Originally posted – Jul 31, 2014
Other than location, the most crucial contributing factor to the ultimate success or failure of any self-service laundry is the layout and design of the store’s interior.
“When you spend time and attention on the layout and design of a store, the biggest thing it says about you as an owner is that you care,” said Bryan Maxwell of Western State Design, based in Hayward, Calif. “However, if you don’t design such a store, it can translate into customers who don’t care. They won’t care about picking up litter or vandalism or even coming back. They won’t respect your store, if you don’t respect it in the first place.
“But, when you have nicer tabletops, nicer walls and nicer light fixtures, it looks like you care.”
Indeed, basic store layout can be a critical factor in the marketability of your coin laundry business. If a laundromat is designed and equipped for customer convenience, it will provide some of the most vital benefits needed to keep customers coming back week after week.
If not, the washers and dryers will stop turning long before they wear out.
“Design and layout is where it all begins,” said John Henderson, who owns three Liberty Laundry locations in the Tulsa, Okla., area. “You design a store based on your approach to the business. Some owners cram as much revenue-producing equipment as possible into the space they have, particularly if that space is limited. Other owners are more interested in the aesthetics of the business, creature comforts and amenities. In any case, it’s important to lay out the store for maximum efficiency and throughput of customers.
“In the planning stages, it’s easy to make changes as you sift through the options, making design choices based on the best information you can find,” he added. “Hopefully, any inefficiency can be spotted at this stage and improved or eliminated.”
Regardless of whether you hire an architect or personally sit down with paper and pencil to design your laundry, situations will be encountered that will force compromises to be made. What usually will happen is that sacrifices in store design will be made in favor of lower construction costs – and this is generally prudent business management.
“I believe in buying quality, the best I can afford while staying within my budget,” Henderson explained. “I don’t necessarily go with the cheapest products or construction bids. I strive to make my stores comfortable for customers by installing an adequate amount of seating, providing air conditioning, automatic doors and wide aisles. It is a balancing act moneywise, but I believe in treating my customers with dignity and respect, which begins by creating an environment that makes them feel welcome and comfortable.”
“With some of things we do at our stores, we know we’re not going to make money, as long as we break even,” said Gary Thompson, who owns two southern California laundries, with three more stores currently in development. “Not everything has to be a profit center, as long as it enhances the customers’ time while they’re at the laundry. For instance, we have water stores inside our laundries, and we sell five-gallon bottles at cost, plus we give away the first five gallons for free.”
Since you obviously can’t always design a store exactly as you would like it, try to be as innovative and progressive as possible. Before breaking ground for a new store, signing a lease or gutting an existing store for extensive remodeling, first – honestly and thoroughly – analyze the interior area. Analyze it as to its business potential for the maximum number of machines. That is, the maximum number of pieces of equipment that can fit into the building and still provide the number of turns per day per unit that you and your distributor have determined will provide the desired return on investment.
“In urban areas, where the cost per square foot is very expensive and you’re trying to get the highest return per square foot, there is the always the conflict of wanting to have more folding space or seating areas,” Maxwell said. “The things we do space-wise and aisle-wise in San Francisco don’t compare to what we would do in a rural market; in San Francisco, we get the aisles down to as narrow as is legal for the ADA – five-foot aisles are a dancehall.
“Out in suburban areas, you don’t necessarily have to put equipment in every square inch, because there are only so many customers and more space; and, if you’re paying one-third the rent of an urban area, the decisions get easier.
“For example, I was helping an associate with a store in the Pacific Northwest. The guy owns the building, has 2,500 square feet and really only needed a 1,500-square-foot laundromat, because the demographics only support a laundromat that big. In his case, we had room for all sorts of stuff.”
Of course, any store must be designed for maximum profit per square foot of floor space. Once you have established this, go about providing those customer conveniences that best complement your store’s layout, equipment mix and demographics.
Some of the laundry design and décor trends Maxwell has noticed of late include an overall tendency toward nicer finishes and higher end materials.
“Most of the laundries we put in now have granite countertops for folding areas, and I’ve also seen marble,” Maxwell noted. “There’s tile in the restrooms, stainless steel tables, nice ceiling fans and stained concrete or nicer tile floor finishes. It’s all more homey-looking, including the whole spectrum of Kelly-Moore paint colors, with accent walls.
“The old days of recessed lighting and ceiling tiles are gone,” he continued. “The quality of lighting is getting better, including accent lighting to create shadows. All in all, today’s look goes beyond the old, vanilla laundromats, which seemed to simply say, ‘We have operating machines, and we mop the floors.'”
The Nuts and Bolts
One error that will torpedo your business quicker than anything is misreading your marketplace and, thus, putting in the wrong type of equipment.
“The question any investor should ask is, ‘What would generate the highest return on investment per square foot?’ Period,” Maxwell explained. “Everything you do – every decision you make – should go back to that question.
“I have to build a laundromat that satisfies the needs of the community. Everything else is secondary. Even though I love 80-pound washers, putting in an 80-pound washer could be worst thing you could do, if you’ve overbuilt the store. Once you get to the point where you can satisfy the needs of the marketplace, all you’re doing is adding debt service.”
If you’re in some cool, trendy neighborhood, where it’s mostly young singles, putting in an 80-pound washer probably won’t work, because your customers don’t have 80-pound loads. On the other hand, installing all smaller machines in a dense, family-oriented community would be a waste of your square footage.
“Ultimately, you’re in business to make money, and it’s all about ROI per square foot,” Maxwell stated. “The right equipment in the wrong place is a bad investment.”
One equipment design trend has been toward multiple-sized washers within the same area.
Although it used to be just a solitary size option in a given bank of washers, today more stores are mixing up different sizes for the convenience of the consumer – knowing that they’re going to have one load that may need a 20-pound machine and other loads that will require a 40- or 75-pound machine.
“We design our stores so that they’re almost like two-part stores,” said Bob Frandsen, who owns six laundries in Minnesota and one store in northwestern Wisconsin. “When you walk in the front door, the bill changers are directly in front of you, and from there it’s a mirrored store – the left side of the laundry is identical to the right. It’s almost like having two stores in one. It’s much more convenient for the customers.”
A common mistake regarding washer placement is to bury the “showcase machines” in the back of the store. There are a lot of beautiful stores out there where potential customers never go inside because, from the outside, they look like just another store. So, put those 75-pound machines in the front window. Do something to be eye-catching.
There is also a continuing design trend toward larger dryers. Today, almost every store offers not just one but multiple, large-capacity dryers to complement their large washers.
In addition, don’t give your customers a closed-in feeling. Aisles should not be so narrow that two customers using machines on opposing walls bump into each other as they load or unload their respective machines.
To avoid the closed-in feeling in his new laundry, Thompson redesigned his ceiling for a more open look.
“Originally, the space had a T-bar ceiling with ceiling tile,” he said. “But we decided to go with a more industrial, urban look. We pulled everything out and sandblasted. Now we’ve got an exposed ceiling, which is a design that’s very common in a lot of city businesses these days.
“For us, it also provides a lot of makeup air and circulation, and it cuts down on installation time for audio speakers, surveillance cameras and cabling.”
Frandsen is also a fan of higher ceilings in laundries.
“When you walk into any of the big-box retailers, it just feels like you’re in a bigger space because the ceiling is higher,” he noted. “And, for us, another advantage is that our security cameras are now up higher, so they’re not as easy to vandalize them – someone can’t just jump up and rip the camera down like they could with an eight-foot ceiling.”
With your design, you should strive to create a steady workflow. It’s like a car going down an assembly line; however, the car is your customer, and the assembly line is your self-service laundry. This workflow includes finding a parking spot, getting coins or a loyalty card (if your machines don’t accept credit/debit cards), getting a washer, getting a dryer, getting folding space and leaving in an efficient, comfortable manner.
This is the purpose of store layout and design. Perhaps it means wider aisles or defusing the customer flow by separating some of the dryers. Whatever it takes. Your goal is to create a flow that feels natural.
You need to think about flow from wash to dry to folding areas. That’s critical to the success of a store, because people want to feel comfortable. They want to feel like they have and can maintain their own personal space when they’re doing laundry.
Although you should design the laundry mainly with the customer in mind, don’t forget about the person who must maintain your washers.
When designing a store, it’s always in the back of your mind that you’re making dollars per square foot, so you want to put as much money-making equipment into the available square footage as possible without compromising the workflow. However, in doing so, some laundry owners end up compromising the size of their bulkheads.
On paper, a three-foot bulkhead looks like it would be easy to get into to repair a machine. But the plumbing comes up through there, and pretty soon three feet doesn’t seem like all that much.
The same line of thinking that leads to narrow bulkheads often causes insufficient space behind the dryers as well. Therefore, always be sure that your layout calls for an area of 16 to 36 inches from the rear of the dryers to the wall behind them. Creating easy access for you or your service technician is good planning.
With that said, if there is any question as to who should get the extra space – the service tech or the customer – Frandsen will go with the customer every time.
“If I can give my customers six more inches and take it away from my service person, I will give it to the customer,” he said. “You’re not going to give the service guy six inches, because he’s going to go back there once or twice a year; you’re going to give it to your everyday customers.”
Also, based on the manufacturer’s recommendation, be sure to allow for sufficient space for the proper combustion air and venting of your dryers. Those are two of the most critical things that will add or detract from the efficiency of a dryer.
What’s more, there are two things to keep in mind. First, if you have multiple floors above your store, you must ventilate the dryers all the way up to the top, not just out the back. Second, be sure not to exhaust the dryers right on top of your air conditioning unit because it will clog up the unit.
Floor drains are something that many store owners skimp on, and they’re something you need to have. A laundromat is a place that invariably is going to have water on the floor, so you’ve got to have somewhere for it to go. What’s more, these drains should be on a separate line than those that hook into all of the washers.
As a rule, oversizing can help to create a more successful store. For example, if you’re looking at drainage, where a contractor may suggest a six-inch drain for 40 machines, perhaps it might be better to install two four-inch drains.
With his most recent 8,000-square-foot laundry, Thompson definitely built with future growth in mind
“Because of the size, we built this store modular,” Thompson said. “We’re bringing a new wash-dry-fold service, and the store is built with trough systems that are covered; these were planned so that later we could increase our equipment. We’ve plumbed for it. Everything is already there, so when we’re ready to ramp up, it’s just a matter of ordering the equipment and putting it in.”
Parking, Folding, Vending and More…
One of the most important devices in most laundries are still the coin and bill changers.
You can never have only one, because they do break down. Also, you need to have enough coins in those changers to accommodate as much business as you expect to do between collection periods. For example, if you prefer to collect once a week and you’re projecting your store to do $10,000 a week in business, you better have $10,000 worth of quarters.
Having an efficient laundry also means having wide aisles and enough folding tables and space to create a flow. There is nothing worse than a group of people crowded together in a folding area. Therefore, when laying out your self-service laundry, be sure your equipment mix and placement create a smooth work flow.
As far as folding tables, a good rule of thumb is one table for every five machines as an absolute minimum. As for the space between the aisles, there should be no less than five feet – although six feet or more is better. Try to configure the folding tables close to the dryers so that your customers don’t have to carry their dry clothes across the store.
The need for ample folding space cannot be emphasized enough. Your customers want convenience, and you want them to be able to go from the changers to the washers to the dryers to the folding areas without hitting any choke points along the way.
When it comes to laundry carts, here’s a simple formula: double the number of folding tables, at a minimum. The customers who are currently on the tables are using carts, and the people coming in waiting for those people to leave also are going to need carts.
Automatic doors are another customer amenity to consider. It’s almost like having an attendant there opening the door for your customers every time they go in and out.
However, if you choose to go with conventional doors, Frandsen reminded that it’s important to install one “in-swinging” door and one “out-swinging” door.
“This way, the customer doesn’t have to put down their laundry basket and pull open the door,” he said. “It sounds like common sense, but I’ve seen stores that didn’t do this.”
Soap vending is another area to carefully consider. You need to decide how big of a soap machine your store will require. Typically, this depends on your area. For instance, if you have a convenience store or supermarket in your laundry’s shopping center or nearby, perhaps you would choose a smaller soap vendor. After all, you’re competing with those other outlets. By contrast, if you’re the only game in town when it comes to soap, you will no doubt need a larger-capacity vendor than if you had a 7-Eleven around the corner. Either way, you always want to offer your customers the convenience of buying soap from you.
The situation is the same with beverage and snack machines. If you’re in a very dense, urban area, you should probably install larger drink and snack vendors. However, if you’re in a suburban shopping plaza, you can probably get away with having smaller machines for pop and candy.
It’s also important not to overlook parking availability when designing your laundry. A typical 3,000-square-foot store can get by on between 15 and 30 spaces, with a larger operation clearing requiring more than that.
Most likely, time is more important to your customers than money. If they can’t find a parking space, they’re going to go somewhere else. Just like if they can’t get an available washer at your store, they’re going to go somewhere else.
Frandsen, who has been in the self-service laundry business since 1981, shared a few other design-related tips that have worked for him over the years:
- “We have in-floor heat in three of our stores, which is so nice in the winter. The snow comes in, melts and then dries. Radiant heat coming up is way warmer than trying to blow that dry heat down into the store. Also, when we mop, that water dries within four or five minutes – that’s a nice slip-and-fall hazard protection.”
- “We have good-sized garbage cans. You don’t want a small one that’s always overflowing. And have enough of them so that customers don’t have to walk too far. If they have to walk to it, the trash will end up on the floor.”
- “Provide ample seating. One table with four seats around it should be considered enough for only one person – because people won’t sit together. You need about six different areas for seating.”
- “We have the shut-off switches for our washers easily accessible to our customers; we locate them at the end of the bulkhead. We used to think we didn’t want the customers to be able to turn off the machines, but now we look at it completely differently. It’s a safety feature – plus, if someone has a piece of clothing stuck in the door and water is seeping out the front of the washer, they can turn that power off.”
- “We’ve installed keyless entry on all of our doors. Our cleaning and maintenance people have the code to get in. And, if an employee quits, we simply change the code. We don’t have to get a key back or change the locks.”
Your store’s utilities are the lifeblood of your business in many ways. After all, water, gas and electricity are, in essence, what you are truly providing your laundry customers. Therefore, whether you are building a store from the ground up or converting an existing building into a self-service laundry, you’ll need to know whether you can get enough of each of these utilities to meet your business’ needs.
Typically, a letter to the utility companies that supply these essentials will be answered within a four to six weeks and will provide you with information on availability, procedure and estimated costs.
You need to know where the sewer line is and how far a run it is going to be to put in a six-inch sewer line. Typically, retail buildings have four-inch sewer lines. What are the dynamics of that? Do you have to go all the way across a 200-foot parking lot? Do you have to go into the street to get that sewer line? Those are added costs that can be shockers.
You also have to see what power is available to you. Is it three-phase or single-phase? That is extremely important because sometimes to do a conversion from single-phase to three-phase can be a very expensive proposition.
With gas, the key is having the right pressure – and not having to spend a fortune going all the way to the street to pick up that utility.
Clearly, it’s important to know what you’re going to be working with at the outset. In fact, it would be wise to ask your landlord to add a clause to your lease, confirming in writing the utilities that are available, as well as their respective sizes.
Speaking of utilities, the image of the dimly lit, dingy laundromat is, thankfully, fading fast. But you can bring it back to life in your marketplace by not adequately lighting your laundry.
“Lighting is crucial,” Thompson explained. “You don’t want to have a sterile environment, where customers feel like they’re in a hospital. You want something inviting, because they’re going to be there for a while.”
“One of the worst things I see consistently is laundry owners who try to save money on lighting,” Maxwell said. “If I were to attack one thing first, it would be lighting. It may mean LED lighting or it may be spotlights; however, most places that depress me are places that are too dark.”
Avoid These Design Disasters
With the price of retail space at a premium in most markets, the misuse of that precious square footage could spell disaster for your laundry business.
“Generally, I’m not a big fan of kids’ play areas, as parents either look after their kids or they don’t,” Henderson said. “While a play area might be a nice thing to do, I don’t think it’s a big draw for attracting customers. I also see signage that almost completely covers the windows, which can feel claustrophobic. Another mistake is too many signs telling customers what not to do, creating a subtly hostile atmosphere.
“On the mechanical side, not allowing adequate makeup air for the dryers is probably the most common mistake I have seen. And, of course, installing too much equipment and not leaving enough room for the customers can be a big in my opinion.”
Blind spots are another design miscue, Maxwell pointed out.
“Avoid spaces that are not easily visible from the front of the store,” he said. “Try to lay out your store so that there are no blind spots to the outside – and so that people can quickly see the entire store. Also, look for areas that may be out of the view of your surveillance cameras.”
Maxwell added that – with today’s larger, high-capacity equipment – blind spots are easier to unwittingly create than ever before.
“The biggest space-wasters are poor planning with unused wash-dry-fold or storage space, incorrect equipment placement, and redoing a design on an existing laundry,” summed up Van Merrill of Continental Girbau West, based in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. “In addition, cramped aisles and bulkheads, lack of storage, inadequate folding space and old equipment that doesn’t move customers quickly through a laundry are the greatest mistakes I come across.”
Designing Your Brand
It should come as no surprise that branding and design go hand in hand. In fact, your laundry’s brand can be validated by its design, and your design can be synonymous with your brand, according to Merrill.
“Take Starbucks, for example – although the exterior aesthetics can change somewhat, the inside always has generous seating, WiFi, attractive display cases and well thought-out circulation,” he pointed out. “Many people go to Starbucks simply because of these design elements.”
Henderson has tried to duplicate the design and feel of his laundries as he has grown his three-store chain over the years.
“We incorporate the same color schemes, same brand of equipment, same furnishings, same services and the same flooring,” he explained. “While the three laundromats are different size-wise, the spatial arrangement of laundry equipment is the same. We also have the same building and street signs at the two newest locations.”
“All of the stores are painted the same colors, inside and out,” Frandsen added. “Three of our stores, which are ‘cookie-cutter’ stores, if I put you in there blindfolded, you couldn’t guess which town you were in, because they are identical inside and outside. The parking lot, the sidewalk, the flooring – everything is identical. We brand it that way.”
Coming to the laundry business from the DVD industry, Thompson used to work closely with companies such as Walmart, Target and Best Buy – so he is quite familiar with how those retail giants take their brands forward.
“My company is Clean Green Express, and that is branded throughout the business – less pollutants, more environmentally friendly,” he said. “From the lighting to the trough systems to the water heating to the flooring, everything we’ve done is with that branding in mind.”
According to Maxwell, the first question with branding is: who is my target market?
“When you understand that question, it leads you to design a laundromat that goes after that customer,” he said. “The store design, the graphics on the wall, everything should be about how to make that customer feel welcome.
If you’re in an area that attracts families, what are you doing to attract those families? Do you put up photos of the local Little League teams you sponsor? It doesn’t matter if a middle-aged guy like me comes into the store – that’s not the target. The store layout and décor, the equipment mix and the services provided should all be about attacking that target customer.
Crucial Odds and Ends
The dynamics of your lease can affect the design and layout of your laundry. This first thing to consider is length. The price for new washers and dryers is considerable. As a result, a short lease will leave you vulnerable, if your landlord eventually decides that your self-service laundry is not the most desirable tenant. There are different opinions as to what is considered an adequate length for a coin laundry lease. However, a good rule of thumb is to walk away from anything shorter than 10 years (with an option to renew at a predetermined rate).
Regarding your lease and store design, another factor to consider is what types of changes your lease allows you to make to your new store. For instance, who’s responsible for cutting through the roof of the building?
You don’t want to just cut through the roof and end up voiding the landlord’s warranty that he might have with the roof company. You may be allowed to cut through the roof, but perhaps you’ve got to hire a specific roofer chosen by the landlord to do the work.
All in all, the lease is a crucial document with potential pitfalls to your store’s layout. Be sure to have a legal professional with experience in laundry leases examine yours before you sign anything.
Once renovation/construction begins, timing becomes imperative. Obviously, different contractors representing several different trades are expected to complete their phases of the project at certain time, and if one runs behind schedule, if can throw off everyone else.
Perhaps create a construction schedule, which includes each particular phase of the design project, along with the due date, the contractor responsible for that segment of the job, and names and telephone numbers of everyone working on the store.
Of course, you will almost assuredly have some delays. As with your budget, be sure to build a little “padding” into your redesign construction schedule.
Although you may not be able to accomplish all that you would dream of for your store, after reading this article, at least you’ll have a plan in place.
A great idea is to visit a lot of different laundries. Your distributor can no doubt recommend a number of different stores with different layouts. Steal the best ideas for your store and discard the rest.
Above all, do your homework. It’s always better to measure twice and cut once.
“I can’t emphasize this enough – think it through thoroughly and repeatedly, and get ideas by visiting popular laundries and other retail businesses,” Merrill advised. “See how others make color and design work for them and their brands.”
“Know the type of business you plan to run so you can design it properly,” Henderson explained. “For instance, an unattended store doesn’t need a large service area for processing drop-off orders. If you will own and stock your soda and snack machines, you’ll need storage for those products. Are you allowing enough room in the mechanical room to accommodate the water heaters and other equipment? Did you create enough free air flow in the dryer vent room to provide adequate makeup air?
“Know your business, look for best practices… and ask a lot of questions.”