CHICAGO — As we come to the end of another year, where do you see your vended laundry operation? Is it improving? Growing worse? About the same?
While anchored in a service that is decades in the making, the coin laundry industry still is subject to influences both internal and external. While the basics of self-service laundry operations are largely unchanged, there are other factors at play when it comes to building your business.
American Coin-Op invited representatives from several manufacturers and distributors to size up the industry today compared to five years ago, to identify opportunities for stores to improve, and to establish the manufacturer’s, distributor’s and store owner’s roles in moving this industry forward. Their responses are being presented in a series of stories here throughout the month of December.
Seated at our virtual roundtable were:
- John Antene, president of coin laundry sales and marketing, distributor Coin-O-Matic
- Joe Frankian, president, distributor D&M Equipment
- Gary Gauthier, national sales manager, vended laundries, manufacturer Pellerin Milnor Corp.
- Kevin Hietpas, director of sales, manufacturer Dexter Laundry
- David Hoffman, sales manager, distributor Gold Coin Laundry Equipment
- Joel Jorgensen, vice president of sales and customer services, manufacturer Continental Girbau
- Bryan Rausch, regional sales manager, manufacturer Whirlpool Corp. Commercial Laundry
- Jim Rosenthal, North American sales manager, manufacturer Speed Queen
- Kathryn Rowen, North American sales manager, manufacturer Huebsch
- Mark Schram, North American sales manager, manufacturer Primus
Q: Let’s break down a vended laundry operation just a bit. For each of these aspects, name at least one way that any store owner can seek improvement, and describe a general plan or course of action to achieve said improvement.
MARKETING AND PROMOTIONS
Hietpas: I’ve always been a believer that the best advertising is happy customers, and that starts with a great experience in your laundry, a clean and well-lit interior, equipment that is in good working order, plenty of clean folding space (folding is the last thing people do before leaving your store), and timely resolution of any problem they have.
Are your attendants trained and empowered to solve customer complaints? Does your store have a phone number to call in the event of a problem? In this age of social media, customers are posting their experiences all the time – give them a great experience and they’ll post about it. Unfortunately, if you give them a bad experience, they’ll post about that, too.
To help new customers find your store, I’m also a believer in nice signage. Too many newer owners pay a high rent for a great location and then “under-invest” in outside signage. If your signage is outdated or doesn’t make you easy to find, consider investing in a new one.
To further differentiate your store, today’s modern equipment comes with a variety of built-in capabilities: time-of-day pricing, multi-temperature pricing, cycle option (pre-wash, extra rinse) pricing, etc. These are ways of offering your customers exactly what they want. They give customers the opportunity to pay more or less depending on just what a particular washload needs, or the opportunity to save money by coming to your store at a particular time or on a certain day of the week.
Hoffman: Give the store a fresh look with new interior and exterior signage. Many of the stores have the same signs from when they opened 10 years ago, and they offer no promotions or specials, such as raffles.
Rausch: Are you currently sending out marketing materials and not seeing a result? Maybe you’re not doing it the right way. The first step is to create a plan, goal and call to action. Test the market—a little at a time—and measure it along the way. If it does well, great; and if you need to tweak something, starting small allows you to make that change at a minimal cost.
Supplementary to marketing is social media, which is becoming more and more important in the commercial laundry industry. Creating an online presence—whether it’s through Facebook or setting up a page on Google My Business—allows accurate store information to be easily accessible. Managing these profiles, sharing pictures and running promotions can also be executed at minimal cost.
In addition, it’s worth mentioning that teamwork makes the dream work. Consider building relationships with local businesses. Is there a pizza parlor nearby? Ask to partner: set out their coupons in your store, in exchange for the restaurant setting out yours.
Rosenthal: Effective marketing isn’t just about flashy logos or the latest social media trends, it’s about knowing your audience and developing a plan to effectively communicate with them and develop your brand. One to two percent of a store’s gross annual revenue should be dedicated to internal marketing, which can include contests, giveaways, specials, signage and loyalty programs. Another 2-3% of a store’s annual revenue should be dedicated to external marketing, such as speaking to your customer about the store and services. It’s important to keep in mind that oftentimes a consumer needs to see your marketing three to seven times before they will recognize the brand and retain the information.
Rowen: Embracing and leveraging social media to engage and communicate with their customers is a must. Good store owners actively manage their Facebook pages, Yelp reviews and Google Places accounts to respond to positive comments and turn any negative comment into an opportunity to rectify an issue in a way that is visible to the rest of their customer base. They also reward their customers for their continued loyalty and make them feel like their opinion is valuable.
Schram: If your Laundromat does not have a web presence, you may not exist (in a marketing sense). Old-school marketing tactics (print ads, direct mailers, radio ads, etc.) do work, especially to reinforce branding messages. However, to be “found” means having some sort of online existence so search engines can find your business for potential customers who are seeking your services. Elaborate web pages are not always needed, and a good social media consultant (i.e. the teenager down the street) can produce big results with minimal investment.
Antene: Because Laundromats draw their customers from a relatively small geographic area, it is inexpensive to promote with direct mail, e-mail and digital advertising. Too many store owners do not take advantage of this. New laundry equipment has a ton of technology that makes it simple to coordinate vend prices and cycles to marketing and advertising programs. All good stuff.
Frankian: The new washers have a number of built-in pricing options, such as time-of-day pricing, extended wash, water tier pricing, extra wash and rinse options. I think proper signage inside and out of the Laundromat is important, as is offering customer loyalty programs for free washes, etc.
Gauthier: Develop or enhance your online profile, and reward your customers for reviewing your store on Yelp or other sites.
Hoffman: Most stores have absentee owners, so it’s important that your attendants know how to handle and defuse customer complaints. Also, it’s important that the customers have a way of contacting the owners, in case they need to reach the owners, either through phone call or e-mail.
Rausch: If the store is attended, make sure employees are friendly. A positive interaction is likely to assist in a customer’s return, just as a negative interaction is likely to assist vice versa. And while having a welcoming staff is essential, it’s also important to build relationships with surrounding businesses. Say a customer buys a candy bar at the store next door. Offering a discount for that same customer who does brings in their laundry after the candy purchase is a simple promotion that can spread quickly through word of mouth.
Another element to think of is an audience’s needs and/or demands. Additional store amenities (some more technical than others) can go a long way with customers. If applicable, consider: a kid’s area for patrons who bring their children to the store, phone/tablet/computer charging stations, and Wi-Fi. Some stores have gone as far as to add a coffee bar within the space, allowing patrons to get their caffeine fix while cleaning their clothes.
Prior to integrating amenities into a store, however, determine if there’s a need for a certain amenity. Do the demographics in the area suggest that a coffee bar would do well? If it’s a college town or an area with young professionals, Wi-Fi and a charging station might be expected.
Rosenthal: Stores and machines that have too many “do not” signs and warnings can lose favor with their customer base. Conversely, a friendly, welcoming store will go a long way in differentiating your store’s customer experience from a transactional one to a full experience. Today’s Laundromat customers are looking for more than someplace where they can do their laundry. They are looking for a clean, safe store that is equipped with modern machines and additional services and amenities to enhance their Laundromat experience.
Rowen: Doing laundry is work. The less burdensome we can make the task: having plenty of clean, well-running, fast equipment available; managing issues quickly and effectively; and providing a safe and friendly environment, the more likely your customers are to continue to frequent your store. Establishing a way to say “thank you” and let them know you appreciate and value their business is critical to keeping them coming back.
Schram: Any business will benefit from great customer relations and service. It often is the differentiation between competitors, and the reason a customer may select one attended vended laundry over another. The adage of “it will cost more to acquire a new customer than retain an existing customer” rings true. Finding ways to delight the customer can be challenging, but often can be inexpensive. Listening to your customer base, and reacting to their suggestions where appropriate, can result in increased traffic from positive word-of-mouth advertising.
Antene: Given the choice, all customers do business with the entity they like and respect. For store owners, and staff, it’s a state of mind. Make sure, through and through, your customers know that their needs are important to you and their patronage is appreciated.
Frankian: It is imperative that customers enjoy coming to that Laundromat. That the attendants are proactive and offer help to customers, like unloading and loading cars, explaining how the equipment works, helping them make change, etc. In our market area, there is a tremendous amount of competition, and it is most likely that if you do not offer this (level of service), the customer can find it right around the corner.
Gauthier: Give your customers another way to reach out to you – either posting contact details for you and your staff or building relationships with them via Facebook or other online sources.
Hietpas: When I remember great experiences I’ve had as a customer, the two things I remember about my visit to that business are 1) things happened exactly as they should have, and 2) people were always knowledgeable and nice.
The best way to resolve customer problems is to not have them in the first place. If you have equipment or interior maintenance to do, do it sooner not later. Make sure your employees have been trained properly. Make sure they know what things can happen and what they need to do when those situations arise.
Coming Thursday: Planning for growth, and what manufacturers and distributors can do to help store owners
Previous stories in our series: