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Embrace Your Customer Base

Howard Scott |

CHICAGO — I recently visited a Laundromat in southern Florida, and noticed something different. At first, it seemed like a typical self-service laundries, with machines on both sides and a tiny office in the back. All the signs were in English. But I soon realized that most of the customers didn’t speak English.I spoke with a store employee, and she told me that most of the clientele — more than half — were Guatemalan. Then I asked if she spoke Spanish. She didn’t.If there ever was an operation that should have gone “ethnic,” this was it. The attendant should be fluent in Spanish and English. The signs should be posted in both English and Spanish. The vending machine should feature South American drinks. Or, if a vender wasn’t available, the owner could have a small refrigerator stocked with tamarind soda for sale. Do you think the patrons would appreciate a basket filled with guava pods from Costa Rica?EMBRACE THE BASE All Laundromats should embrace their customer base. If the majority is Spanish, or Asian, or Polish, the facility should make the customers feel at home. They should “ethnocize.”For starters, attendants should speak the majority language. This is a must. On the Gulf Coast of Florida, I visited a store in a town of heavy Greek ancestry. The attendant told me: “About 80 percent of our customer base is Greek. The reason this place is so busy is because we all speak Greek, and the competition doesn’t.”Can you imagine the confusion when the attendant doesn’t speak the language? A customer is trying to explain that the dryer is not working adequately or that the changer won’t take a bill, and the attendant has to ask the person three times to repeat the statement. Such encounters cause great frustration.Besides having language problems, someone who speaks the language better understands the customers. Instead of hiring a friend, feed into your clientele base by bringing in someone offering ethnic cohesion.Second, print every sign, every instruction, and every pricing notice in two languages. The customers probably can figure out the price of your dryers from the English, but it’s more welcoming to see the amount in their own native language. All of this makes your customers feel at home.If your clientele is split 50-50, going ethnic is still appropriate. After all, the neighborhood will have diverse stores, restaurants and community centers. Everywhere, residents are reminded of their background. So why not bring in that culture to your establishment? Will the non-ethnics be offended? Not a chance. If they didn’t want to be around the neighborhood, they would have moved to a drab area a long time ago. Most likely, many of the English-speaking customers will learn enough of the language to read the signs in both languages and appreciate the diversity.A TOUCH OF CULTUREProvide plenty of cultural touches. Offer unusual foods, if possible. Offer ethnic snacks and sodas for sale. How about offering homemade pastries using native recipes from the homeland? Contact a local resident to prepare and deliver a batch every day. Sell the treats for 75 cents or $1, depending on your cost. Serve coffee in the style of the ethnic homeland. If the store is in a Turkish area, have a hot plate and long-handled pots with Turkish fine-grained coffee, so that customers can brew their drink in a way they are accustomed to. Patrons will pay for such offerings.On the wall, hang a map of the native country draped by the national flag. Nearby, post a bulletin board where customers can pin postcards from relatives or headlines from homeland newspapers. Patrons can stick pushpins in the map to designate where they came from — their town or city of origin. If you put some effort into this, customers will flock to the board every visit.Decorate the facility appropriately. If your neighborhood is heavily Bahamian, start out by painting the walls the colors of the Bahamian flag — light blue, black and yellow. Be as creative as you desire. Put up a shelf of conch shells, some attractively painted. Hang the official Bahamian calendar filled with attractive drawings and recipes each month. Of course, offer benne cakes, the locals’ pastry. Do you see the possibilities?QUITE AN EVENT Celebrate native events. Focus on national celebrations, be it Day of Independence (Bastille Day for a predominantly French population, Junkanu for Bahamians) or a national election day. Celebrate the birthday of a national hero. Invite folks to recite the country’s national anthem on these festive days.Organize a talk by an expert well-versed in national issues. At a minimum, put a notice on your outdoor signage, celebrating the country’s birthday. If nothing else, that will get curiosity seekers to visit your laundry.Sponsor events. In a predominantly Portuguese community, invite a fado singer to perform. Suggest that people bring in some folding chairs. Think you would get an audience? I imagine there would be an overflowing crowd. You just want to make sure that you don’t drive away customers in the process. These events don’t have to be every week, but periodically (perhaps four times a year) just to show your Laundromat’s orientation.Would you make money from the fado event? Probably not. You would have to pay the singer, but you could charge a small admission. You could also make money by selling snacks. So you might break even. More importantly, by doing this, you will endear yourself to the community. And you will break up the laundry routine. You’ll be perceived as more than just a Laundromat. You will have become a community resource.Embrace your community’s roots, its ethnicity. It will pay off in satisfaction. It will also generate more revenue.

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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