MOSS POINT, Miss. — Danny Santini got into the coin laundry business purely by accident. In 2001, Santini, then working in real estate, was in Escatawpa, Miss., to inspect a potential property purchase when he saw what would become the first of a chain of three coin laundries in Jackson County, Miss.
“The place was a mess,” recalls Santini. “It had probably been around since at least the 1960’s, and it was definitely showing its age. The plumbing was old, there were absolutely no modern amenities like air conditioning, and all 24 top loaders were run down.”
Despite all that, Santini didn’t miss the fact that the store still had potential and that it was in a good location.
“I saw an opportunity here that was too good to pass up,” says Santini. “After looking at the other coin laundries in the area, it was clear that I would have a good chance [to succeed] as long as I ran a coin laundry that customers would be happy to come back to, a place they would use, not because they had to, but because they wanted to.”
It would take a lot of hard work, but Santini already had a construction crew on hand. He was also lucky enough to find a great distributor in Andre Champagne (Commercial Laundry Equipment Sales, Gulfport, Miss.), he says. Soon after, Santini opened his first coin laundry and left the world of real estate behind.
Six years later, Santini’s business has not only survived and recovered from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, it’s thrived. Santini currently owns and operates three coin laundry stores, all located in Jackson County. The second store, purchased just before Hurricane Katrina hit, is in Pascagoula, which is right on the Gulf Coast. The third and newest store, which opened this past June, is in Moss Point, just north of Pascagoula. Inspired by the Santini’s children’s favorite movie, “The Incredibles,” all three stores are named Incrediwash.
STRIVING TO BE THE BEST
The Moss Point Incrediwash opened with a lot of fanfare, including a ribbon-cutting by the mayor and a performance by the high school jazz band (which is sponsored by Incrediwash), and is setting the gold standard for Santini’s other stores. The new store was purchased after the hurricane and built from the ground up to be the most modern and energy-efficient coin laundry in Jackson County.
“We just about gutted the entire place and started over,” says Santini. “Insulation was a huge deal. We went very heavy on insulation in the building, since it’s something a lot of commercial buildings don’t seem to have. We also put in rubber flooring, which I’ve found to be very helpful in regulating building temperature, rather than using bare concrete or tile.”
Santini also opted for a high-tech tint on the laundry’s windows, both for his customers’ comfort and his own. “The tint helps cut down on the heat from sunlight, but because you can still see inside and out, you feel safer.” This being the South, Santini made sure to install an energy-efficient air conditioning system — “There’s nothing worse than working up a sweat while doing laundry” — and heating system, as well as tankless water heaters.
“I love those things; they’re wonderful and a major savings on utilities,” enthuses Santini.
The Moss Point Incrediwash is also the first Incrediwash to feature all front loaders.
“They’re much more efficient,” he claims. “Top loaders don’t have the spin capability of front loaders, so what happens to your wash? Less moisture gets extracted from your clothes and then you’re stuck with a longer drying time. This means a customer has to spend more time and money on drying, which means fewer people are able to use the dryers at a time, which ultimately leads to lesser profits.”
The Escatawpa laundry still has a few top loaders, but their days are numbered. Eventually, all three stores will have identical equipment.
Energy efficiency is an ongoing concern in Jackson County. Santini says that while his water bill has generally stayed about the same, he’s seen the cost of electricity and gas go nowhere but up, especially after Katrina. “The cost of utilities is crazy,” says Santini. “Using efficient equipment like the tankless water heater has made a big difference.”
Even bigger are the savings Santini has made by using propane, rather than city gas. Santini was able to finance the installation of propane equipment at the Moss Point location at zero percent interest, and the company that he worked with provided the installation labor as well.
“Most people don’t know that there are alternatives to city gas. I can’t say enough good things about the propane guys,” says Santini. “Moss Point and Pascagoula are only three miles apart and on the same gas line, but gas costs 20 to 30 cents more per gallon in Moss Point than in Pascagoula, which makes absolutely no sense to me.”
Santini plans on converting the other two stores to propane as well. Overall, Santini’s utility costs make up about 20 to 25 percent of his income.
CREATING A BRAND
From the beginning, Santini wanted to ensure that customers would associate his coin laundries with quality. He’d seen too many laundries that were unrecognizable as being owned or operated by the same person or company. One store might be well-maintained while another had faulty equipment, or none of the stores shared any connecting components. To Santini, that made things look like an uninviting mess.
“So many laundries can be a hit-or-miss situation, even if they’re run by the same operator. I wanted my stores to look the same so that my customers know that no matter which location they’re in, the level of service and quality will be still be the same — excellent.”
To that end, he set out to create brand recognition for Incrediwash. Incrediwash has a company mascot, Mr. Bubbles, who appears regularly on store posters and flyers as a mass of bubbles happily jumping out of a sudsy washing machine. All three stores have been remodeled and boast an identical appearance — tan exteriors with the store logo across bright blue roofs. The interiors also share the same color scheme. The laundry area is what Santini calls “Wascomat gray,” with the blue of the roof as an accent color on bulkheads, folding tables and wall trim. The front drop-off area is painted in a combination of light and darker gray to create a more professional image.
All three laundries also offer the same services. Santini’s remodels included drive-in, drop-off and pick-up service, a convenience many of his busier customers appreciate. Incrediwash customers can also take advantage of the laundry’s wash-and-fold, drycleaning, alterations, or press services, as well as a full line of detergents.
“Most of my customers are blue collar,” says Santini. “There are shipyards here and a Chevron factory. A lot of them are civil service and I always remember to drop off coupons and promotional fliers at the fire station and police station.”
All three locations also have cable TV. “A lot of people like to come in on the weekend and hang out with their families to watch a game and get their laundry done,” says Santini.
The laundries are always fully attended during business hours, 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 6:30 a.m. to midnight on Sunday.
“A lot of people seem to leave their laundry until the last minute on Sundays,” laughs Santini. “It only made sense to stay open later and help them out.”
IT’S ALL IN THE CARDS
By far, the feature that Santini is the proudest to offer is the card system that debuted in the Moss Point location. He’s convinced the card system is a huge part of the location’s success.
“It’s much more convenient for everyone involved. I don’t have to go into the store several times a week to empty the machines of quarters, just once or twice to collect the cash.”
More importantly, the card system allows Santini to offer the feature that has been met with the most enthusiasm by laundry customers — credits for free drying time. Based on the size of washer a customer uses, he/she earns a certain number of credits toward drying time. Santini’s machines are set up so that one credit equals 15 minutes of free drying time. For example, if a customer uses one of the 20-pound washers, the card is given two credits of drying time, which equals 30 free minutes in the dryer. Any unused dryer minutes will carry over to a customer’s following visits.
“The one aspect that I’ve heard the most customer complaints about is dryers,” says Santini. “Since I’ve installed the card system, I have had zero dryer complaints. The customers love it. They don’t feel like they’re being cheated. Instead, they feel like they’re really getting their money’s worth.”
In addition, for every $20 a customer puts on their card, they get $5 extra. There’s also a “wash to win” program, that keeps track of a customer’s points earned based on the amount of money spent, and tells them when they can cash in their points for particular prizes. It requires a higher number of points, but it’s an additional customer incentive.
The free drying credit system has been a “learn-as-you-go” process for Santini. When he started, he made sure to let his customers know that he would occasionally raise wash prices as needed to ensure that he was meeting an acceptable profit margin. Since the laundry opened in June, Santini has only raised his wash prices once in three months, but anticipates that he’ll need to raise them again once or twice in the next several months in order to maintain his profits.
He eventually plans on having a card system at all three of the Incrediwash locations. The Pascagoula store has moved over to the system, and Santini is looking at a small store system for the original location in Escatawpa.
THE GREATEST CHALLENGE
Santini’s success is encouraging, considering the amount of damage done to Jackson County during Hurricane Katrina. In Pascagoula, before the hurricane there had been three stores, including his. After Katrina, there was only his.
“We’ve been very lucky,” says Santini. “I’d received a partial order of the dryers for the Pascagoula store when the storm hit, so I was fortunate that the majority of new equipment hadn’t been delivered yet.”
In Escatawpa, he lost the front roof, but suffered minimal water damage because the flood levels were not as high there as in other areas of the county.
“The equipment there actually fared pretty well. We had to put up a temporary roof, though,” he says.
He recalls the entire experience as “insane.” “In Pascagoula, we opened as soon as the power went back on, about seven or nine days after the storm. There was a gigantic line waiting for us to open the doors. We only had about 30 percent water pressure, so it took forever for the washers to fill, but everyone was so patient. Instead of complaining, they stood around telling stories about what they’d endured over the past week. It was the first time I really understood how important a laundry can be to a community.”
Business for Santini was “crazy” for a solid year following the storm. People wanted to salvage what they had, and having a working laundry enabled them to clean what they could find, as well as provide a safe place where they could socialize and feel as though they were getting something useful done.
Even with the other few laundries that have opened nearby, he says that his business reached what he would call “normal” about six months ago.
SET IN THEIR WAYS
The hurricane and its aftermath have been an eye-opening experience for Santini. Jackson County is home to between 15,000 to 16,000 people. The Pascagoula location is a $750K store, and many people had advised Santini against opening a location there.
“It’s so hard to get people to invest in this area because of their negative perceptions,” he says. “When I decided to set up shop here, people asked me, ‘Are you crazy?’ I have not once had any trouble with break-ins or vandalism. Of course, I have a security system — alarms, video surveillance — but I’ve found that the people here are very welcoming. I run a nice store with good equipment and attendants. If I ran an OK store with no attendant, why would I be surprised if someone broke in? It’s a matter of mutual respect between me and the community.
“I’d like to see more aggressive owners with good products and well-run laundries with a heavy emphasis on customer service,” explains Santini. “There are too many rundown stores where the owners are in it just for profit.”
However, Santini sees one major hurdle to the success of other laundries in the area: a general unwillingness to change. While he sees an overall nationwide move in the industry toward newer equipment like front loaders and card systems, locally he’s encountered a lot of stubborn resistance.
“A lot of people tell me they don’t want to change from top loaders to front loaders or use a card system because they’ll lose customers,” says Santini. “They tell me, ‘It’s not what they’re used to, they won’t like it.’ Well, when I started changing things at my other stores, I didn’t see any drop-off in business and I only got positive responses from my customers.”
He sees this as a general disconnect between what operators think their customers can accept and what their customers will accept. It’s a short-sightedness that he has seen cause other laundries to lose business and close up shop.
Santini believes that interaction with his customers is an important part of his success. Getting to talk to the people who come into his laundries and knowing what they like and don’t like can only help him.
“Customer satisfaction is at least 80 percent of my success. It’s important to talk to your customers, and for them to know that there’s always someone there to listen to their concerns. What kind of loyalty will an empty store get you?”