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The Big Gamble: Starting Over

LEWISTOWN, Pa. — Texas hold ’em, the poker game, has enjoyed great popularity in recent years. Tournaments are held across the country, some of them even televised. The game is best known for its dramatic climax — one player tosses all of his/her chips into the pot. No turning back.For Wes Phoenix, it wasn’t about putting chips into a pot. Yet, he had a major decision to make — to remain in the coin laundry business or leave it. It took Phoenix two long years to decide.Some of you have probably dealt with the same question. For those of you facing today what Phoenix faced in the last couple of years, you will be encouraged by his outcome.CHANGING TIMESPhoenix has been in the coin laundry industry for about 20 years. He, along with his wife, Kathy, operate the West Side Laundra-Max, a 1,500-square-foot store in Lewistown, Pa. “We opened it 19 years ago and business was good, until about two years ago when the customer count started falling off, probably because we were forced to keep raising our prices to keep up with ever-higher utility bills,” Phoenix explains.Phoenix ran a simple operation. There were no attendants, no extra services, no video games and not even candy machines, because he didn’t want kids from a nearby roller rink in the store.Several things were weighing on his mind. “My equipment was old and I wanted to get rid of the home-style layout. Plus, the new machines were supposed to be more energy efficient. That also was part of the decision.”There were two other nearby stores in Lewistown, a small community of about 10,000, Phoenix says. There are also several smaller villages nearby that added to the market area. Phoenix thought the owners of those stores might be facing similar problems.“It was a tough decision. Business had started to fall off and we reached a point where we decided to either sell the place or totally remodel.” The older top loaders and single-load dryers had started to show their age and the utility expenses had soared to 37.5 percent of the volume, he explains.“The more we thought about it, the more we realized the coin-store business had been good to us for many years at this location and there was no reason why it shouldn’t continue to be good.”The decision was made. Phoenix contacted Vicki Sterner, the sales representative for Equipment Marketers, an area distributor. Sterner helped the couple compute the savings in utility expenses that would result from adding new equipment.MAKING THE MOVEWhen Phoenix spoke of a total remodeling job, he wasn’t kidding. “We went with all new doors and windows. One of the doors is now automatic. There’s an all-new interior, new ceiling tile, new lighting. We repainted all the walls. We added a new heat pump. We really like that. It provides the cooling and heating and does a nice job. Before that we just had two wall air conditioners and an old gas furnace did the heating. The floor was carpeted and now it’s all tile. We really like it for the look and the maintenance.“With the new layout, new plumbing and new electrical were also required.”The crushed stone parking lot was paved and Phoenix even tore down two old houses that were on the property to make more room for parking.While Phoenix admits to not having marketed, a new 5- by 10-foot illuminated exterior sign at the street promotes the fact that the store is Maytag-equipped.Phoenix estimates the total remodeling cost to be around $175,000.NEW EQUIPMENTThe store is now equipped with six top loaders ($1.75, $2 with Super Cycle), 12 smaller front loaders ($1.75, $2 with Super Cycle), six 30-pound washers ($4, $4.50 with Super Cycle), one 80-pound washer ($8, $9 with Super Cycle), 10 multi-load stack dryers (25 cents/8 minutes) and one 75-pound dryer ($1 for 10 minutes).Phoenix is happy with the equipment decisions he made, especially when it comes to the large washer and dryer. “I’m really glad I used [the 80-pound washer and 75-pound dryer]. Those machines really get used. I was skeptical about them and went back and forth about whether we should have them, with what they cost and if people would actually use them. I have no complaints now.“One of the reasons I finally decided to go with them is because none of the other laundries had this equipment. That weighed into the decision.”Phoenix said he was unable to program the Super Cycle with the older equipment, but now sees some customers taking advantage of the Super Cycle option.Phoenix also uses the computer programming to help schedule in-store promotional pricing. For example, he has offered 25 cents off a wash from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. “People appreciate opportunities like this to save a little money.”THE BOTTOM LINEThe laundry was closed for a month during the remodeling. Some owners might feel a bit uneasy about how this would affect customers. It reopened last fall. The one-month closing didn’t hurt.“I wasn’t really worried about closing. We’re located along a busy highway. We thought that we would lose a few customers, but we also thought that we would get new customers. That happened. Every week I hear from the attendant about new customers.“When the store reopened, the sales volume doubled from what it had been the last couple of years before the remodeling. I was a little surprised that it was that high, but I hoped it would happen or I would be in trouble,” he jokes.What brought them back? “It was the whole package that brought the people back. We got compliments on the floor and on the equipment.”Even the little things such as the automatic door drew attention. “One thing that I always promised I would do if I remodeled was add an automatic door at the front. For years, I’ve watched my customers struggle with bulky laundry baskets as they brought them into the store through hinged doors. I’m really proud of my new, outside 42-inch automatic door.”Sales volume is still up today, although it’s not as high as when the store reopened. “Plus, summer is a bit slower traditionally.”The store’s improved profitability has allowed Phoenix to bring in an attendant. “We have someone seven days a week from 7 to 10 in the evening and to clean when the store closes.” There is also an attendant on duty at times during the day.“The attendants, who live in the neighborhood, keep the store spotless, answer customer questions and open and close the store,” says Phoenix. “This has been a big help since my wife and I live on a farm several miles away.”In addition to the farming, Phoenix maintains some cows while his wife operates a country gift shop and greenhouse at the farmstead.SECOND THOUGHTS?It’s fair to ask if Phoenix has ever second-guessed his decision to make a full commitment to what was essentially a whole new store. He hasn’t.“We couldn’t be happier,” he says. “We now have what I consider to be a brand-new store and our customers, both old and new, are delighted to do their laundry in such a positive environment.”Giving up a business in which he spent nearly 20 years may have been difficult. There are some minor headaches with being a laundry owner, he says. “Sometimes parents don’t control their children, the carts can end up all over, and there are some messes on the floor. But it’s nothing major.“The good thing about the coin laundry business is that as long as the equipment is working and you keep the store looking nice, you can get a steady flow of income. It’s not hard work to run a store.”Looking ahead, Phoenix sees two things that will need to happen in the industry. “Existing stores will need to update their equipment, especially with higher water and sewer rates. Companies will also need to keep making the equipment much more efficient.”However, you can’t blame Phoenix if he wants to hold off a while before he does anything else major at his store. Seems like just yesterday he was mulling another major decision. 

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Bruce Beggs at [email protected].