So, you thought that after you sweated out the construction details, navigated the abyss of municipal codes and the permit system, and hammered out all the various kinks during startup, your stress in the self-service laundry business would be minimal. Smooth sailing, right? You would simply watch your laundry tap into the fantastic demographics you identified with this particular location. A piece of cake.Then it happens. That harmless, vacant retail space in your neighborhood suddenly fills with shiny, new washers and dryers. Before you know it, the colorful, neon “Open” sign is switched on, making it official — you’ve got competition.This is the point in the column where I’m sure you’re expecting me to dish out the standard catch-all for any emergency — “don’t panic.”Well, if you’re running your laundry properly and keeping it well maintained, you’ve earned my reassuring “don’t panic.”Then, there are the other storeowners, the ones who’ve let their stores go, haven’t upgraded equipment and have just plain taken their customers for granted. I’m giving those owners full permission to panic.This scene plays out all the time in our business. Veterans of our business know competition means one thing — someone has identified an opportunity. That opportunity may be a market that can’t be fully served by one store, in which case two stores can coexist and prosper. Or it could be that the market just isn’t being adequately served by your store.TAKE A PEEKIn order to counter the newcomer, you’ll want to know what you’re up against. I encourage you to take a close look at the new laundry. Don’t just walk through the place, note the vend prices, the capacities of the machines, and any specials or promotions the store is running. When looking at the machines, check to see which ones are in use.I’ll be honest: Chances are you will lose some of your customers to the new laundry. That’s just the way this business is. Your goal, however, should be to retain your core of good clients, which you’ll be better equipped to do with detailed information about your competition.GET THE BALL ROLLINGMy first piece of advice is to not only focus on what you do well, but also identify your weak areas. If your laundry is dated, you might see this as the perfect time to upgrade or perhaps just add a couple of the larger machines — say a couple of 60- or 80-pound washer-extractors if customers seem to be attracted to the competitor’s higher-capacity equipment. Do the same with your dryers.Adding capacity not only gives customers new equipment, but it can also help get them in and out of the store faster. Plus, you’ll be saving on utility costs in the process.Think about taking advantage of other things. Is it time to add wash-and-fold service? If you already offer this, are you ready to tackle commercial accounts? Or are there other areas in which you’ve been complacent and need to step up marketing activities to compete?Don’t get so caught up in the process that you forget about the customers. What have you been doing to keep your good customers happy? Perhaps this is the time to add a customer loyalty program or weekly raffle for services or prizes. If you decide to go this route, be sure that you actively market them to the customers through signage, direct mail or advertisements. If this sounds like too much work, keep in mind that the new guy will be marketing.What about adding to your customer amenities? Free Internet access may be a start.Here’s a note of caution about what you don’t want to do. Don’t go head to head matching the new laundry’s “big splash” pricing. Chances are good that they’ll open with a free dry or wash promotion to get people in the door. Don’t feel you have to match it to keep your customers.KEEP STAFF, CUSTOMERS HAPPYYou’ve been in the laundry business for a number of years. You should have a grasp of the market and you should certainly understand what it takes to keep your store turning a profit. Rely on that experience, and don’t go crazy trying to give services away to match a grand opening special.Now is the perfect time to have a talk with the attendants. The last thing you want is people you spent time and money training leaving for the competition. If your staff members are good at their jobs, make sure to keep them happy.If your staff review finds they don’t share your vision of quality service, it’s time to part company.The important thing on which you and your staff should focus is doing everything to keep customers happy. You are probably tired of hearing about how you need to concentrate on the little things, but sorry, it’s true, they do mean a lot.Greeting clients as they come in the door, asking them if you can help, and rewarding them for their loyalty are all actions that pay huge dividends in customer retention.If you take anything from this column, let it be the fact that there are things you can do to improve customer retention. Yes, a small percentage of customers will rotate — people will move in or out of the market, try other stores or purchase home laundry equipment.Keeping your solid core intact when the competition arrives is the key. The loyal customers that you retain will each contribute roughly $556 annually to your bottom line.Hopefully, you’ll do something before your competition arrives and goes after that $556. Just ask yourself: What am I offering these customers to maintain their loyalty?