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Being Customer-Friendly (Part 2)

Cleanliness and great lighting are non-negotiable in today’s market: Bowie

CHICAGO — Everyone of us is a customer. We buy goods from big box stores and neighborhood groceries. We dine in elegant restaurants or grab a bite from a fast food drive-thru on our way home. We try to burn off those calories during trips to the gym. And the list goes on.

So, when you visit one of these businesses, are you more likely to have a good experience and plan to return in the future if Company XYZ is a) warm and welcoming or b) cold and indifferent.

Indeed, stores that are welcoming, bright and secure draw more business than their dark, dank competitors.

American Coin-Op reached out to several industry experts this month and asked them to share what they think it takes for a self-service laundry to be customer-friendly through and through.

Q: Please describe how a store can make itself customer-friendly through the following:

EXTERIOR APPEARANCE AND SIGNAGE

Randy Karn, global service manager for equipment manufacturer Whirlpool Corporation Commercial Laundry: Finding the right location and the best equipment is a sizable investment, one that deserves careful thought as to how best to communicate and engage with customers. Starting from the outside in, a clean, well-kept and well-lit store helps encourage traffic, and an inviting atmosphere can demonstrate an owner’s commitment to helping customers feel welcome.

From an exterior marketing standpoint, branded banners and easy-to-recognize exterior signage can help dress the store up. Other marketing tactics such as flyers, posters, online promotions, social media, door hangers and postcards can be used to promote store times, services and specials. Special themed events such as pizza night or open houses can help encourage customers to come in and try a store for the first time, while “day of” promotions or discounts can help incentivize return visits.

Michael Mastorides, owner of Electrolux distributor Masters Laundry, and a multi-store owner: On the distribution side, we just hired someone whose responsibility is going to be just that: the “business card,” the front of that store, the first 10 feet where they walk in, much like retail stores. That’s going to give the customer an impression of what they’re going to experience when they venture deeper into the store. As far as signage goes, it used to be big, bright, bold. We’re kind of scaling that back, making it more subtle, a very café-type feel.

Kathryn Rowen, North American sales manager for equipment maker Huebsch: Clearly articulate what your store offers and why. Ensure the text is as legible as possible from the road or a distance.

Steve Bowie, national sales manager for equipment manufacturer Speed Queen Commercial: Signage should “pop” from the street view as people drive by. Make sure it is well lit to increase visibility at night.

Kevin Hietpas, director of sales for equipment maker Dexter Laundry: There is an old saying: “A business with no sign is no business at all.” Owners should look at their exterior/signage and ask themselves what their sign says about their business. If they don’t like what it says, it’s time for a change.

DAYS AND HOURS OF OPERATION

Mastorides: We’ve experimented many times with 24 hours (a day) in different marketplaces. … I don’t see 24 hours as a big benefit in most marketplaces. I see 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., and that’s it.

Rowen: The last thing you want to do is disappoint someone who has committed to patronizing your business. Be crystal clear about when the doors open and when the last load goes into the washers. Remember, it’s all about convenience for the customer, not necessarily when it’s convenient for you to be there.

Bowie: Focus on convenience. The more hours your store is open, the greater the opportunities it has to spread out usage peaks and valleys. Make sure your hours are posted and are accurate. If you decide to alter them, make sure to note it in the store and online, so customers can prepare for the changes.

Hietpas: Are the hours clearly posted? Are the Open or Closed signs clearly visible? Nothing is more frustrating for a customer than to get to a location, get out of their vehicle, get to the door, and then find it locked. Beyond the need for good Open/Closed signage, are the hours right for customers in the neighborhood? With more and more two-worker households, opening late and/or closing early might be more convenient for the owner and staff, but it severely limits the ability of customers to utilize your service.

Karn: Typically, self-service laundry businesses are open between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., seven days a week, with weekends usually seeing the most traffic. Hours can be adjusted as an owner gets to know the clientele. Having at least one attendant on duty on a part-time basis can help with general maintenance as well as with customer service. A part-time attendant can also allow the opportunity to add other customer conveniences such as wash-and-fold services that can help the bottom line. In addition, social media and online marketing can help advertise days and hours of operation along with special promotions.

PARKING AND ACCESS

Rowen: Plenty of parking, easy access into and out of the store, especially if one is carrying several bags or baskets. Automatic doors are another customer-friendly element that takes easy access to your business to the next level and is something that mom carrying several bags of laundry will appreciate.

Bowie: These elements should be addressed before owners decide on a location. Without adequate parking and easy customer access, owners will be severely handicapped from the start.

Hietpas: Convenient parking is something that no retail business can ever have too much of. Before a customer ever walks into your location, they walk through your parking lot. Is it clean? Is it well maintained or are the lines faded and are there too many potholes? If you live in the North where we get snow and ice, are your parking lot and sidewalks cleared in a timely manner? A well-maintained parking area shows customers that you are “open for business.”

Mastorides: We usually look to obtain a minimum of 10 parking spaces for a new store. Sometimes the landlord is willing to mark certain places for our store. … We also use large laundry carts, so (customers) can shuttle things from the parking lot into our stores.

CLEANLINESS, DECOR AND LIGHTING

Bowie: Cleanliness and great lighting are non-negotiable in today’s market. Owners who don’t get this fact quickly find themselves a target for store owners who are truly committed to providing a better environment. Décor just further builds on these foundational elements. Remember, décor can set the theme for your store, creating a unique identity.

Hietpas: Clean, bright, and safe are probably the three words that laundry owners hear most often and for good reason — they’re critically important in attracting and keeping your customers. With an increasing number of very professional operators out there, the bar has been set higher and higher in more areas. I’d add a fourth word to the mix: inviting. The key to the success of any business is getting customers to come back. Having a great “feel” to a store is a great way to make customers feel good about coming back. Let’s face it, laundry is not everyone’s favorite household chore, and making that chore worse by needing to go to a less-than-desirable environment is not exactly a good strategy to get customers to use your service more often.

Almost every retail business you can name changes decorations with the season; heck, even my local auto repair shop changes decorations with the seasons, but we have a lot of laundries out there that haven’t redecorated in far too long. Why not?

Karn: Cleanliness ranks among the top priorities of customers, and therefore is tied directly to an overall positive customer experience. Owners can show an interest in customers’ needs by keeping a store clean throughout, from the floor, counters and restrooms to the washer drums and dryers themselves. Making cleanliness a key aspect of an overall business model can help keep customers returning. In addition, other décor items including televisions, plants and comfortable seating can help elevate a customer’s experience.

Mastorides: Every machine, after every use, needs to be cleaned for the next customer to use. … We actually hired a lighting consultant, and it’s amazing what they do with a drawing to show us where “dead” spots are. … The store needs to warm up to you when you walk in … by means of tile, by means of paint, very soft colors, browns, yellows, oranges, things like that. Again, more of a café-type feel.

Rowen: Your customers will tend to take care and be more respectful of an environment that is taken care of for them.

In Part 3 on Thursday: Addressing equipment selection/reliability, and pricing and cycle times to become more customer-friendly.