CHICAGO — Even if you’re not a literary scholar, most of you are probably familiar with William Shakespeare’s famous phrase: “To be or not to be.” For self-service laundry owners, “To be or not to be” may come to mind when deciding whether to open an attended or unattended store.
While industry representatives have long claimed that there is no “magic” formula when it comes to the attended/unattended decision, most agree that there are basic factors that affect one’s call. For example, if you have a large store (more than 2,000 square feet) and want to offer extra services, the attended route is the way to go. The larger stores require more cleaning and have more equipment that needs to be cared for. The extra equipment also generates extra revenue, which helps pays for the attendant.
If you have a small store or two (1,500 square feet or so) and don’t want to spend time at the store(s), being unattended is an option. If you don’t have extra services or enough work for an attendant, why do you want the hassle of dealing with employees? With fewer machines there is also less revenue. Do you really want to cut into your profits by paying an attendant?
Are you thinking about opening a new store and wondering if you need attendants? Now is a great time to take another look at this age-old industry debate.
American Coin-Op recently spoke with industry representatives about the attended vs. unattended issue. The self-service laundry industry continues to evolve, and some of the following opinions may cause you to look at this question in a different light.
When assisting a prospective store owner, it’s all about asking the right questions, says J.D. Johnson, president, LaundryRx, Birmingham, Ala. The company does business in Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida.
Besides being a distributor, Johnson has also operated an unattended laundry.
When the attended-unattended question pops up, Johnson inquires about what the new owner expects from the business (profitability) and how much time he/she wants to spend at the store. “When I know this, I get a better feel for what the owner really wants,” Johnson says.
Johnson estimates that 80% of the stores he sees are attended, but knows there is still a place for unattended stores. “First, you can’t do a 3,000-square-foot unattended store because of the work it needs. It would be ideal to have a 1,500-square-foot unattended store.”
He believes the main reason owners want attendants is to handle extra services. The importance of attendants has increased recently because owners have expanded their drop-off services and are even offering commercial work, he adds.
Johnson enjoyed his experience as an unattended store owner and believes these stores can work in most locations, but the ideal situation is opening an unattended store (as large as 1,800 square feet) in a small, rural town.
Technology had made security concerns somewhat more bearable. “Security is a concern for all stores. Of course, it’s more of a concern for the unattended owner. Remote security is the No. 1 thing to ease headaches. I feel better if I can monitor my store from my phone. It’s also great to be able to wake up at 2 a.m. and see what’s going on in my store!”
Whatever type of security you use, it’s also important to have the proper signage letting customers know that a system is in place, he adds.
Will customers boycott unattended stores? “It’s rare that customers bypass a store because it’s unattended. Actually, it can be just the opposite. Some customers don’t like attendants looking over their shoulder.”
If you are concerned about introducing new technology without having an attendant present, don’t be, Johnson opines. “First, if you have a small store, you can’t afford a card system. You just don’t have enough machines to justify the investment. So not having attendants doesn’t really hurt in this case.
“Plus, keep in mind that people are much smarter today in terms of dealing with new technology. In the past, some operators may have stayed away from high-tech equipment in an unattended store. But people today use smart phones.”
When it comes to selecting new washers and dryers for an unattended store, search for the most user-friendly equipment, he suggests.
“My No. 1 worry about an unattended store is someone tearing it up. Study the crime rate in your area to determine if it’s suitable for this type of store.”
Some of the age-old concerns can be dealt with in advance by proper planning, he explains. “Put up a store with good lighting and visibility, have a good layout and establish a relationship with the police.”
Operators must not forget that even unattended stores needs attention. “I like unattended stores, but you still need someone to open and close and clean. If you need some help, but don’t want an attendant, trying getting one of your customers to do the job.”
In the future, he believes unattended stores will stay around. If anything, with new corporate investors not wanting to deal with employees, future trends point to slightly more unattended stores, he predicts.
Roger Idler, a 29-year industry veteran, is in a unique position to discuss the attended vs. unattended issue. Idler has five stores in the Denver area. Three stores are fully attended, one is unattended, and one is partially attended. His largest store is 4,500 square feet and the smallest store is 2,200 square feet.
Idler values attendants because they constantly monitor a store. On a scale of 1-10, he rates the value of attendants as a 7.
“Attendants can also handle your drop-off laundry and dry cleaning to pay for themselves. It’s also nice to have that certain comfort level you get by having someone in the store.”
Idler has some simple guidelines when it comes to deciding if an attendant is warranted. If your store is 2,500 square feet or larger, you need an attendant, he advises. The size of the store is key because extra services alone may not pay for attendants. “Larger stores generate more revenue because they have more machines. This is what also pays for the attendants.”
Do a little research on the area and see if customer demographics lend themselves to supporting extra services, he adds. (Lower-income customers may not use extra services.)
Idler admits that it can be difficult to find people who want to work and can be trusted. However, the tight job market has made it easier to find employees, he says. Idler has some veteran attendants. One of his keys to success is that his entry-level wage is more than minimum wage. “I even trust [the attendants] to watch the store if I ever take a vacation,” he jokes.
If you’re considering the unattended route, remember that you still need someone to clean up and that some insurance companies won’t deal with unattended stores, he says.
Should an owner promote the fact that his store is attended? “Promoting having attendants isn’t necessary, but remember that some promotions need attendants, such as offering wash-card promotions.”
Idler says digital security is a great thing for all owners, especially unattended owners. “When I first started, I used VHS tapes with the security equipment.”
Customers also play a role in your decision. “Some customers want unattended stores. I get the impression that some customers don’t want attendants because they don’t want people looking over their shoulder. Some also may stay away from unattended stores, but that’s not my experience.”
Idler isn’t worried about having attendants introduce new technology, such as cashless equipment, because he doesn’t plan on installing it. He believes his customer base can’t handle too much technology. “Some of my equipment has text messaging, but it’s never used. Know your customers.”
His best bit of advice is to keep things simple and care for your store, regardless of whether it is attended or unattended. The little things, like handling refunds, matter.
“I even like handling refunds. You can do this at the unattended store with the proper signage. People are surprised and appreciate getting a refund in the mail.”
Idler says his situation proves that unattended stores work outside of rural areas. Unattended stores also are here to stay, he adds. “People want to invest in something, and the unattended store can work for them.”
Check back Wednesday for Part 2: Fewer unattended stores on the horizon, but you still need help