1,200 square feet), and located in a small mall in the village of Bohemia—slightly away from the main business areas—the Laundromat continues to do brisk business. I visited the shop on a Monday, Thursday evening, and Sunday morning. The facility has about 20 machines. It was always busy, with eight or 10 customers. Sunday morning particularly is a hubbub of activity.

I spoke to several customers whose comments are instructive:

“This place is the only one on the island that takes care of its machines. Everything works. If, occasionally, a machine is down, there is always an ‘out of order’ sign on it. And if necessary, the attendant will refund my money. I’ve never had any problems.”

“Man, this is where we go to have our clothes clean.”

“I like to come here. We live on a boat, and it’s always nice to find a hospitable place. The snack bar has very good, very cheap food.”

Yes, the snack bar is at one end of the facility. It features soft drinks, hot dogs, curry chicken, and snacks. Most Laundromat customers order something from the snack bar. The server doubles as the attendant. She solves Laundromat customer problems. She is empowered to give out money if money is lost in machines. So, in effect, there is an attendant on premises, because the snack bar is open most of the hours that the Laundromat is open.

Despite the poorness of the island and the poorness of the people, prices are not cheap. A top-loader costs $1.50 for a wash. A dryer costs $1 for five minutes plus 25 cents for each additional minute. Nevertheless, as one customer says, “It makes cleaning clothes so much easier. Our house doesn’t have the water pressure to do laundry well.” Evidently, this is a common problem, which adds to the trade.

Another says, “Cleaning clothes used to be a big deal. Now it’s no big deal. Someone brings the clothes here every Sunday morning. We get it done right after church.”

Still another says, “I come from Holmes Rock, several miles away, but this is the only Laundromat whose machines work. Besides, I really like the beef jerky they serve here in the snack bar.”

Yet another patron offers her comments, “Yes, it’s expensive to clean our clothes, but food is expensive, too. At Solomon’s, we’re always spending more than we should. But, just as you have to eat, so you have to have clean clothes. So it’s a no-brainer.”

So what have we learned?

First, even in places with poor population bases, people use Laundromats to clean their clothes. Thus there’s no excuse why you can’t win your share of business in your market. The key is to make it effortless and stress-free for them to do the clothes. And give them something to do with their time. In this case, it’s having a snack.

Second, consider having a snack bar as part of your operation. If you have the room and if there isn’t a snack bar in the area, a manned snack bar might be just the inducement to get people to come. I don’t know why but I’ve never seen this done in any U.S. Laundromat. It seems like an obvious answer to coverage. It’s simply expanding from food vending machines to a full-fledged manned snack bar.

Customers come in to do their laundry and wind up having lunch. Or they wind up having an evening snack. A second bonus is that the store is manned. The server acts as an attendant, and handles all problems or at least takes down information needed to solve problems.

Third, charge the price you must, which is the price where you make a profit at a given volume, and let the market sort it out. Don’t be afraid to charge what you need to charge. If you do a good job, customers will beat a path to you.

To rephrase, good service trumps low prices.

Next time you go on vacation, have a great time. But also search out the competition, and learn something. Take home a trick, practice, or notion you can implement in your business that will improve your operation.

About the author

Howard Scott

H&R Block

Industry Writer, Drycleaning Consultant, and H&R Block Tax Preparer

Howard Scott is a longtime industry writer and drycleaning consultant, and an H&R Block tax preparer specializing in small businesses. He welcomes questions and comments, and can be reached by writing Howard Scott, Dancing Hill, Pembroke, MA 02359.

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