GLENDALE, Ariz. — We need to talk about the public’s perception of what they think it’s like to own a Laundromat.

During my 41-year career in the industry, I can’t tell you how many times I was asked about owning a mat. I was approached many times by my own customers. I was also cornered at parties by inquiring minds, and by other shopkeepers in my shopping centers who were not happy with their own businesses.

Seems that people are fascinated with our industry, and rightfully so. But what do they really see?

  • They see a store loaded with customers using washers and dryers, and maybe one or two attendants.
  • They rarely see you, the owner, but if they do, they see you come for a few hours and then leave, probably for another location.
  • They note that you’re “hardly ever there.”
  • They see you collect the money, fill the vending machines and ATM, oversee the employees and drop-off service, and repair a machine or two that may be out of order.
  • They see you, every now and then, engage in some kind of improvement or upgrade.
  • They see a cash business with no accounts receivable.
  • They figure that mats are recession-proof (and they are, to a degree, but they’re more like recession-resistant).
  • They see no perishable inventory. In fact, they will see very little inventory at all. (Maintaining a big inventory is time-consuming and expensive, and causes worry about the supply chain being interrupted. Mats don’t have that problem.)
  • They see no inventory shrinkage, or shoplifting worries.
  • They see no shipping headaches.
  • They see no product returns.
  • They see, in many cases, no delivery service.

“This is a simple, easy business to operate,” they think. “A business I could run in my spare time while keeping my ‘real’ job,” they muse, “almost like a hobby. After all, people have to do laundry, and if this owner can run this store part-time, so can I.”

These are all real and valid truths about our industry. But while a mat is easier to run than, say, a restaurant, it is not as easy as it looks!

Mats are real businesses that must be managed as such, requiring technical skill, determination, and lots of capital, luck, and general business management skills.

CERTAIN SKILLS ARE NEEDED

To give you an idea of just how out of touch some people are about owning a mat, the most common question I received over the years was, “Do I have to know how to fix the machines for this business?” I even had people ask me as I was fixing a machine right in front of them.

I was tempted to say, “No, the machines just fix themselves,” but better judgment prevailed. I’d tell them, “Well, yes, of course! Every business requires certain skills for you to remain competitive. I wouldn’t open a restaurant if I didn’t know how to cook.”

You have to consider that a mat is basically a store packed full of sophisticated, electromechanical computerized equipment, each one having a hundred parts or more. If you are not skilled at diagnosing and fixing this equipment, you can easily become overwhelmed in a matter of months. The good news is that equipment distributors run classes to help you learn.

I have a few friends who have big, successful mats and can afford to pay outside mechanics to maintain their equipment. A couple of them have multiple big mats and can afford their own in-house mechanics, but even they are not afraid to pick up a wrench or a test meter.

In the beginning, I couldn’t afford to pay anyone, so I did all my own repairs. I was handy, so I took well to this business. Later on, I eased back and called in mechanics for the heavy work such as tub bearing jobs. Right up to my retirement, I enjoyed troubleshooting and fixing the everyday stuff.

So besides being handy, or at least having a propensity for electro-mechanical equipment (and nowadays a skill for computerized equipment), what other things are required?

Understand that there will be emergency calls. Not if, but when.

I experienced break-ins, armed robberies, fires and floods. There were gas, electrical and water outages. I ran across homeless people so stoned that they had passed out on the floor and I didn’t know if they were dead or alive. There were customer fistfights, you name it. While I was not always in my stores, I learned how to manage them well over the years; I was always on call 24/7 for emergencies!

Taking a vacation was difficult for me. I worried there might be an emergency that would require me to come home, even though I had excellent employees. Some hobby, eh?

So, if you think that you can own a mat without any business experience, show up once in a while, take the cash out and live happily ever after, think again. There are pitfalls along the way.

Now, I do know a couple of people who actually run their mats successfully from far away. They are really talented business people, a rare breed. If you have good family who you trust, you may be able to spend some time away.

Then there are the customers. Even if your mat is awesome and running smoothly, customers will complain. That’s just the nature of retail. If the store is dirty or crowded, machines aren’t working perfectly, employees are rude, your parking is lacking, etc., they will complain. You and your crew should do everything possible to keep your customers happy.

It is important to address and cure customer complaints. Most of the time, a customer is actually doing you a favor by complaining. They are pointing out a defect that you may not be aware of, so thank them! The last thing you want to do is ignore them. If you do, you risk racking up bad online reviews that can hurt your business. Promptly resolving complaints tends to get you great reviews.

So, I hope you can see that it’s crucial to understand that while mat ownership may look like a hobby, it is indeed a business in every sense of the word!

Check back Thursday for the conclusion!