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Running a Coin Laundry in the Big Apple

Howard Scott |

During a recent five-day trip to New York City, I spent part of time visiting 15 coin laundries in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn.When there was a staffer in attendance, I spoke to the person. Occasionally, I met the owner. My goal was to note the differences from one operation to the next, or to find out if all city shops are more or less the same.THE LAY OF THE LANDNew York City is a special market. There is nothing quite like it for its size, diversity, population density, expense and infrastructure. It has such a focus on neighborhoods that every laundry owner must feel like he/she has a monopoly within a five- or six-block perimeter.Rents are so high that most of what I usually promote — a comfortable seating area, a child’s play area, a few games — are not possible. The average store is probably 1,000 to 1,200 square feet — far smaller than typical suburban models.Something must also be said for the city’s unique customer personality. In my experience, the people are brash, rude, know-it-all, world-weary people, and that has to impact Laundromat patronage.Out of the 15 stores I visited, 13 were “holes in the wall.” That’s not a nice description, but it’s an accurate statement. They were long rectangles with 10 machines on one side and 10 on the other, with small counters in the back. About 5% of the machines had out-of-order signs on them. Most stores had zero personality.As for the attendants, most spoke broken, barely decipherable English. Simple conversations included many “huhs” and requests for clarification. It was frustrating. Furthermore, I didn’t believe the staffers were particularly friendly.The laundry appearances also left something to be desired. The exteriors looked as if they hadn’t been touched in years. Rust and grime covered every edge. All had storefront gates to prevent break-ins and vandalism.Most of the signs out front had chipped paint and broken letters. Most simply said “Laundromat.”The interiors weren’t much better. Dirty floors, sticky walls, taped machines, hand-printed signs, foggy windows, spotted ceilings and rusted pipes were present at most of the facilities. The changers looked ancient.One place had the hours taped on the front door. Some of the times listed were crossed out, with the new hours written in pen.Each of these visits was a thoroughly discouraging experience.A RAY OF HOPEThere were two exceptions. The first exception on Tenth Ave. in midtown Manhattan was pristine. It was also small — 32 machines (20 washers and 12 stacked dryers) in about 1,300 square feet. Every piece of equipment was brown. The walls were painted a beautiful azure blue.Signs were clean, consistent and concise. One wall contained three signs spaced about 12 feet apart that said “$3 = 12 quarters.” The message is clear. Even non-English-speaking customers understand that a machine requires a dozen quarters. No words are wasted. The spacing of these signs allows for easy reading.The store’s name, in neon blue, graces the back wall. The front overhead sign is attractively done, with sloping letters making up the store’s name.The floor had a glossy sheen. When I visited in the early morning hours, the attendant was scrubbing the inside of the dryer doors, removing every bit of lint. She said everything was cleaned twice a day.She handed me a business card, which replicated the printing of the front overhead sign. She spoke with an accent, but she talked slowly, enunciating each word, in order to be understood, which I appreciated. The business card said, “Free pickup and delivery,” which the attendant said is a key component of their volume.The second exception was what I would call a presentable Laundromat. It wasn’t pristine, but it was reasonably clean and orderly. There were several signs on the wall, but they were not uniform and a few signs were hand-written. All of the machines were in working order, but the back counter was cluttered and messy. Along one wall were all sorts of storage items.The front had an attractive plant in a pot, which could be seen from the outside. The brick front had what looked like a new overhead sign.There was no attendant, but a clearly displayed sign gave a number to call if there were problems. Underneath the number it said, “We will respond within five minutes.”Certainly operating in this market presents some tough challenges, but the same rules apply here as anywhere else. Customers want to wash clothes in a clean store. When a facility isn’t clean, few customers will be satisfied with the results. It’s that simple.Never stop refining your store, because while you’re always reaching for perfection, you’ll never quite reach it. No detail is too small for your attention.

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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