Chicago-Area Owner Tom Benson Discusses the Customer-Focused Programs That Set His Business Apart from the Crowd

Ten years ago, Tom Benson reopened the doors to his rebuilt and renovated laundry business, World’s Largest Laundromat, after it had been destroyed by a massive fire in 2004. Recently, Benson and his staff showed their appreciation for the store’s customers with a huge anniversary celebration at the 13,000-square-foot laundry in Berwyn, Ill.

“The day we reopened after the fire, I had about 100 people there by 1:00 p.m., and I hadn’t even done any advertising yet,” said Benson, in a local newspaper article. “My customers are so loyal, and that’s phenomenal. I owe them something for how well they accept me and the business.”

The all-day anniversary event boasted non-stop entertainment, complete with clowns, musicians, raffles and free food. Even Berwyn Mayor Robert Lovero stopped by to celebrate what the business has meant to the neighborhood.

“It’s been an integral part of Berwyn’s business community for all these years, and it provides a service to the community,” Lovero said. “The place is always crowded, and there’s a family atmosphere. Tom makes it like a second home for people. He showed his commitment to the city when he rebuilt, and I want to be there to show the city’s commitment to him.”

Benson, who purchased the business in 1999, believes the reason it has been so successful is due in large part to the emotional connection he and his employees have developed with the customers. And he recently discussed with PlanetLaundry some of the ways in which World’s Largest Laundromat connects with the people it serves.

Please elaborate on some of the customer-focused community outreach programs that set your laundry business apart.

A good example is a recent presentation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in this area. This presentation, which we sponsored, promoted and coordinated, was held at the local elementary school. In addition, we followed it up by inviting some of the INS counselors to come to the store on a Saturday morning – and they spent four hours just answering our customers’ immigration-related questions.

We saw this as fulfilling an important need within the community. Our customer base is 85 percent to 90 percent Hispanic, so the store provided the perfect audience for these counselors.

In addition, it’s hard to think of another business where customers are with you for two hours, and much of that time is down time while the clothes are either in the washers or dryers. It’s a captive audience that’s looking for something to do. And we like to provide those types of programs.

Another long-time and very popular program at your store is the Read to Ride program. Can you explain how it works?

When I bought the laundry in 1999, I didn’t have a lot of extra money to invest in the business at the time, so my basic strategy at that point was to sell people on the fact that I was in charge and that there was a presence in the store – that somebody was there to make sure customers would be treated fairly and that the laundry process would go as smoothly as possible.

Back then, if I had a campaign slogan, it would have been “Just Believe in Me and Keep Coming!” So, I had sort of a one-on-one approach during the first six months I was open. I literally was here 10 to 12 hours every day, seven days a week. I was there and everybody got to know me. And slowly the business turned around.

During those days, I had many conversations with the customers, and we often talked about their kids – and the fact that, at home, everyone spoke Spanish, while at school, everyone spoke English. Some customers shared their concerns over the problems some of their kids were having academically because of this.

These conversations led to the Read to Ride program. I thought it would be helpful to have the kids read some books over the summer – and, of course, we run that program to this day.

Read to Ride is open to kids 6 to 14 and is run in association with the two nearby library systems. Kids can pick up small raffle tickets at the local libraries or at our store. Each ticket will include the name of the book, the author, the child’s name and address, and the signature of an adult – either a librarian or a parent or guardian – indicating that they know the kid has read the book. Each raffle ticket goes toward winning a bike at the end of the summer.

And some kids read a lot. We had one boy whose father would drop him off at the library every day with a lunch and would pick him up in the afternoon on his way home from work. That kid read 198 books that summer – and he wanted to win a bike so badly. In fact, if his raffle ticket wasn’t pulled, we were going to buy him a bike anyway. But, luckily, his name was chosen.

One of the keys to this program is that the kids have to bring their raffle tickets into the store. We do a lot of things for the community, but behind every one of them is a strategy to boost our bottom line. With Read to Ride, we’re reaching out to the local libraries, so we’ll reach kids and families that don’t necessarily patronize to the store. And, rather than letting those kids hand in their completed raffle tickets at the library, we make them return them to our store. Therefore, their parents have to walk into the laundromat.

The idea is to get them into the store to see how easy it is to park around here and to see that we’ve got something special going on at World’s Largest Laundromat.

Perhaps not coincidentally, we always have good sales numbers in September. I think it’s a result of the program, which ends in the middle of August.

We get about 600 to 700 participants in the program, and they read somewhere between 8,000 to 10,000 books every year. And our business and reputation in the community grows because of it. So many people come in and thank us for what we do for the children.

You’ve also recently announced that you’ll be sponsoring your city’s fireworks display on the 4th of July. Can you explain how this came about?

When the economic crash occurred in 2007 and 2008, our mayor cancelled the city’s 4th of July fireworks display. But, this year, as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of our store’s rebuilding, we’ve decided to bring it back.

We’ll pay for the fireworks, which strangely enough costs only $15,000. Of course, the city fire department has to be perched along the way, and the police department is going to have to handle crowd and parking control. Also, the local high school will provide us with the use of its sound system.

So, there are a lot of other expenses involved with this fireworks display. I’m just paying for the guy who pulls the switch and sets off the 20-minute show.

It’s our gift to the city. And it won’t be just a one-off sponsorship; that wouldn’t be fair to the city or the mayor. As long as we’re here, which is going to be a long time, we’ll take on that sponsorship, as long as we have cooperation from the city.

Pizza night at your store also has become quite a popular tradition in the community. What was the thought behind this promotion?

When we started turning the business around, it became clear that the weekends were getting so busy that we started having customers waiting around for machines. And that was not good.

I had to find a way to coax some of those weekend customers to do their laundry with us on a Wednesday night, which traditionally was a slow night for us. The idea was to make it “pizza night.”

And, today, we go through more than 40 pizzas every Wednesday night. We schedule three deliveries – one at 5:00, one at 5:20 and one at 5:45 – and we get a phenomenal amount of people. Approximately 150 to 175 customers will show up on Wednesday nights. We had to divert some of that weekend business, and we did.

A lot of families show up to pizza night. We don’t count slices. Everyone can take as much as they want. The only stipulation is that you must be doing laundry – we’re not looking to feed the whole neighborhood.

What other types of programs and events do you run to make a difference in your community?

Another thing we do is connected to a local school choir. Each year, the kids attend a national competition, and we help offset the cost of those trips. This year, they’ll be going to Washington, D.C.

In return, the choir will come to the store on the Saturday morning before Mother’s Day and put on a concert for us. We’ll have 16 to 25 kids performing for our customers. It’s something that no one else does.

At Christmas, I dress up as Santa Claus, and my wife will take pictures of the kids with Santa. Also, every kid gets a toy. We’ll get between 800 and 1,000 kids to show up for our Christmas event – and, for a few of those kids, our gift might be one of the better presents they receive for Christmas.

In addition, we hold 10 kid-friendly performances a month at the store – clowns, magicians and so on. Also, every other week, we host a children’s gymnastics program, which is run by the local My Gym franchise.

What are the needs of the community” What do people want? What would be entertaining for them? That’s part of how we differentiate ourselves. It all comes down to the fact that we put in more management hours than anyone else. There are so many absentee owners in this industry who have no clue what their customers are looking for.

Why do you feel it’s important to hold these types of events and programs for your customers?

There are a lot of families in our neighborhood that may not have any other extended family in the area. We want them – and all of our customers – to know who we are and to be connected to this place. I want them emotionally connected to the business.

We stress to our employees the importance of being friendly and talking to the customers. I don’t mind attendants taking a few minutes out of their day to have conversations with customers. We want them to connect with the customers.

The best example of this connection is young family who had just moved here from Texas. They didn’t know anybody, and they started doing their laundry here. A few months after they began coming here, they had a baby, and they wanted to baptize their child at the local Catholic church. However, they didn’t have a family member here to be the godmother. So, they asked one of my staff members who works our counter, and of course my employee was absolutely honored to do so. Now, how about that?

Connectivity is so important. I have a lot of 35- to 45-year-old women working here. They’re moms, just like a lot of our customers. And I’ll walk past and hear them telling customers about the best soccer programs in the area, or explaining a local park district program, or suggesting where to buy a first communion dress.

It’s like all of those great neighbors you wish you had – and they’re all here at the store.

What advice do you have for other laundry owners who may be considering running similar community programs in their markets?

You’ve got to talk to your customers. You’ve got to figure out who they are. You’ve got to discover the commonalities within the community.

Most likely, you’re in a community with needs; that’s just part of being in the laundromat business. You have to figure out how to answer those needs. For example, anyone can run a reading program like ours. Anyone can play Santa at Christmas.

Maybe sponsor a softball team or a soccer league. It’s about connecting with the people. You have to know who they are.

Of course, it’s critical to remember that the important thing is your bottom line. Every one of our programs is tied to keeping our current customers and getting new ones. There are a lot of nice ideas and great things to do within a community, but you have to tie it to your bottom line.

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