The nation’s tough financial times are a big topic in my Laundromat. Rarely does a day go by when economic problems don’t come up in conversations with customers and employees.I was talking to a customer just the other day about jobs. The conversation really hit home: The father of the family had lost his factory job and was in the market for a new one, although he wasn’t hopeful.“I’m looking around, but I just can’t find anything that will get us nearly the pay we need to replace what I was making before,” he said as his wife stuffed another load of kids’ clothing into one of our 55-pounders.There were four of them that day: mom, dad, and a boy and a girl, both around five years old. Dad was chatting and the kids were downing SpongeBob ice cream bars from our vending area.“My wife’s been able to add a shift at her job, so that helps a little bit, but we’ll certainly be a little more cautious with our money for the time being,” he said and then smiled as he pulled a bag of quarters from his pocket.Things are tough. A lot of my friends are in similar situations, some falling on either side of the wall when the layoffs came down.GAS WOESThen there’s the woman who commutes into the Loop (Chicago’s downtown area) five days a week. She’s not concerned about her job security, but train lines aren’t very convenient for her, so she’s stuck riding a gas-guzzling SUV into the city. And gas prices here in Chicago are some of the most expensive in the nation.My next car is a hybrid, because gas simply isn’t going to get cheaper. I mean, if the industry can charge $3.50-$4 a gallon and have people pay for it, why would they go back to $2.50? That is not going to happen.So she drives, and fills up almost twice a week — $60 a pop.“That really puts a dent in my driving over the weekend,” she said as she bought a big bottle of detergent and some dryer sheets from the front counter. “I didn’t go anywhere for the Fourth of July ... even driving in for Chicago’s fireworks seemed like a waste of money, let alone visiting family in Ohio.”I can relate to the woman's situation. A couple of weeks ago, I drove to Fargo, N.D., for a wedding. I was dreading every stop for gas. I’d put it off, as if it would somehow make a difference if I waited. As if somehow gas would be cheaper at the next stop, or my tank would suddenly refill itself so I wouldn’t have to stop again. I just didn’t want to see that big number pop up on the pump. No such luck. “Would you like a receipt?” No thank you, I’d like to forget this transaction ever occurred.“Heck, I live two blocks away from here, but usually drive with all my clothes,” the woman laughed. “Now, I just walk over here, grab a cart and walk back to get my clothes and wheel them back. By the way, how much are your laundry bags?”FEELING THE CRUNCHThere certainly doesn’t seem to be a shortage of problems. There’s the job situation, there’s the gas woes and there’s the mortgage crisis. That’s hit really hard here in our suburb, but it hits everyone a little differently. I’m trying to sell my place, but buyers just aren’t out there. (Anyone interested?)For others, it’s far worse. People are losing their property or just sinking unbearable amounts of money into it. I think the first word of some babies growing up in this neighborhood might be “foreclosure,” instead of “Ma Ma” or “Da Da.”“I had a bungalow right behind your store here, right next to that apartment building,” one customer said as he folded one work shirt after another. “Now, I live in the apartment building. At least I didn’t have far to move.”As I look out over the 200-or-so people in my store at any given time on a Sunday, it hits me: If the economy was impacting this industry, then I wouldn’t have been able to have the conversations I detailed in this column. There would be no one here to talk to.People are losing jobs, skipping their annual vacations, experimenting with public transportation, even losing their homes. But what do you do every day regardless? You put on clothes and eat your meals. Does the garbage man suddenly have nothing to pick up? In the same way, there’s always going to be clothes to clean.If your laundry is in a good spot where the demographics are holding, then these tough times shouldn’t worry you when it comes to finding customers. Stop worrying about whether you should be worried about a recession, get out of your office and chat with some of your customers.
In my previous column, I wrote about the things I learned as a newcomer to the laundry business, and the response has been good. But I’d like to get even more comments from you in hopes of developing future columns. Everyone is welcome to respond. To all of you newcomers: What are you learning about the industry that surprises you? To all of you industry veterans: Do you have any advice for those new to the business? Let’s share some interesting stories and valuable advice here.