Veteran store owner John Henderson is not normally at a loss for words, especially when it comes to talking about the laundromat industry – one in which his family-operated chain has thrived for many years.
But, then again, these aren’t normal times.
“I don’t have a whole lot to add to such subjects as trends in payment methods, machine mixes, wash-dry-fold, delivery or POS systems,” said the owner of Liberty Laundry in Broken Arrow, Okla., when asked to peer into his crystal ball. “I can say that the times they are a-changin’… daily! And that makes it hard to spot any trends, except for differences in customer behavior and our own behavior as we try to manage the ongoing real threat of infection.
“All is not normal. We are still nice to our customers, of course. But we don’t have chairs for them to sit in. We still offer our vending machine goodies, but don’t allow anyone to eat or drink inside our facilities. We are finally letting folks fold their clothes inside the stores again. We have a mask ordinance in place for two stores, but not for the third, which is in another city. And so on.
“One thing that is clear about the future of our industry is that our industry has a future. I just don’t have a good feel for what it will be yet. People need us. Our revenue is on par with last year’s. But when you are just trying to keep your head down – from six feet away – and serve others as best as you can, it’s hard to look very far forward.
“I’m not afraid for the future of my business or our industry. I’m much more afraid for the future of our economy and our country.”
Another successful laundromat owner who has never shied away from talking shop or sharing his hard-earned advice with fellow operators is Larry Adamski, who owns Muskegon Laundry in Muskegon, Mich.
Yet, he too was less than eager to make any specific industry predictions.
“I’m not going to guess which of today’s realities will remain in the post-COVID-19 era,” he deferred. “But I really do miss the good old days of 2019.”
We do, too!
However, as we all head into the final months of 2020 (good riddance!) and prepare for better days ahead in 2021, there are perhaps some larger, overarching trends to this emerging “new normal” that cannot be ignored.
Increased Hygiene and Overall Cleanliness
No doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment in which customers are acutely aware of publicized federal and local health standards and protocols.
“Historically, most vended laundry users had an expectation that the store they patronized was basically clean,” said Ted Ristaino of Yankee Equipment Systems in Barrington, N.H. “Although they never saw anyone cleaning the store and even though there may have been some dryer sheets on the floor, they perceived that the store was cleaned on a regular basis. The washers didn’t have detergent crusted on top of the machines. The trashcans weren’t overflowing. The restroom was clean. Something was happening week over week.”
However, these days, if a laundromat is attended, customers expect to see cleaning activity going on regularly, Ristaino pointed out. Watching store personnel clean the machines, the folding tables, the seating units and the restrooms instills confidence that the owner is taking cleanliness to a higher level.
“If a store was clean before COVID-19, expectations are that it should be even cleaner now,” Ristaino said.
“Like all of us, laundromat customers want peace of mind that their laundromat and the equipment in it is clean,” explained Kathryn Rowen, general manager of the laundromat segment for Alliance Laundry Systems. “Savvy owners are proactively communicating their procedures to customers through signage and social media – and they are providing plenty of visual evidence of best practice cleaning procedures within their stores.”
“What better time to visibly promote your store and your business’ attention to customer wellness?” asked Girbau North America Vice President of Sales Joel Jorgensen. “Employ visible cleaning routines and over-zealous attention to employee- and customer-masking and spacing recommendations.”
Bryan Maxwell of Western State Design, headquartered in Hayward, Calif., agreed that there is definitely a change in customer awareness and expectations when it comes to store cleanliness.
“What was acceptable in the past is no longer acceptable,” he said. “This creates a real opportunity for well-run, clean laundries to distinguish themselves from the competition.”
“In nearly every customer survey we’ve given, cleanliness has always come out on top,” added Ken Barrett, owner of Washin Coin Laundry and Golden Springs Laundry Company, located in Anniston/Oxford, Ala. “The locations that have made cleanliness a priority only needed to make a few changes to meet the new customer expectations. Some chemical changes and increased training of staff members, and our customers thanked us for running such clean stores.
Barrett continued that having clean, updated restrooms and hand sanitizer stations have become standard practice as well.
“In many industries, including the laundromat industry, recent events have pushed us to do what we really should have been doing all along,” he explained. “After all, the basis of our business and our personal mission statement is ‘to provide a clean, safe place for our customers to launder their clothes and personal items.’”
Increased Reliance on Technology
“From a pandemic and then right into a coin shortage – if you needed any more evidence of the importance of technology, you got it in 2020,” Rowen pointed out. “We’ve seen a sharp pivot in interest in app-based payment systems. Whether you’re ready to go full cashless or not, the current coin shortage has illustrated a need to hedge your bets and provide multiple payment options.
“Laundry owners that can offer multiple payment options, leverage remote monitoring, specifically cater to their customer’s needs, and have access to operations data to make adjustments on the fly truly are best positioned for success,” she added. “Like every other industry, ours is transitioning from an analog approach to a streamlined, digital methodology. The current situation has only accelerated this transformation.”
Hybrid or cashless systems definitely have gained popularity, Ristaino reported.
“The number of offerings in this arena is growing faster than ever,” he said. “Also, a new generation of vended laundry customers – more comfortable with technology and averse to carrying cash – is looking for the same payment options they have at other retail establishments.”
Henry Walter – owner of Whale of a Wash, based in Shepherdstown, W.Va. – explained that he currently has credit card and/or QR recognition at six of his 10 stores, through three different suppliers “with an interesting variety of favorable results, down a sometimes rocky road of implementation tasks.”
Maxwell pointed to three key reasons why the alternative payment technology trend seems to have strengthened even more so during the COVID-19 crisis:
- They enable customers to spend less time in the laundry. Rather than standing in front of a machine and dropping in 32 quarters, the customer swipes once with a credit card or touches a button on his or her phone, and the payment is made. Also, many of these systems inform customers how much time is left on their cycles. This allows them to leave the laundromat and wait in their vehicles until their cycles are completed.
- In addition, payment alternatives eliminate the need for cash, so they eliminate exposure to whatever germs may be living on the currency and coins.
- As noted, coronavirus-related shutdowns have created a shortage of quarters, and payment technologies can decrease an owner’s dependency on coins.
“We are providing incentives to customers to use our credit card payment options, in an effort to keep more quarters in the store,” said Lisa Johnson of the Giant Wash laundry chain, based in St. Ansgar, Iowa. “And we have seen an uptick in usage.”
Fellow Midwest multi-store operator, Bob Frandsen of Rush City, Minn., pointed to the trend of the younger generations using their credit cards and debit cards for everything and, as a result, carrying around very little cash.
“In our laundries, the customer can buy tokens with a credit card, and 20 percent of our sales are on credit cards,” he revealed. “We have one laundromat where customers can use their credit cards at every washer and dryer, and at that store, 33 percent of our sales are on credit cards. I think the trend is that my kids will see cashless laundries in which all sales will be charged to credit cards.”
“Technology is key to flexibility, and smart laundry owners are tapping into its advantages,” Jorgensen said, referring to today’s various payment options, as well as all of the bells and whistles on modern commercial washers and dryers.
“Payment systems provide the ability to program washer cycles and alter vend prices; run specials and time-of-day/day-of-week promotions; view the number of turns and revenue; offer loyalty programs; and communicate with and complement point-of-sales systems and customer interface,” Jorgensen continued. “A high-level communication interface between the machine and the payment solution is a must.
“Machines must be able to work in concert with chemicals, pump systems, ozone or UV disinfection systems, especially given the world’s current COVID-19 pandemic. Machine programming flexibility allows the store owner to alter wash variables within each cycle – including water levels, temperatures, number of baths and rinses, extract speeds, and so on. This can be done on the machine or remotely. It also provides handy maintenance and flush options, and the ability to alter vend prices and run specials.
“Be aware that it’s possible that water temperature guidelines could be established for vended laundries in the near future. As a result, be certain that you have the ability to increase water temperature, if needed.”
More and more operators are choosing washers that offer multiple customer options – beyond hot, warm and cold water – to include extra washes, extra rinses and extra spin, along with the injection of chemicals such as ozone.
Increased Focus on Staff Training
Clearly, attendant training should always be ongoing. However, in light of the current pandemic, owners are addressing cleaning routines, customer interface, rules enforcement and situational practices in much more detail and on a more regular basis.
“The successful owners already had detailed training procedures,” Rowen stated. “So, they have only added elements – more cleaning processes, etc. – during the current pandemic to take the best care of not only their customers, but also their valued staff.”
“This is probably not a universal truth, but more coronavirus-conscious owners are training their staff to wear masks at all times and gloves when processing customer orders and cleaning the store,” Ristaino said. “Also, the training revolves around the constant cleaning of machines, seating units, folding tables and restrooms.”
Trends in Store Layouts and Equipment Mix
“We are seeing store layouts with wider aisles, more and better-spaced folding tables, sanitization stations, and soak sinks,” Jorgensen said. “We’re also seeing automatic detergent injection and antiviral options on machines, including ozonation as part of the wash/rinse cycle and wash-dry-fold service menu. Laundry owners are continuing to install bigger, ‘mega’-capacity machines to differentiate from the competition, to offer much larger washers than are available in homes or apartments, and to improve revenue per square foot.”
Rowen concurred that today’s owners are embracing a more customer-centric layout, which does away with “jamming as many machines as possible into the space.” The trend has been to focus on the customer experience – more common spaces, more kids’ areas and, generally, a more open and welcoming area.
For Adamski, the roomy layout of his store was especially conducive to implementing safe distancing.
“All I had to do was separate the folding tables a little bit to comply with social distancing requirements,” he said. “My customers were never banned from folding their clothes in the laundromat.”
“Everyone is talking about wider aisles and removing every other seat,” countered Todd Fener of Laundry Owners Warehouse, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., “I don’t agree. It seems like a permanent solution to a temporary problem. In three years, you’ll still be paying for wider aisles, instead of making more money. Wider is better, but will it bring in enough customers to warrant the expense? Only those who do it will know. My guess is probably not.”
With regard to equipment, Rowen noted that the industry has long been headed toward a higher-capacity mix, with less toploading units and a greater emphasis on 60-pound washers and above.
For example, Frandsen recently upgraded two of his stores with new washers. He removed two 80-pound washers, four 60-pound units, four 40-pounders and 10 20-pounder – and replaced them with four 90-pounders, six 60-pounders, six 40-pounders and four 20-pounders. In addition, he added two 45-pound stack dryers.
“That was an increase of 280 pounds, or 37 percent, of washing capacity, and 180 pounds of drying capacity,” he calculated. “As you can see, the trend is definitely toward larger washers in my area. I have been in the laundry business for 38 years, and in my first laundry, the largest washers were two 50-pounders, with two 30-pound dryers.”
“Any store needs a certain level of equipment for customer throughput, as well as return on investment,” Ristaino explained. “There are economic consequences to changing layout configurations or equipment mix. Since a new store is a long-term investment, our customers have stayed with a traditional layout and equipment mix, while making the necessary operational changes to ensure a safe, clean environment for their customers.”
Most store owners have made inexpensive, temporary changes to ease congestion in their facilities. Some operators have added temporary seating in front of the stores so that customers have a place to sit outside. Other laundromat owners has installed smaller, temporary folding tables in nooks within their stores to increase customer distancing.
“Many smart owners know that this is temporary and have chosen this time to invest in their businesses,” Maxwell added. “Interest rates have never been lower, and most equipment manufacturers have financing terms that I’ve never seen in my 30-year career. Take an honest look at your store and make the improvements now. It will pay big rewards when the craziness of 2020 is behind us.”
Promoting Your Laundromat
Many shrewd laundry owners are now marketing their businesses as clean, safe, sanitized one-stop destinations. What’s more, those who offer ozone disinfection are certainly promoting that fact as well.
“Cleanliness is at the top of the list for store promotion,” Ristaino explained. “In addition, being able to get in and out quickly by emphasizing the amount, size and type of equipment available, along with the proper wash temperature, are all getting worked into various marketing pieces. Also, today’s owners know that it’s important to promote their well-trained staffs that are properly equipped to handle customer needs professionally and safely.”
“If your store is fully attended and you are paying staff to clean and sanitize your laundromat, you should be marketing what you are doing,” Maxwell stated. “Cleanliness has never been more popular. Exploit it to your advantage, and grow your customer base.”
Fener, who has noticed some store owners more aggressively promoting their equipment’s benefits, noted two laundromat promotional taglines that recently caught his eye:
- “Our Dryers Kill Germs That Your Dryer Can’t!”
- “You’re Hot, But We’re Hotter!”
“Most home dryers max out at 135 degrees, according to dailyhomesafety.com,” Fener said. “By contrast, most laundromat dryers reach 190 degrees. Although 140 degrees for 25 minutes kills most germs. You can kill even more at 190 degrees.”
The promotion of flexible business hours also has increased.
“Stores going 24 hours are using signage and Google Ads highlighting less people in the facility at 1:00 a.m., which means less risk,” Fener added. “One owner advertises the hours she disinfects the laundromat. She does the whole store four times a day, with the last one at 1:00 a.m., and she mentions that it’s the safest time to come in.”
In the age of COVID-19, online marketing and the usage of social media, while critical to all businesses, have only grow in importance.
“The last several months have kept us all on our toes, with requirements and mandates changing sometimes daily,” Rowen said. “I think store owners are seeing the importance of social media and an online presence as a means to communicate with customers and prospective customers. Being able to post new rules for using the laundromat, updated policies, and even marketing wash-dry-fold as an option for customers not ready to return to self-service yet have all been messages we’ve seen shared online. Customers are sharing their experiences, whether good or bad, so they can help others who are looking for safe, clean stores.”
Growth in the Wash-Dry-Fold and Pickup/Delivery Businesses
Wash-dry-fold has been a mixed bag across the country, according to Rowen. “We’re hearing some owners have enjoyed significant increases, while others have dropped off a bit,” she said. “I think, moving forward, having this option certainly best positions the business to meet the needs of all customers.”
And, in fact, more and more laundromat customers seem to be discovering the previously unknown service of wash-dry-fold, as well as the growing availability of residential pickup and delivery.
“Customers now understand the time-saving convenience and competitive pricing of these services,” Jorgensen noted. “Many segments of the laundry industry, including drycleaners and hotels, are positioning themselves to provide pickup-and-delivery laundry service for local residents and hotel guests.
“The pandemic has opened new doors for laundromat residential pickup-and-delivery service,” he added. “The general public is ‘shopping’ for family safety and convenience, and is willing to spend money for it.”
Initially, when the pandemic first struck, Stacey Runfola of the SMM Laundry Group in south Florida experienced a decrease in both her drop-off laundry and pickup-and-delivery customers.
“Typically, those were people who had the ability to do laundry in their homes, but used our services as a convenience and a luxury,” she explained. “However, we are now seeing a surge in both of those segments, as the customers have either gone back to work or had to settle into work-from-home routines.”
In addition, Walter has added a wash-dry-fold business within his rural marketplace, “which wasn’t used to having the additional services – such as drop-off laundry, delivery and commercial accounts – that most urban stores offer to gain market share.”
“Although not a big moneymaker, the successful wash-dry-fold system is one that pays for itself and keeps the store spotless for coronavirus-conscious customers with no additional custodial expense,” he said. “I’m fairly certain these are permanent changes for us.”
Is Change Here to Stay?
So, which of these trends will become permanent practices within the laundromat industry? And, on the other hand, what changes are merely temporary, until the pandemic abates?
“Technology will be permanent,” Rowen said. “Having the flexibility to manage their businesses and customers from anywhere at any time will be a major competitive advantage for owners.”
According to Jorgensen, the laundry pickup/delivery business is here to stay.
“It will become the proverbial ‘fourth leg to the stool,’ along with self-service, wash-dry-fold and commercial work,” he explained. “However, the following changes will relax after the pandemic subsides – customer spacing, store capacity limitations, limited folding table availability and overall public space/service paranoia. School-year and summer business volume trends also will normalize once the world finds its ‘cure’ to the health and social hysteria.”
Cleanliness has become an integral part of store operations, Ristaino noted.
“The extent to which a lot of store owners have upped their games has been noteworthy and appreciated by their customers,” he said. “Enhanced attention to a higher level of cleanliness and hygiene may remain as a permanent change. On the other hand, current trends like removing folding tables, ‘wash-dry-go’ procedures and limiting the number of operational machines – all made necessary to ensure virus-prevention distancing – will, in all likelihood, be reversed once the virus is under control.”
Contactless operations, as much as can be achieved in a laundromat setting, are likely to be permanent, according to Fener.
“Much like with Zoom meetings, we were pushed into the deep end of the pool with regard to contactless transactions for our own good,” he explained. “Noted psychologist and author Robert Cialdini wrote: ‘Sealed within the fortress walls of rigid consistency, we can be impervious to the sieges of reason.’ In short, anything that makes our lives easier is here to stay.”
Where Are We Headed?
For one thing, Ristaino sees the laundromat industry heading toward a less coin-reliant, more technologically advanced future.
“For its first 50-plus years, the industry was coin-centric,” he explained. “In the 1990s, card systems appeared and gained a solid foothold, although most stores remained coin-centric. In the early part of this century, hybrid systems took another bite out of the coin-centric market share.
“Now, the industry is being introduced to cashless payment systems. These systems will further erode the cash-centric nature of our industry. How far has yet to be determined. Nonetheless, these various systems improve store management, reduce or eliminate the amount of time required to collect and count coins, and enable far more marketing advantages over a coin-centric store.”
In addition, according to Johnson, the days of the neglected laundromat appear to be numbered.
“I think customers are now demanding more from their laundromats,” she said. “I believe the owners of stores that are just simply dumpy ‘ZombieMats’ are going to be looking to get out of the business or face extinction. Today’s customers are not going to put up with dirty old stores anymore.”
Walter stated that he sees the industry headed toward higher vend prices to support the added expenses of more challenging human resources policies and continually higher minimum wages, as well as “the normally insatiable utility cost increases.”
“Most laundry owners I’ve spoken to have told me their sales are down compared to last year,” Maxwell reported. “I believe this is a result of three very specific, very temporary reasons. First, some customers are scared of being anywhere in public. As a result, they don’t leave their homes, even to do their laundry. Second, some customers have less money to spend at the laundromat, because they have been laid off from their jobs. And, third, some customers leave their homes less often, so they don’t have the same need for clean clothes.
“If parents aren’t leaving to go to work and their kids aren’t going to school, they can live in the same pair of pajamas, jeans or sweatpants for a longer time. However, once the virus is behind us, we will slowly return to normal.”
Bo McKenzie, owner of BBM Coin Laundry in Rome, Ga., related that the families in his market seem to be more conscience of letting dirty clothes build up and were washing smaller loads more often.
“Laundromats are certainly an essential business,” he said. “I feel our stores have maintained a steady flow of business since the middle of March. There have been some high weeks and some low weeks, but overall business has been consistent.”
All indications are that the market has stabilized and recovered from March and April lows, according to Jorgensen.
“It appears that customers are getting comfortable in the ‘new normal’ and – like us all – want their lives, business activities and social interaction back,” he said.
“Store valuations are already up,” Fener pointed out. “People with money to invest have fewer choices. Who’s going to buy a retail store or a restaurant when they can own a laundry with much less risk? It’s one thing to read that laundromats are recession-resistant, but it’s another thing altogether to see for yourself how successful laundries are – especially during this, hopefully, once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. The story of laundromat ownership sells itself these days.”
“We are headed for a boom,” she predicted. “Our ‘essential’ designation has been noticed. We’ve always said the laundromat industry is recession-proof – and now we’ve shown it.”