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Challenging the Absentee Owner: Take Advantage of Being at the Store

Howard Scott |

You’re currently running one coin laundry, and may be spending more than 40 hours there every week. There could be as many as four or five laundries within several blocks of your store; some of them run by absentee owners. How do you compete against these people?This reminds me of a hotel where we stayed in Costa Rica. Every morning at breakfast, an older gentleman came around to each table and introduced himself. “Hello,” he would greet us. “I’m Ed Smith (not his real name), the owner of the hotel.” He would chat for a minute or two and move on. We never saw him any other time. But, with this ritual, he personalized the establishment.Have you thought about personalizing your establishment? Make yourself known as the owner. You might say something like, “Hi, I’m Mike, the owner, and if there’s anything I can do for you, or if you have any suggestions for me, I’m at your service.” Be there. Be visible. Be accessible.BACKGROUND INFORMATIONGive yourself a story. Tell a tale of how you got into the laundry business. Make it interesting. Make it seem like you always wanted to own a laundry.Here’s an example: “I was a furnace technician for 20 years, and eventually I realized I didn’t want to interact with furnaces for the rest of my life. So I saved some money, and when this store became available, I bought it. I like people, and I like to offer a host of community resources. Yes, that is how I think of my store, a community resource. Offering fast washing, drying and folding is my way of helping people out.”SENDING THE RIGHT MESSAGEIn all signage, include the phrase “owner-operated.” If you’re doing a Yellow Pages ad, have “Owner-Operated Acme Laundromat” at the top. In circulars, end with “owner usually on premises.”When it comes to the interior, put a sign on the wall announcing that this store is “owner-operated.” Perhaps create a slogan, “Have a problem: speak to the owner.” Make that feature a selling point.GETTING TO KNOW YOUGet to know names. Nothing helps secure a customer better than to call him/her by their name. Showing such attention makes the individual feel at home.Of course, connecting a name to a face doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Work at it. Write down names on a pad of paper. Make lists of people you expect on certain days, and review it in the morning. Sometimes it helps to connect a name to a feature. If you make a mistake and the customer corrects you, make a joke about losing your mind. Don’t be embarrassed.It also helps to be proactive. While you work, chat with the clientele. For example, if you are repairing a coin changer, tell the nearby customers about the time the changer unloaded several dollars worth of quarters before you were able to stop it. Make a big deal about children, saying how much they resemble their mother. Commiserate with older people about the problems of growing older. In other words, become a personality.Try to make connections among customers. For example, point out that one party lives around the corner from the other party. Mention that two customers go to the same gym. Comment that both mothers have children with the same unusual first name. This presumes you have spoken to the customer and gotten to know a few facts.A laundry should have a friendly, open atmosphere. Encourage people to chat rather than sitting in silence watching TV. It’s more energizing. You are trying to create the ambience of friendliness that the local coffee shop enjoys. Eventually, people will become addicted to coming to your laundry because it enlivens their lives.HAVING FUNCreate a party atmosphere. Offer specials. Twenty percent off on Senior Citizen Wednesday might attract a big crowd on a normally slow day. Handing out dollar bills to the first 10 customers on Friday will make for early morning patronage. Having weekly drawings for a modest prize will generate some excitement.How about a contest? During the week, every customer puts a slip with his or her name and phone number in a barrel. Every Saturday morning, you draw out the winning entry. The prize might be a bottle of wine, a $10 coupon to a local restaurant, or a free car wash.Gain some publicity for these drawings. Put up circulars in public places. Send publicity blurbs to the local newspapers. Get a local newspaper to do an article on your drawings or other special events you hold. Get a local radio station to broadcast from your store.TAKING CARE OF BUSINESSIn addition to making things a bit more personable, you can fix many problems quickly simply by being there. If a machine breaks down, you can either fix it or at least post the proper signage to alert customers. If a customer’s bill gets stuck, you can deal with the problem. If you notice a customer’s difficult stain, you may even have the knowledge to offer a stain-removal solution. As a last resort, you can always reimburse a customer. If someone leaves a message, you can reply promptly. That’s a big plus, knowing customers will never leave your store disgruntled. Such diligence will go a long way toward retaining your customer base.At this point, some of you are probably less than enthused over some of my suggestions. Many of you might be saying that the last thing you want to do is be known to the customer.All right, continue as you are now, and see your laundry business stagnate. On the other hand, if you try some of my suggestions, your laundry may come alive. The laundry might become a more vibrant, personable place.Perhaps you have accepted the fact that you can’t do a great volume because you only operate one store. Don’t look at it that way. Think about this: Over time, and with careful management, you can win the lion’s share of the local market. That should be your goal.In other words, turn yourself into a larger-than-life presence and see your business grow. 

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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