Careful Planning Can Help Prevent Problems

Mark Benson |

CHICAGO — Sitting four blocks from the Laundromat in a bathroom stall of a taco place, Chris has one heck of a haul. A wallet with $50 in cash, a couple of credit cards, ID with a Social Security number on it, an address and a set of keys.The purse? He dumps it in the waste basket. Fifteen minutes has passed since the purse was swiped, and back at the Laundromat the victim has just realized the bag’s missing. The manager is notified, and the painful instant replay is called up on the security system. The bag was unattended and it was a pretty easy theft.So, what went wrong? We have a lot of employees on the floor, we have a good security camera system, the lighting is fantastic and 99.9 percent of the people around here are just great. Do we need a rent-a-cop? Do we need to limit our entrances to one so the employee at the register can see everyone come in and out, and thus spot those in here without laundry? Heck, do we need a purse check behind the counter?Arguably, none of those knee-jerk solutions would have stopped the theft, but they all would have been quite an inconvenience to our business and our budget.Now, let’s turn back the clock and take a closer look at how this scenario went down.A CLOSER LOOKAt 6:15 p.m., mom files into the store with two children. It’s crowded, and they look for an aisle with a few open washers in a row for them. There are plenty of open machines, but they are the wrong size. There’s a bit of a logjam in one row and you can hear crickets chirp in the other.Unfortunately for mom, she can’t find three machines in one aisle, so she grabs a cart, hangs her purse on it and starts laundry in two machines of Row A and then rolls about 50 feet and two aisles away to Row C for her last load. One washer at a time, mom moves back and forth between the aisles.About 6:30, the kids get restless and start roaming around. They almost run down an employee as they turn the corner near the west door, prompting the frustrated sweeper to yell at them to slow down.As the kids flee, the west door slides open and in comes trouble: a wannabe thief.The distracted employee grumbles to herself as she watches the kids scamper off.By 7 p.m., mom tells the kids to play nice. The thief sees mom spinning in circles trying to find the pair of quarters she thought she had put on the bench. The thief finds a primary target: a flustered mom. Patient, he starts another lap looking to see if there’s a better mark out there for him.On the east side of the store, the kids are now wrestling with each other. One employee is laughing, another trying to break it up because they almost knocked over a mop.Mom is on the south side of the store having just put her clothes in the dryers, but is now on the hunt for an open folding table at which she can put her detergent bottles on to claim “squatter’s” rights.The purse is hanging on the cart near the north side of the store. And after two aborted attempts, the thief sees his chance, and quite literally, his meal ticket.The two employees near the wrestling match laugh and chat it up, another employee drags the kids back to mom, who’s now in a dispute with someone who needs her folding table.At 7:15, mom finds her cart... sans purse.A few minutes later, the manager is informed, checks the camera and watches an unknown man wearing undistinguishable clothing take the purse with ease. “That purse was all alone for 10 minutes,” the manager mumbles to himself after everyone leaves the office. “She was asking for it to be stolen.”ON FURTHER REVIEWHis conclusion is as predictable as it is false.This night played out like a twisted Rube Goldberg device, one of those things that shows a simple task being performed by a series of complex actions (i.e. water floods a cup, which pours onto a scale, which tips and lets a toy car roll, which hits a button and turns on the light).And like a Rube Goldberg device, the end result of a stolen purse was set in motion long before it was stolen.This, however, is the way you have to look at your store. The cleaning men and women will clean, the register worker will make change, and you have to understand the big picture in this place. Now, you can do this a bunch of ways, and here are the most important ones:1) Work all shifts as manager (not at the same time, though). If you’re an offsite manager, get inside the store and see what actually happens in there.2) Talk to your employees. I do understand, though,  that a big part of why people choose the laundry business is the fact that you can get away with stopping in, making change, and getting out. Chat with them about their shift, what works and doesn’t, what they face. As manager/owner, I believe, fundamentally, it is your job to give your employees (and customers, for that matter) the things they need to get things done.3) Attack your weakest link. What’s the weakest part of your business? What is the part that you most need to improve upon? Now, take that part and focus on it until you can feel some pride in that area. For us, our utility bills could have sunk us. So we attacked that problem with solar panels and other means. Now, it’s a great source of pride for us.Understand the relationship these factors will have within your store. See the big picture.Let’s replay that night, and fix the problem without making security-related changes.If you have better distribution of your washers, is mom moving all about, leaving her personal belongings in danger? If you have a children’s play area or activities for them to do, are they flustering mom or distracting employees? Does one of them see a suspicious character come in the door? If you had enough folding tables, would mom have had her purse closer to her and not be involved in a hunt, and then an argument?When something goes wrong at the store, you have to find a way to understand the circumstances by which it happened, not just what happened. See the whole field, and help your employees help your customers have a good stay while they are in your store. After all, you’ve got them for at least more than an hour. 

About the author

Mark Benson

World's Largest Laundromat


Mark Benson, manager of the World's Largest Laundromat in Berwyn, Ill., would like to hear any comments you have about the column, as well as any tales you have about the people who patronize your store.


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