Protect Your Business from Theft, Vandalism and Violent Crime
Statistics will tell you that the overall crime rate across most U.S. cities has declined somewhat during the last two years.
However, just a cursory Google search of the terms “laundromat” and “crime,” unfortunately, will elicit more than a few examples illustrating how vended laundries continue to remain prime targets for an array of less-than-desirable characters.
In fact, today’s laundry owners continue to face the risk of break-ins, vandalism and theft. And some operators have been hit with replacement costs that will take several months or longer to recoup.
The question owners should ask themselves is whether it’s cheaper to invest in security now to prevent any such occurrences – or down the road, after something happens and they’re left cleaning up the mess.
In real life, the “good guy” doesn’t always win. But he shouldn’t give up either. As business owners, your jobs are to prevent, detour and control theft and vandalism – and you do so with security. Some of these tactics require a little technology, and some are just plain Common Sense 101.
Take the Target Off Your Back
“The best practices for deterring crime revolve around making your laundromat a hardened target,” said Karl Hinrichs of HK Laundry in Armonk, N.Y. “Crooks are lazy. If they weren’t lazy, they would have jobs. Crooks are opportunists, always looking for easy targets – whether that opportunity is a grandmother with a big purse or a bill changer that’s improperly secured to the wall.”
“Secure everything you can,” added Todd Fener of Laundry Owners Warehouse in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. “The longer it takes a potential thief, the less likely he is to act.
“Just nine days after buying a store, my next-door neighbor, who is a Subway franchisee, had his exterior electrical wires stolen. The next day I secured all of my outside electrical. My neighbor didn’t want the extra expense and chose not to secure his. Sure enough, four and half years later, his wires were stolen again. The moral of the story – make your location too much trouble for a thief.”
No doubt, the best way to protect yourself, your employees and your business against crime is to design and equip your laundry so that it is less attractive to thieves.
Here are a few basic security solutions:
- Create a clear viewing area from outside your laundry to the inside. This will enable the police and passersby to see all of your machines and coin boxes. If the police are driving by at night to perform their routine checks and all they can see are signs touting your store’s current wash and dry specials, it makes it very difficult for them to see what is going on in your laundry.Also, keep in mind that your customers want to be able to see outside, and they too want to be able to be seen. It gives them a safe and secure feeling to know that anyone driving by the store can see what is going on inside. Don’ block your windows with large signs, video games, lettering or anything else. The more glass, the better. It also is wise to avoid installing reflective windows in your store.As a rule, don’t use more than 5 percent of your store window space for signage. If a police officer is driving by, the chance of discovery is what deters most thieves.
- Secure all doors. Your back and side doors should be constructed of steel and equipped with deadbolt locks. Don’t invite a break-in by offering potential thieves an unsecured building.
- Install a professionally monitored alarm system. Physical security is about creating layers of security to help defend against intruders. Measures such as deadbolt locks are designed to keep intruders out. The next line of defense is an electronic barrier that can quickly notify you and the authorities if someone overcomes the first layer of protection. A monitored alarm system can trigger a loud siren at the premises that will scare away an intruder. It also can notify the 24-hour monitoring center and law enforcement.In addition to giving the police early notification and a better chance of catching burglars, features like condition monitoring – such as temperature/flood detection, remote video management and access control – provide an umbrella of safety for your business when you’re away.“An alarm system with monitoring is a must,” said Chicago-based store owner Paul Hansen. “A good system will have a cellular backup, just in case your phone lines or cable lines get cut.”
Hansen also suggested looking into a panic button option, to go along with the alarm system.
“I’ve found it helpful, especially at night, to supply my employees with remote panic buttons,” he explained. “If there is trouble, they can press it and the alarm company will send the police.”
- Provide ample lighting. Leave enough lights on after closing your store so that anyone passing by can see clearly inside. Yes, this will increase your electric bill a bit, but dim lights after closing provide the ideal cloak of darkness for after-hours intruders. In addition, surveillance cameras work better in good lighting.“At one location, we installed seven 1,000-watt lights on the exterior of the building,” Fener said. “It was brighter than a Walmart parking lot. The neighbors across the street play cards on Wednesday nights, using the light from the building. Bad guys like to work in the shadows, so don’t give them any.” All in all, a brighter store is more welcoming to customers and less welcoming to intruders. Also, as Fener illustrated, don’t forget to light up your parking lot. Thieves don’t want to be seen, and if you’ve got lights outside, that’s another great crime deterrent.
“The laundromat should have lights around the entire building – front, back and sides,” Hinrichs explained. “The store should be lit up like a beacon. Lighting promotes good security, but also makes your laundry more inviting to customers. The electric bill on LED lights is small when compared to the cost of a new bill changer and the inventory within that changer.”
- Keep your store spotless. You should do this anyway. But a clean store certainly offers safety benefits as well. Simply put: a clean store attracts a better clientele. Also, if you keep it clean, it tells a potential thief that he’s dealing with a well-organized establishment. It’s a visual deterrent.
- Place your changers in the front of your store. It’s a good idea to install your coin and bill changers where they can be seen from the outside, which clearly means up front and by the windows. Don’t hide your changers in the back of your store where thieves can hide from passing patrol cars as they attempt to rob you.
- Establish a key control policy. Whenever you buy a store, change all of the money boxes and door locks, as well as any security codes. And replace the changer key. If you don’t know who is holding keys to your doors, or if key-holders can make duplicates without your permission, then you have a serious hole in your security plan.
- Lock up early. Although your store may stay open until 11:00 p.m., it’s wise to lock up the laundry earlier than that. Perhaps designate 9:30 p.m. as your “last wash,” and begin securing your doors between 9:30 and 10:00. Accept no new customers after that time, and the customers already in the store will feel more secure, too. Crimes can occur at any hour, but being safer and a bit more wary late at night is not a bad idea.If you’re open 24 hours a day, perhaps randomly visit your facility in the middle of the night to see for yourself what goes on there. This will give you an idea of how to defeat potential threats. You also may want to conduct a cost analysis. If your facility is open 24 hours a day, is most of the damage coming in the middle of the night? And how many turns are you getting during those overnight hours? It’s risk versus reward.
- Don’t neglect personal safety. Store owners can become complacent, especially if they’ve never had any previous security issues, according to Russ Arbuckle of Wholesale Commercial Laundry Equipment SE, based in Southside, Ala.“They may not vary their collection routines or may fail to remain watchful of their surroundings or the people around them,” he said. “Never collect at night and, if possible, have someone with you when performing collections or banking.” Avoid routines, Fener concurred. “It’s natural to fall into a routine,” he noted. “If you’re having trouble breaking out of one, create a written schedule. Make the schedule irregular, and then follow the written schedule. This written, ‘irregular’ schedule will become your routine.”
“When I would collect at a laundromat, I would take care of any housekeeping chores first, such as filling the soap machines or fixing any out-of-order machines,” Hinrichs explained. “Then, I would go into ‘collection mode.’ First, I would collect the dryers because they take the longest. I would store that money in the back room, out of sight, and then I would collect the washers. Just before I would leave, I would deal with the changers. Lastly, I would do my record-keeping, secure the store, load up my vehicle with all of the money and leave the site. I would always collect the stores during the day, preferably in the morning and preferably with several customers around. Customers promote security for the collector.”
As for staff, Hinrichs suggested that owners teach their attendants to “show as little money as possible – flashing money around is never a good idea.”
“I’ve always instructed my staff, if threatened, to always give up the money without hesitation,” he added. “Money can easily be replaced, a life not so. Do nothing to provoke attention. There are cameras in the store, so just remain calm and keep your head down. No heroes. After the threat has left, call the police. Any disturbances, call the police. And, in the case of a disturbance, never touch the participants.”
“With disturbances, attendants must be taught to keep calm and try to diffuse the situation,” Arbuckle agreed. “If that’s not possible, don’t hesitate to call law enforcement. In active-shooter situations, your employees should immediately hit their panic buttons and get to a safe place. At some stores, we’ve used a locked steel door that goes behind a dryer bank, which can be accessed behind the attendant counter.”
- Consider tokens. Some laundry owners are switching to token use and are seeing good returns for little investment. After all, tokens are an inexpensive way to convert your facility to something more secure while keeping your overall cost per machine down. Most customers are familiar with tokens and respond positively to them.
- Consider card systems and/or credit/debit card acceptance. Card systems eliminate the need for cash on hand and are very efficient. And, often, taking the cash out of the equation is the best prevention. However, with the growing acceptance of credit cards and other alternative payment options in the vended laundry industry, store owners are forced to consider not just physical security, but cyber security as well.
- Don’t overlook coin box protection. Coin box and meter case guards are an effective way for store owners to prevent coin box theft or damage in the service door area on their machines.
- Become an integral part of your community. The guaranteed way to destroy any enemy is to make them your friend, Fener suggested. “The best protection comes from customers who know – and like – you,” he said. “They will have your back if anything nefarious should happen.”
- Develop a relationship with your local police. One of the best deterrents is to have the police routinely stop by your store, or to have a police vehicle regularly cruise past your business.
Keeping a Watchful Eye
Be sure to further protect your laundry business (and those in it) by installing a surveillance camera system. In 2019, this is no longer just a smart “option” for a vended laundry business – it should be standard equipment.
“The top trends in store security are the constant improvement in the quality of video surveillance systems and the networked laundromat,” Hinrichs said. “Technology has made networked video surveillance systems more affordable, with the added benefit of high-resolution cameras and recorders. Now an affordable 16-camera system costs the same as a four-camera system a decade ago. Today, 720-pixel resolution is the bare bones standard, with many systems jumping to 1080-pixel resolution or higher. Every corner of your laundry, inside and out, can be covered with 24/7 surveillance.
“In the past, we could afford only a four-camera DVR system. We were lucky to get two weeks’ worth of storage on the hard drive. Now, 10 years later, I recently purchased a 16-camera, networked system with twice the resolution and five times the recording capacity for about the same price.”
In addition, access to on-site surveillance systems via smartphones, tablets and computers not only enables owners instant views of their stores, but the bad guys know there is real-time access, so hopefully they’ll think twice before committing a crime, according to Arbuckle.
“In the past, storage was an issue,” Arbuckle recalled. “VHS tapes that weren’t changed regularly became almost useless for identifying a crime or perpetrators, due to the poor quality of tapes being recorded over and over. However, in today’s world, terabyte storage allows for months of storage without recording over previous recordings. Highly sophisticated, high-quality cameras and digital recordings have made an impact in law enforcement’s ability to identify and arrest the bad guys.”
When bad things happen in and around your laundry business, you need the best possible images of the bad guys, to make it as easy as possible for the police. Higher-quality camera systems are affordable, and anyone with a 10-year-old system needs to consider stepping up to a new surveillance option.
“I have a store that had a big problem with people hanging out in the back parking lot and adjacent alley, drinking and harassing my customers and employees,” Hansen said. “They would even come into the laundromat, and my attendants were afraid to do anything. If they called the police, the troublemakers were gone by the time the officers arrived.
“So, I installed a camera in the back, with a loudspeaker attached to it and hired a company to monitor that parking lot. Whenever someone would step onto the property, an app on the camera would notify my security company, which could then determine whether or not this person was a customer. If not, they would yell down from the camera’s speaker system, warning the loiterers to leave the property. After about a month, those guys got the idea and stopped hanging around.”
For a vended laundry facility that’s less than 3,000 square feet, four interior cameras typically will provide adequate coverage – however, more cameras are always better. With a basic four-camera application, one camera should be aimed at the front door, one toward the back of the store, one toward the changers, and one covering the main walkway or aisle in the store.
The camera at your store’s entrance should be aimed so that it captures images from the waist to the top of the head. What’s more, you want to achieve “profile” pictures at your changers, not overhead shots. You also want to see what people’s hands are doing at your changers.
“Spend extra time checking for blind spots in your cameras,” Fener warned. “Perhaps leave a couple of cameras blank when you first install your camera system. Believe me, after a few weeks, you’ll find plenty of places to put those last two cameras.”
Many store owners also employ a “covert” camera as well. This way, if burglars or vandals disable your viewable cameras, they will be caught on the hidden one. In essence, you would have cameras watching the store, and another camera watching the cameras.
Fener suggested placing a hidden camera inside a clock, which should be positioned just above your exit doors.
“It’s human nature to look at a clock when you see one,” he said. “Since the clock will be just above the door, it will create an opportunity to capture a direct, full-face shot when the robber instinctively looks up at the time.”
If a laundromat is larger than 3,000 square feet, a minimum of six to eight cameras will be required. Additional cameras also may be needed if a store is L-shaped with some hidden corners, or if the facility is located in a stand-alone building, versus a strip mall. In the latter case, exterior cameras in the parking lot are a good idea.
“Cameras need to have a clear, unobstructed view of each entrance to the laundry to get a good picture of the crook coming into the store,” Hinrichs explained. “You also need an eye-level view of the changers, because that will be the main target for the thief. Surveillance also should cover the parking lot to try to catch a license plate tag from the crook’s vehicle. Cameras should be high enough so that they’re out of reach, and the recorders and camera power supplies should be on an uninterrupted power supply. This will allow you five to 10 minutes of viewing, if they disconnect the power to the building.”
Today’s mega-pixel cameras process the video and send the signal digitally to a recording device. This provides higher quality pictures, which enables owners to enlarge images without distortion or pixilation. In addition, the cameras are available with infrared and day/night technology.
There also are cameras available with a 360-degree field of view, where the software will remove the “fish eye” effect that was so prevalent with analog wide-angle cameras. The 360-degree camera can take the place of four regular cameras, saving the operator money and installation time.
“Low-light or night-vison cameras have come a long way in recent years, as have hidden or “spy” cameras,” Arbuckle said. “Your cameras should have a strong night-vison component and be of the highest quality you can afford. It’s typically a one-time purchase, so don’t skimp.”
Lastly, if you install a camera system, put a monitor inside the office area where the money is handled. This way you can view the monitor to see if anyone is hanging around outside the door, waiting for you to come out with money in your hands.
Of course, many laundry operators are partial absentee owners. They’re at their stores an hour or two a day. Fortunately, surveillance systems offer remote viewing capabilities, which means that the owner can view his or her laundry anytime anywhere – and see exactly what’s going on at the facility.
“Being able to stay connected with your customers even when you’re away from your laundromat has been the most important change in store security,” suggested Brad Steinberg of PWS, headquartered in South Gate, Calif. “The combination of being able to view your store remotely, as well as see what is going on with your machines remotely, has enabled store owners to communicate with customers with full transparency as to what’s going on at their store. Owners need to make sure they can view their cameras remotely.”
Modern systems will allow you to save images through the internet, with built-in CD or DVD burners for offloading surveillance video. Some systems even support pan, tilt and zoom cameras, which allow a live operator to actually manipulate the camera within the store.
And today’s security systems don’t stop there. Certain systems can automate an entire laundry – locking and unlocking the doors at designated times, as well as automatically turning the alarm system off and on. Some security packages can even be programmed to control the lighting, the air conditioning, the heating, the boiler, the signage and so on.
“While it’s great to have a camera system, being able to keep the recordings for a set period of time – let’s say a month – is very helpful,” Hansen pointed out. “And, with the advent of cloud services, you can even keep these recordings off site for an extra level of security.”
Of course, it should go without saying that a high-tech camera system does you no good if it’s inoperable or providing unusable images. Therefore, checking your system and verifying that it’s still working and recording properly is probably a good item to add to your monthly to-do list.
Also, no matter what kind of technology you decide upon, if you have a security system in your store, don’t keep it a secret. Hang prominent signs and stickers so that everyone entering your store will know that your business is under video surveillance and that they are going to have their photos taken. Don’t wait until after a crime is committed to provide a deterrent.
The overall concept of a vended laundry business still tends to lead the general public to view it as a cash-in-hand operation. Because of this, self-service laundries have always been prime targets for thieves and other unsavory types.
As a small-business owner, you must be cautious with your livelihood. Whether it involves collections, staff control, unauthorized use or theft, you have to find ways to control costs and provide a safe space for everyone to visit and do their laundry.
It’s up to you. Can you afford to make the changes and upgrades to your laundry business that have been outlined above? The real question should be – in 2019, can you really afford not to?