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Year-End Roundtable: Improving the Industry (Part 2)

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(Photo: ©iStockphoto/alxpin)

Bruce Beggs |

CHICAGO — As we come to the end of another year, where do you see your coin laundry operation? Is it better? Worse? About the same?

While anchored in a public 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, as well as a top coin laundry association executive, 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 pushing this industry forward.

Seated at our virtual roundtable were:

  • Chris Brick, regional sales manager, Maytag Commercial Laundry
  • Jason Fleck, regional sales manager, Huebsch
  • Gary Gauthier, national sales manager for vended laundries, Milnor
  • John Kelly, regional sales manager, Speed Queen
  • John Olsen, vice president of vended products, Laundrylux
  • Tony Regan, senior vice president, global sales, ADC
  • Brian Wallace, president/CEO, Coin Laundry Association

BREAKING IT DOWN

We broke down the coin laundry operation into five aspects—equipment, store condition, marketing, customer relations, and planning for growth—and asked the experts to name at least one way that any store owner can seek improvement.

EQUIPMENT

A few among the group pointed to replacing old equipment with new.

“Replace old and inefficient equipment with new equipment to reap the benefits of efficiency (water and energy savings), technology and tax breaks available to small businesses (while these breaks still exist),” Fleck says.

“An upgrade of equipment always attracts new customers or brings back those who may have been lost,” Regan says. “Although a location might be more convenient, patrons will seek out laundries with newer equipment as they feel a better value. Larger-capacity washers (and) added dryer capacity both make the laundry experience simpler and thus less of a burden.”

“Upgrading older equipment to newer, more energy-efficient equipment can reduce monthly bills, drive customer retention and help set a store apart from the competition,” adds Brick.

“Having the latest, most utility-efficient equipment used to be a best practice exercised only by the very elite laundry owners. Today, there is no way to reach peak profitability with older, less efficient machines,” Wallace says. “It is not easy – there are large capital investments to be made. But, anything short of the most modern array of machines makes maximum return on investment tough to achieve.”

Taking good care of the equipment you have is also important.

“Ensure that all machinery is operational,” Gauthier says. “If everything is running, make sure it can stay that way by performing some preventative maintenance.”

“Establishing a preventative maintenance schedule will help equipment last longer and will keep ‘Out of Order’ signs off of the machines,” adds Kelly.

STORE CONDITION

Cleanliness and safety should be at the forefront here.

“Find a way to make your store cleaner, better-lit and more attractive to customers,” Gauthier says.

“Cleanliness and the cosmetic look and feel of the store are two very important factors to running a successful vended laundry,” says Kelly. “Replace any damaged floor and ceiling tiles. Replace any burnt-out lights, and consider a fresh coat of paint. Store owners should make sure their customers feel safe and comfortable in their stores at all times.”

“Small improvements such as replacing old lighting fixtures, drop ceilings and flooring can make a big impression on customers and show that owners care about keeping their businesses in great condition,” Fleck says. “This can also greatly impact the resale value of the business in the event an owner wants to sell. Also, by keeping a clean store with new equipment, competition may think twice before moving into the market.”

“There is no more well-worn adage in the laundry business than ‘the better the light, the cleaner the clothes,’” says Wallace. “Many stores today still have inefficient lighting that keeps electricity costs higher than they need to be – but even more can greatly improve the customer experience by keeping those lights and fixtures clean and operating properly.

“New technology in lighting extends beyond efficiency. Laundry owners can now program the ‘look’ of their store with lighting that projects the type (or ‘color’) of light that best complements the appearance of clean laundry in the customer’s basket.”

“People go where they feel comfortable,” says Regan. “Cleanliness and safety are paramount to the laundry experience. Critical is having functional equipment once you get customers to walk through the doors.”

MARKETING

How actively do you market your store? Some who are figuratively seated at the roundtable believe most store owners aren’t nearly active enough.

“Ninety-five percent of store owners do little or no marketing,” says Kelly. “As a general rule of thumb, store owners should plan to spend 1% of their total expenses on internal marketing and 2% on external marketing. Establishing a web presence is an easy and affordable way to reach customers.” He suggests listing your business on Google Places, creating a website, and getting involved in social media sites.

“As coin store owners, promoting and selling your store’s amenities and convenience is nonnegotiable—it’s required for success,” advises Brick. “Marketing efforts are quite varied and range from free to expensive, but all owners can find at least some time, and possibly a little cash, to boost store traffic and increase a loyal customer base.”

“Many laundry owners believe customers will see their laundry and come walking in,” says Regan. “While this is partly true, to make a store truly successful you need to drive traffic.”

“Develop or enhance your online profile and reward your customers for reviewing your store on Yelp or other sites,” Gauthier advises.

“Upon request, Huebsch can produce a ‘Grand Opening Kit’ for new store owners or those that are doing major remodeling,” Fleck says. The kit includes multi-lingual door hangers, customizable banners and flyers, plus Huebsch offers looping videos in multiple languages that store owners could feature on their in-store TVs.

“Fully branded Electrolux stores with comprehensive marketing plans highlighting technology are leading the market,” Olsen claims.

CUSTOMER RELATIONS

“Laundries are neighborhood businesses,” Wallace says. “If you take care of the neighborhood, the neighborhood will take care of you. This care can be given through support of a local charity or sponsorship of a school team – or dozens of other opportunities to give something back to the community that supports your business. Get involved and watch how the neighborhood rewards your good deeds.”

“A Laundromat has become a ‘community center’ of sorts where businesses can advertise and customers can congregate and socialize while they complete their laundry. This opens up the door for a lot of ‘out of the box’ ideas,” Fleck says.

For example, one Huebsch store owner takes Polaroid pictures of patrons on their birthday and hangs them up on the wall around the Laundromat. After doing this 20 or so years, the photos completely cover the store walls, creating a community feel. On their birthday, customers receive a free wash in a large washer-extractor of their choice, Fleck says.

“I’ve met very successful store owners that not only spend time in their stores getting to know their customers, but have also trained their attendants to do so,” says Kelly. “Asking for input on how to improve the store, holding the door open, or simply just chatting with customers makes them feel appreciated. Also, thank them for their business as they leave!”

“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,” Gauthier says.

“Customer service is paramount to a store attendant’s success and store owners need to continually push attendants to go above and beyond customer service,” Brick says. “In addition, for store owners to get employee buy-in, they should ask for feedback and thoughts on how to improve business. By getting employees involved, they feel they have some ‘skin’ in the business, which leads to a sense of ownership and loyalty.”

“Friendly staff provides a huge advantage with customers. Patrons spend hours in the laundry, and a friendly, helpful attendant can keep customers coming back,” Regan says. “In unattended stores, provide an opportunity for suggestions and implement them (when positive and realistic).”

“Operators that listen to customers and deliver a positive experience at a reasonable price will prevail over the competition,” Olsen advises.

PLANNING FOR GROWTH

“There are lots of ways to plan for growth, but each would include some ongoing analysis of the local marketplace,” Wallace says. “Get in the habit of surveying the competition on an annual basis. Try to inventory the stores, their equipment mixes and vend prices — and grade them on cleanliness, parking and other factors relevant to the competitive dynamic. Coupled with an updated demographic analysis every few years, this type of overview … can greatly inform your future decisions.”

“Upgrading top loaders to energy-efficient ‘crossovers’ along with larger, high-spin machines will keep costs down while meeting customers’ needs,” says Olsen.

“Continue to look for areas that don’t have a coin laundry, or have one that’s older or run-down,” advises Brick. “There’s no need to ‘recreate the wheel,’ if you can purchase an under-performing store with an already established customer base.”

Kelly says the coin laundry industry is no different than most, in that reinvesting leads to success. “Whether a store owner is looking to expand their store, build another store, or simply attract new customers, it is important to understand why customers choose to visit other stores,” he says. “It could be a number of reasons: convenience, price, equipment, or friendly attendants, to name a few.”

For new stores, owners should make certain there is room to grow, advises Fleck.

“A quality distributor will advise new store owners to build with the thought of expansion in mind,” he says. “Simple steps such as plumbing for additional bulkheads up front with the ability to add them later will make a big difference when the time comes to expand the business.

“When interested in growing an existing Laundromat, owners should consider adding larger washer-extractors and tumble dryers.”

“Growth is a relative term – it could mean a bigger machine or an additional location,” says Gauthier. “All growth needs a plan, however, and it should be carefully cost-justified.”

Check back Wednesday for Part 3!

About the author

Bruce Beggs

American Trade Magazines LLC

Editorial Director, American Trade Magazines LLC

Bruce Beggs is editorial director of American Trade Magazines LLC, including American Coin-Op, American Drycleaner and American Laundry News. He was the editor of American Laundry News from November 1999 to May 2011. Beggs has worked as a newspaper reporter/editor and magazine editor since graduating from Kansas State University in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications. He and his wife, Sandy, have two children.

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