L.A. Laundry Owner Ronnie Morales Discusses Operating in a Dense, Urban Marketplace
Ronnie Morales currently owns two Laundry 360 locations in Carson, Calif., which is located just outside of downtown Los Angeles.
A former insurance agent for State Farm, Morales knew he’d never meet the personal and professional goals he had set for himself by simply working a 9-to-5 job for the rest of his life.
“I wanted growth, and the only choice was to become a business owner,” he said. “I was determined to build a future. The job I had was not able to offer that, so I quit my job and took the leap of faith.”
Morales had researched several potential industries and business models, when a friend suggested looking into the vended laundry business. He took the advice and immediately joined the Coin Laundry Association. From there, Morales spent nearly a year looking over hundreds laundromat listings, trying to find the right store for him.
Coincidentally, Morales found his first laundromat in the L.A. metro area in which he grew up.
“I knew this store had to be the right one,” he noted. “The laundry was in Carson, which is the city where I grew up. And the opportunity to own a business in a shopping center I’ve known since childhood was exciting.”
Morales, who also serves as an agent for laundry distributor PWS, has grown that first laundry business well beyond what he had initially purchased. In addition, he has taken all of the knowledge he gained from that first store and put it into his second laundry location in Carson.
“We now proudly own two beautiful stores in the city of Carson,” Morales explained. “It brings me joy to give back to the community I witnessed growing up.
“As a father of three, it excites me to tell my kids my story,” he added. “I teach them that they can do anything they put their mind to, as long as they have the willpower and the drive. I’m still growing our chain of laundries and hoping to own another store soon, making it three laundries. This business has genuinely made my dream a reality.”
Morales recently shared with PlanetLaundry the advantages and disadvantages of operating a vended laundry business in one of the nation’s most densely populated urban metro areas:
What are some of the key demographics of your store’s marketplace?
I’m located in the city of Carson, which is south of downtown Los Angeles. Carson is a municipality in the South Bay region of Metropolitan Los Angeles.
Carson has a population of about 28,000 residents, with approximately 10,000 households within a one-mile radius of my business. Within a mile of my laundry, the area is 34 percent renter housing. The workforce is 57 percent white collar, with the majority of immediate residents earning between $50,000 and $75,000 annually.
The city is temporarily hosting home games for the Los Angeles Chargers, which has brought the area a boost in tourism and has resulted in an increased opportunity for our business to offer more in the way of wash-dry-fold services.
In addition, Carson recently began development of a number of large, low-income housing developments.
What are the greatest advantages that this type of densely populated marketplace provides your laundry business?
Clearly, the advantages of owning a vended laundry in my particular demographic region come from the continuous growth in the population. The recently built low-income housing and sports venues bring added opportunities for both self-service and wash-dry-fold laundry business.
What are the biggest operational challenges of running a store in such a busy, urban market?
The challenges of operating a business in dense populations are ever-changing. An owner must adapt to compete. Many challenges we face include limited parking in small shopping centers, web advertising, finding quality employees and retaining loyal customers.
Many shopping centers in Los Angeles simply don’t have adequate parking available for customers. In a sense, this caps a business’ opportunity to grow walk-in business.
When our business began to notice parking availability becoming an issue, we started thinking of solutions. We saw that customers were unable to easily park in front of the business to unload their large bags of laundry. As a result, we requested dedicated parking spaces from the landlord, which enables our drop-off customers to park in front of the store for 10 to 15 minutes while they unload their laundry. This has made our parking issues more manageable.
In recent years, the challenge for most businesses has been its ability to be found during Google searches. In a densely populated area, when potential customers search for a “local laundromat,” several businesses will appear. Therefore, I’ve learned as much as I can about search engine optimization, created a google listing and asked all of our happy customers to rate the business and its services – and, since then, more and more customers are finding us on the internet.
Of course, the biggest key to the success of any business is a quality staff. In a highly competitive demographic, this can be a challenge.
We’ve discovered that advertising for attendants on Facebook has been the best way to go for finding local, qualified candidates. A Facebook job ad enables us to screen potential candidates and to see the real backgrounds of these people. When we place a Facebook ad, we put forth several qualifying questions before scheduling an in-person interview.
We make sure potential hires understand our no-tolerance policy for negative reviews, and reward good reviews from our customers. I believe our advantage compared to other laundromats in the market is making sure we hire smart.
A vended laundry in a highly competitive market such as the L.A. metro area is at a disadvantage, when you consider how many options are available for customers within a small radius. Thus, a laundry business must be able to maintain a good reputation. Our employees make customers feel like family. We make an extra effort to thank our customers for their visits and let them know that we notice them.
We also offer such perks as free coffee, Wi-Fi access and comfortable study areas. And we award loyalty points after a certain number of visits to our wash-dry-fold customers. All of these factor give us a needed advantage in this competitive market.
How do you deal with security issues?
The homeless population in urban neighborhoods can increase with the higher cost of living and the inability to afford housing. Typically, vended laundries become a place for the homeless to seek shelter. And this can become a security issue for laundry owners in these densely populated markets. In fact, the homeless issue was once a primary concern of our business, deterring regular customers from coming in.
However, we’ve brightened the exteriors – adding LED fixtures, which illuminate all of the exterior surfaces as much as possible. This added brightness discourages people from hanging around outside the store.
Also, our business enforces several store policies, such as no shoes-no service, no smoking, and dryers are for wash customers only. In addition, we have a 15-camera security surveillance system that can be monitored from any mobile device. Moreover, we’ve built a strong relationship with the local sheriff’s office, offering them discounted laundry services any time they come in, as gratitude for their service to the city.
Our laundromat charges relatively higher vend prices, which encourages good business and customers who are willing to pay extra for added measures of security such as enhanced lighting, security cameras and quality staffers.
What are the biggest misconceptions others may have about operating a laundry business in a dense, urban neighborhood?
The most prominent misconception some investors have when attempting to understand how to succeed in the laundry business is the notion that denser populations automatically lead to larger profits.
We concentrate more on getting positive customer reviews, thanking people for their business, maintaining a good reputation, and overcoming the misperception of a strictly one- to two-mile demographic focus. Today, a laundromat with good reputation can become a destination store, despite where they’re located.
Laundries in denser populations may have much more foot traffic, but they also may be dealing with crime issues, vandalism, competitor price battles and high rents. Also, a dense population can overcrowd a store, and they may not be as loyal.
Laundry owners in highly competitive, busy areas may have to reduce profit margins – spending more money on repairs and more time on issues specific to their urban markets – thus, limiting their focus on customer service.
When you first opened your laundromat, what surprised you the most about your marketplace or your customers?
When I first took over the laundry, I was surprised to discover the type of customers we had. We created a raffle program, which included a brief five-question survey. The feedback gave us a clearer understanding of our customer base – and we were shocked to learn that many customers were not renters but local homeowners.
We discovered that many people had a desire to pay for laundry services that would save them time. With this information, we decided to create a wash-dry-fold business, which has been a success.
What’s the best advice you’d give an investor looking to open a store in one of the country’s larger metro areas?
The best advice I would give such investors would be to fully understand the demographics of their marketplace. I would tell them to be sure they have a sense of quality, to take time to understand the needs of the customers and to work consistently toward achieving goals as a team.
Building systems for problem resolution is mandatory. Making efforts to understand reasons why laundromats succeed and why they fail is essential. I would advise a first-time owner to build community relationships not only with customers, but also with community events or organizations. They should reward customer loyalty and employee efforts. I would suggest keeping employees happy. Most importantly, I would suggest that the investor operate a laundromat where they feel comfortable spending time – day or night.