CHICAGO — Long before my father, Tom, got into the Laundromat business, he was a customer. He would wander a few blocks away from home to a hole-in-the-wall coin laundry with headache-invoking lighting, ugly furniture and nothing to do but watch his clothes go around in circles, which is not much more exciting than watching paint dry.
He dreaded this experience. This was two hours of life each week that he knew he’d never get back.
To him, that was the picture of a Laundromat — a life-sucking purgatory where hours of your life go to die.
So years later, when he got into the business, he set out to treat his customers better than he felt he himself was treated. And that attitude led to the uniquely furnished World’s Largest Laundromat.
The idea is simple: No matter how fast you may be at folding your clothes, or how quickly you can wheel that cart around the store’s tight corners, a laundry customer is going to be in your store for a while, probably a couple of hours. So, be a good host and don’t let them get bored.
BATTLING FOR CUSTOMERS
Right now, I know there are some of you out there ready to stop reading, saying to yourself, “Oh, this is just about expensive amenities that torch your bottom line just to make your store seem cool. They’re coming to do their laundry and they’ll be back next week whether they have fun or not.”
If that’s where you head is, then this is exactly the column you need to read through to the end. Do you have any competition? Is there another laundry within two miles of you? I bet there are half a dozen. So, yes, they’ll still need to do their laundry next week, but there’s no shortage of competitors for them to patronize.
As a small business, you wage a battle every day for customer retention and new business. This is what your internal amenities are all about. So here’s a rundown of what we offer our customers during their time at World’s Largest.
• Fifteen flat-screen TVs with high-def — In our neighborhood, many families seem to time their laundry visits around big soccer matches. They come to the store, camp out with their clothes by a TV and get one of the employees to turn the channel to their program. It’s different with each family, but it comes down to some options: either they don’t get that channel at home or they like our TVs better. Doesn’t matter to us. To us, it means happy customers who don’t feel like their laundry is something to plan around but, rather, something to plan on.
Our employees control the remotes and change channels on request. We really don’t have any feuds over programming, with the exception of one woman. She tries to insist on getting any Mexican-language programming turned off. “I don’t even want to hear that language,” she’ll moan. We’ll change one TV for her, but that’s the extent of our appeasement of her attitude. After all, most of our customers and employees are Mexican, so a storewide roll of the eyes plays out when she wanders through the door.
• Bird aviary — The idea came from a nursing home, where we saw the attention many seniors there would give to the fluttering fun. At the Laundromat, our older customers certainly are big fans, but the most fascinated feathery fans are the little kids. Some will spend their entire visit to the store watching those birds fly around. It’s educational, free and a great way to bring the outdoors in. The finches, doves and canaries are part of a research project, so we don’t own the birds. They have babies all the time and it becomes something of an event here.
• Play and early childhood education area — It feels good to give children something to do besides use one of our TVs as a pseudo-babysitter. We had this area redesigned into our new laundry and it includes educational toys, a padded play/reading area, tables and paper to draw on, a chalkboard, and desks for school work. This is a great source of pride to us and it’s great to see the area being utilized. It keeps the children happy and occupied, which keeps the occupied parents happy.
Another child-related item is the World’s Largest coloring book. We’re already on our second edition now. A young, local artist comes up with a story concept and does all the artwork. Then, we have the coloring books printed in bulk to pass out to the children. The first one was a story about a family’s visit to the store. The second one is a fantasy about a kid falling asleep in the Laundromat and having a wild dream about talking animals that run and play with him throughout the empty store. We give the coloring books away, and the kids just love them.
• Wireless Internet — For you young folks, we have Wi-Fi. We provide this service for free throughout our building. All our customers have to do is bring their laptops, sign in with an e-mail address and they’re online. One thing that is really great to see is the number of people who use this tool for schoolwork.
The only maintenance we need on the system is an occasional reboot, which just means unplugging the wire from the wall and plugging it back in five seconds later. My laptop in the office utilizes this, too, which means that I know exactly when the server can’t log on.
Until more cities get “wired” for wireless from border to border, it’s a great feature to have at your store. It really makes you stand out from your competitors.
All of these things do wonders for a family’s morale at the laundry. Kids and parents alike come into our store actually looking forward to being there. And we feel like we’re doing a great community service, being great neighbors to our customers.
Each of those items that I have outlined are customer-retention all-stars. Some regular laundry customers will come here even when they don’t have laundry just to take advantage of Wi-Fi, for example, and that firms up their chances of coming back with laundry next time.
At this point, many of you are getting concerned again. “Where’s the profit? I only see money going out the door with all these features.”
No, these features are not revenue streams. But they do wonders for customer retention, and that means more quarters in your washers and dryers. And if I had a quarter for every time someone came in saying, “Hey, my friend said I can just sign into your wireless Internet. That true? Great, I’m going to start bringing my laundry here...”
Oh, wait. I do have a quarter for every time someone says that. Many quarters, in fact.
But if you still aren’t completely sold on these ideas, we’ve got some revenue-makers here too.
We have vending, vending and more vending. We have multiple drink machines (in case one breaks down, and they do...often). We have candy, chips and ice cream. This is pretty self-explanatory. The profit margins are good, the numbers go up and down in concert with a busy or slow laundry weekend, and many non-laundry customers (some here just for Wi-Fi, for example) will use our free Internet after paying for drinks and chips.
In this way, it’s about making your Laundromat “the place to be.” And speaking of that idea...
We do offer video games. We have six video games, and we rotate them so customers don’t lose interest. We have something for everyone — shooter games, racing games and classic games like Pac-Man and pinball. This is a revenue stream, indeed.
Do the math. Someone comes in and does $10 in laundry, but also spends $5 in vending and $3 more in video games. Now, multiply those numbers by a family of four. That’s a good day.
I have a confession: The only trouble I have in keeping track of the profit on those is figuring out just how many “house” quarters I poured into them myself during the week. But don’t tell the owner that. (I love pinball.)
To sum up all this stuff, what we have found is that spending money for what most Laundromat owners would call “the extras” is a great way for your store to be known by your neighborhood as “the one with extras.”
And that leads to keeping your current customers, grabbing new ones and retaining them. And that leads to more revenue for the owner. And that leads to a happy owner.
So, do happy customers lead to happy owners? Sounds simple, but if it works for us — a 13,500-square-foot Laundromat open 24/7, 365 — then it can work for you!