By Bob Nieman, CLA Member posted 10-29-2018 15:29

Take Your Wash-Dry-Fold Service to the Next Level

As today’s society becomes more starved for time – and as markets for traditional vended laundry services grow increasingly competitive – the wash-dry-fold laundry business have been a consistent bright spot for many successful laundry owners.

In fact, for several operators, the question no longer is: Do you offer a wash-dry-fold service? Rather, it is: Do you offer a professional, modern and first-class wash-dry-fold service?

And, more and more, that answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

If you’re looking to fine-tune your own WDF service and dial up your business’s professionalism with regard to wash-dry-fold, there are five key areas on which to focus: (1) technology, (2) packaging, (3) labor, (4) marketing and advertising, and (5) pricing.

This month, we gathered together six laundry owners who spend a lot of time thinking about their own burgeoning wash-dry-fold services – and we asked them to share their thoughts on the future of this critical segment of the vended laundry industry.

Our panel includes:

Chris Balestracci
Super Wash Laundry
East Haven, Conn.
Percentage of the Business Wash-Dry-Fold Represents: 20 percent

Jeff Gardner
The Laundry Doctor
St. Paul, Minn.
Percentage of the Business Wash-Dry-Fold Represents: 35 percent

Paul Hansen
Su Nueva Lavanderia
Chicago, Ill.
Percentage of the Business Wash-Dry-Fold Represents: Less than 10 percent

Art Jaeger
Simi Valley Laundry Center
Beverly Hills, Calif.

Rob Maes
Express Laundry
Houston, Texas
Percentage of the Business Wash-Dry-Fold Represents: 20-30 percent

Kent Wales
Happy Laundry
Spokane, Wash.
Percentage of the Business Wash-Dry-Fold Represents: 80 percent (including commercial accounts and drycleaning)

What types of vended laundry operations make good candidates for offering wash-dry-fold services?

Paul Hansen: I think some of the more recently gentrified areas – where the self-service laundry business may be decreasing – can be great candidates for wash-dry-fold. Obviously, there is more disposable income in those markets now, and the residents are more willing to have others do their laundry for them.

Art Jaeger: To some degree, you have to decide what market you want to service. I think anyone who simply hangs out a wash-dry-fold shingle can expect to do probably $1,000 to $2,000 a month. But is that worth the additional hassles that wash-dry-fold creates? With today’s rising labor costs and the amount of regulations you’d be subjected to, I think very few owners would think that’s worth it.

However, if you’re considering a full-blown wash-dry-fold operation, you may need to start getting into commercial work and home delivery. Now, you have a plan. And I think any service like that requires a full business plan. It can’t be a helter-skelter decision. You need to consider your objectives.

Jeff Gardner: It certainly isn’t an opportunity for everybody. The ideal candidate is in a mixed neighborhood. If your laundry is based in a truly low-income market and is very busy with self-service business, it makes little sense to add a successful wash-dry-fold operation. After all, a lot of extremely successful self-service laundries today are doing eight turns a day.

Of course, there are several laundromats across the country that are living off of two and three turns a day in self-service business – and this is where wash-dry-fold fits in well. But, if you’re averaging more than six turns a day, you need to think twice about operating a wash-dry-fold business during your traditional business hours.

Rob Maes: Of course, if you’re planning to operate an unattended store, it would be difficult to offer wash-dry-fold. We began offering a wash-dry-fold service the day we opened. We opened during the Great Recession and the economy wasn’t doing well, so it was literally a matter of survival. We didn’t have a choice. We had to do whatever we could to make the business profitable. For us, it was that simple.

It was just another way I could optimize my assets. I have washers and dryers sitting here that are not always in use. But it depends on the owner and what his or her strategy is.

Chris Balestracci: You have to be fully attended. You have to have counter and storage space for hanging finished products and shelving for storing the finished folded product. Not all laundromats have this.

You also must have a POS computer system and accept credit cards and be willing to train your employees to do a quality job every single time.

Kent Wales: For me, someone with excess capacity and storage space is the ideal wash-dry-fold candidate. If a vended laundry is completely booked up with customers coming in all the time, why would you mess it up with wash-dry-fold?

How do you manage your wash-dry-fold production so that it doesn’t interfere with your self-service operation?

Jeff Gardner: I don’t. In fact, I’ve actively kicked self-service laundry customers out of my business. During our critical, insanely busy production times, I’ve sent our self-service customers to competitors.

I knew their experience at the store during those times would have been terrible if they’d stuck around. In the past, I’ve received bad reviews on social media because I tried to accommodate self-service customers when we were in the middle of heavy production.

In general, we try to get all of our production work completed and off the floor by 4:00 p.m. We’re never “done,” but we try to free up as much of the self-service equipment as we can by 4:00. However, if customers come in before then, we will suggest they go to other stores.

Art Jaeger: Anyone who tells you that their self-service business doesn’t suffer a little bit is probably lying to you. How can you give someone a full-blown other job to do – while also asking them to watch the self-service end of the business and keep the store clean – and not expect certain aspects of the operation to suffer?

If your attendants are busy folding laundry, they can only be reactive to customers coming to them with problems. So, there are tradeoffs to be made.

Paul Hansen: We do most of our wash-dry-fold production during the day, and it’s not that much where it’s a problem. And we always have two attendants on duty.

However, we’ve also started a pickup and delivery service, and we outsource for a couple of companies that pick up and deliver. For this, we do the production overnight at one of our 24-hour locations. We start at 11:00 p.m. and have five employees just doing the production work.

Rob Maes: That’s the conundrum. For us, the question more specifically is: how do I help my attendants to multi-task between taking care of customers, keeping the store clean and doing wash-dry-fold? And, even after doing this for nine years, it’s still an ongoing challenge.

It’s not easy, unless you get to the point where you can afford to have dedicated staffers who just do wash-dry-fold – but that’s a whole separate discussion.

Kent Wales: With 80 percent of our business represented by wash-dry-fold, commercial accounts and drycleaning, that’s what we focus on. That doesn’t mean we push self-service customers out the door or that we’re rude to them.

We have a separate set of OPL washers and dryers. However, the wash-dry-fold business does bleed over into the use of washers on the self-service side. As a result, we try to do most of that work in the mornings and during the week. And that’s also when the bulk of my employees are here.

What specific strategies have enabled you to get the most from your wash-dry-fold staff?

Rob Maes: We have a priority list hanging in the employee areas of all our stores. The priorities are: (1) take care of the customers, (2) keep the store clean and (3) wash-dry-fold. In my opinion, attendants can become so fixated on processing wash-dry-fold that they dedicate all of their efforts to hit one deadline for one drop-off customer. I would rather those employees take care of the 100 customers that come into our laundries instead of the one with the large wash-dry-fold order.

For that reason, we don’t have an incentive program for wash-dry-fold. We have the opposite. We have an incentive program for employees who get positive reviews on social media. We’re emphasizing that more than the wash-dry-fold. Every employee gets a $10 bonus for every five-star review we get on Facebook or Google. That’s how we incentivize our employees, as opposed to how many pounds of wash-dry-fold they do.

Paul Hansen: We pay a commission, so it’s to the employees’ benefit to provide good service. Also, I’m sure many of them get tips for doing a good job.

We focus on training. We’ve had [PlanetLaundry columnist] Wally Makowsky come out for a few days to work with our attendants, and I also took a few employees up to Minnesota to shadow Jeff Gardner at The Laundry Doctor for a day, to see how they process their wash-dry-fold orders.

Art Jaeger: From the beginning, I’ve offered a monetary incentive. It’s 100 percent transparent. Each employee receives a statement showing how many pounds of drop-off laundry we’ve taken in, along with the bonus calculations. It’s real money in their pockets. You can do all the cheering on you want, but if you don’t offer a monetary bonus pool, you won’t get the most you can out of your staff.

We’ve established some rules with our bonus incentive plan. First of all, loads must be done in the order in which they come in. Employees can’t pick and choose what they do – otherwise, you’d have everyone fighting over the high-volume comforter/towel order and leaving the baby clothes for someone else. Secondly, we can’t have attendants taking shortcuts. The quality has to be there.

Kent Wales: When I worked at Boeing, I was trained in the Lean Manufacturing processes. For us, it’s a continuous improvement cycle. We’re always looking at how efficient our staff is, how efficient our equipment is and where the bottlenecks in our operation form.

We also have created dedicated folding spaces for our staff that are set up with a kit of all the right materials required to finish orders – bags, markers, paper bands for socks and so on. I don’t want them to walk any farther than necessary. It’s not about trying to turn them into robots. It’s about making their job easier, and putting the tools they need within arm’s reach.

Chris Balestracci: I’ve found that attendants work better in teams. When you have two or more, it tends to make the day more enjoyable for the employee, and they can get more production done.

I keep an eye on quality. We have an employee manual. We teach everyone exactly how we want items washed, dried, folded, bagged, racked and so on. Each employee knows how to do laundry, and they all think they know how to do laundry the best. But we’re like McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts – our customers want to get their laundry done consistently correct every single time, regardless of when they drop it off with us.

We also have a bonus system, which is based on the number of hours employees have worked during the month and the number of pounds of wash-dry-fold that is done. The cost of any mistakes, ruined garments or lost items comes out of the bonus pool, not my pocket.

When it comes to packaging and producing a finished product, what is your philosophy?

Kent Wales: Our goal for the residential customers is that they can take the product right out of the bag and put it away. They don’t need to refold it.

All we’re doing in the wash-dry-fold world is saving people time. That’s it. So, if you’re costing them time through something you’re doing in the finishing process, you’re going to lose customers.

Jeff Gardner: My first rule has always been that, when customers open their finished packages from us, I want them to feel like they are opening brand new items – garments that they’ve never worn before. That’s the driving principle upon which we base all of our packaging and production.

Art Jaeger: The finished product – what you hand to the customer – is the most important thing you do. The customer never sees anything between A and Y. They only see Z. What you hand the customer, how it looks, how it is presented, and how it is folded and packaged is what’s going to make your customers decide if they’re happy or not. Having a tight, symmetrical, well-folded package that doesn’t bounce around and lose its folding is absolutely key.

Rob Maes: We’re continuously making changes and improvements to how we package and brand our wash-dry-fold product. One thing we do that differentiates us from a lot of our competition is offering items hung. And I’ve found that it’s more cost-effective. The amount of time saved by simply hanging certain items, versus folding them, more than offsets the cost of the hangers.

Chris Balestracci: The finished product should look as if the customer is buying it at a store. The shirts should be folded just as if they’re brand new. We place all of the pants on hangers at no extra charge. We also use clear plastic bags for the finished product. We never use garbage bags for the finished product because then the customers’ clothes look like garbage. We also place the customers’ clean laundry bags in the clear bag with their folded laundry so that they know everything has been cleaned.

The perception of “clean” is just as important as the finished product. There has to be a “wow factor.”

How has technology impacted your wash-dry-fold operation?

Paul Hansen: All of my laundries are card-operated, so we have a lot of control as far as monitoring usage and what’s being used for what. For a long time, we used a paper system, with paper tags. However, three of my five stores that offer wash-dry-fold are now on POS systems. I’ve been adding a system to a store about once every six months.

For our pickup and delivery service, we use a third-party vendor for software, and they’ve developed a website and our own branded app by which customers can place orders. As technology has improved, we’ve been moving along with it, trying to be as streamlined as possible.

Art Jaeger: From the beginning, I’ve used a POS system with an integrated scale. We’ve never had handwritten receipts. I want to look like a professional. I don’t want to look like a schlock outfit in anything that we do – from store design to the type of equipment we use.

A POS system gathers all of the customers’ information, including their laundry preferences. When customers put their clothes on the scale, the system automatically registers that information, does all of the math and prints out a receipt with the name of the store on it. We also can notify customers by text when their orders are ready.

In addition, customers of our home delivery service can use our app and website to arrange a pick up, state their preferences, find out when our driver is on the way, check their account status, get their receipts, and so on.

Rob Maes: We operated with handwritten tickets for years. It got to the point where it was too cumbersome, so we finally bought a POS system. However, you don’t need to have the latest technology to be successful in the wash-dry-fold business. For a few dollars, you can easily get blank invoice tickets.

Also, there are plenty of high-tech, programmable washers that will give you extra cycles, extra rinses and so on. But you don’t necessarily have to do that, especially at the beginning. For example, if we get in laundry that’s really dirty, we’ll just wash it twice. Instead of having a fancy washer with programmable cycles, we find that if we just wash it twice in most cases that will have the same effect.

I think a lot of owners are too intimidated to get into wash-dry-fold because they think they need all of these sophisticated tools, and they really don’t. You can learn as you go.

Jeff Gardner: Technology has been the driving factor that has grown our business by 40 percent each of the last three years. Before that, we were successfully growing at an annual rate of about 20 percent – and that was partly due to technology as well.

We were early adopters of SEO, with a strong web presence from 2004 to 2014. And the adoption of complete backend and frontend interfacing technology over the last four years has been incredibly beneficial to our growth.

Kent Wales: Customer data in a service business is a goldmine. If you’re not capturing a full set of contact information from your customers – and we weren’t up until two years ago – you’re losing out.

We were getting a phone number and a name, but we weren’t collecting email addresses. So, we chose to make the investment late last year to place all of our data into one cohesive system that features route tracking, payment, accounts receivable and so on. It has literally changed our business.

Three years ago, we made the switch to OPL washers. We’re fully injected across all of our OPL machines, and we have 21 washer programs. From a commercial laundry perspective, we handle mostly customer-owned goods, so we have to be flexible to the types of soils, as well as the types of linens and materials we’re washing.

Chris Balestracci: If you’re going to get serious about wash-dry-fold, you absolutely need a POS system. Rather than having different attendants with different handwriting taking down information – or forgetting to take down information – everything is standardized. In addition, customer preferences are included so that their laundry is done to their specifications every time. You just don’t get that when you have employees writing in a book.

The most important thing is making sure the customers get back everything they dropped off. With a POS system, we know exactly how many bags and bundles of hangers a customer has coming and exactly where they are located.

Also, our POS system automatically prints out a $5 customer appreciation coupon after a customer spends $100 or more on wash-dry-fold or drycleaning. No one has to keep track of it, and the customers love it. The key to wash-dry-fold is enticing customers to return over and over. And that’s part of customer retention.

Clearly, the wash-dry-fold business is a labor-intensive one. What are your plans for dealing with the current labor situation – including a tight labor market, increasing minimum wages, mandated employee benefits, etc.?

Paul Hansen: Due to the rising minimum wage, we increased our prices by 20 percent this year – and our gross is up a little bit. We probably lost a few customers, but the vast majority of them are willing to pay extra for a premium product.

Art Jaeger: Hiring good employees, training them and keeping them is probably one of the hardest things that I have to do.

In the beginning, I was an extremely segmented person. Employees were hired by a particular store, and they worked just in that store. However, in the last few years, I’ve thrown that out the window. Today, an attendant may work in three or four of my stores during the same pay period.

This became a necessity. It’s worth paying extra to give more experienced workers more hours and to move them into areas where they can do the job more successfully.

Kent Wales: We’ve combatted the labor issues by working on our culture. It’s work, not play – but we try to focus on creating a strong, supportive team. From the beginning, we’ve had a set of company values that we try to instill. From there, we’re looking for people who like completion on a daily basis and who want to work as a team.

Jeff Gardner: Like many small businesses, we struggle with the balance between increasing prices and/or increasing efficiency and cutting costs. At our business, we have focused on increasing efficiency and cutting costs, and trying to maintain our prices.

That being said, I think right now is a very easy time to take a price increase, mostly because everyone is doing it. I would advise anybody doing wash-dry-fold to take a look at their competitors’ pricing. All of the competitors in my market have increased their prices by as much as 20 percent.

Rob Maes: We try to cast as wide a net as possible, in terms of who we can attract and then we try to find those people who are a good fit.

A “good fit” refers to everything from their personal schedules, to the hours we offer, to their location, etc. At the end of the day, they could probably find another job that pays the same or more, so we’re looking for those where the position just fits well with their personal schedule. We might go through five or six candidates until we find someone right for us.

Chris Balestracci: In Connecticut, the minimum wage is $10.10 an hour. My attendants start out at $10.10, but most of them are making in the $13- to $14-an-hour range. My philosophy is that you get what you pay for.

I treat my employees well, but I also expect a lot out of them. We pay a monthly bonus. We offer four paid sick days per year, and they get one week’s paid vacation after 12 months with us.

Perhaps our best employee morale booster is our annual Christmas party at the end of the year. We close up at 5:00 and go out to a fancy restaurant. Everything is on me. We exchange presents, and it’s really one of the best nights of the year for the employees.

In addition, as the minimum wage goes up, you have to be competitively priced, too. We just raised our prices for the first time in two years. We’re now getting $1.25 per pound. If you’re going to do wash-dry-fold, do it to make money. You’ve got to pay your employees and have the right products to get the work done correctly, so don’t be afraid to charge a premium price for a premium service.

What one factor most contributed to the success of your wash-dry-fold business?

Paul Hansen: A good, consistent product. Our customers are very loyal to it. Also, for our pickup and delivery service, we heavily market the fact that we use ozone, which requires less energy and less chemicals.

Above all, I think it’s the fact that wash-dry-fold is not an afterthought for us. We make it a professional operation. We’re not just a laundromat and, “Yeah, we’ll do your laundry if you want us to.” We’re more than that.

Art Jaeger: Having a really good product, and getting good reviews.

Chris Balestracci: Advertising. You’ve got to advertise. Don’t offer wash-dry-fold if you’re not going to advertise.

Clearly, every market has a different “best way” to advertise. For me, advertising on the backs of supermarket coupons has worked well over the years. I also do a lot of Google AdWords, and of course we have a website that is mobile-ready.

If you don’t have a website, don’t advertise and don’t claim your business online, then don’t do wash-dry-fold. Like everything else in life these days, people will go to their phones and look for “wash-dry-fold services near me.”

Kent Wales: Our team – 100 percent. We couldn’t do the things we do today and make the leap from strictly a self-service laundry with a part-time attendant to what we’ve grown into without a great staff.

Jeff Gardner: The network of friends and colleagues in this industry that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting through my involvement with the Coin Laundry Association – the opportunity to vacation and spend time with them. It has always left me inspired, informed and given me the ability to grow my business.

I haven’t come up with many original ideas in the 18 years that I’ve been in the laundry business. But I have applied all of the great ideas of others, or at least been inspired by others’ ideas and come up with my own modifications.

What are the biggest opportunities for the wash-dry-fold business in the future?

Art Jaeger: Home delivery – and for two reasons.

First of all, drycleaners are beginning to move into the wash-dry-fold space. They already have the delivery vans and the route systems. However, what they don’t have are stores that are set up to do mass wash-dry-fold.

Secondly, the laundry business used to be a proximity business. But, today, you’ve got operations 20 miles away that are advertising in your zip codes – and when their vans come to pick up customers’ clothes, those customers don’t care that their garments are traveling 20 miles to a store on the other side of town to be processed. And they don’t care that your store might be two blocks away. So, you’ve got to protect yourself against the store owners who are 20 miles away. The wash-dry-fold business is moving away from that proximity business model.

Chris Balestracci: The biggest opportunities lie in the consumer realizing that there are wash-dry-fold services out there, as well as pickup and delivery services available in many areas.

More and more people have a lot of money and no time. They want to have more free time and are willing to pay for it. Consumers are willing to spend their money to get their laundry done, and that’s where our future growth lies.

Kent Wales: Unless you’re located in an urban setting – and if you want to grow the business to the point where you can have a little more consistency in the day-to-day operation – you have to deliver.

We have two delivery vans running five days a week. I’m a firm believer in static routes. We don’t do on-demand, like Uber. That’s not our model. Our model is more like picking up on Monday and returning items on Wednesday. We’re looking for customers who want to use us consistently over the long term.

Also, if you are going to grow your business, you have to have a way to automate the sign-up process so that customers can order online. You have to be responsive. Consumers are expecting more and more these days.

Jeff Gardner: Even today, there are so many people I hear say, “Oh, I didn’t know I could drop off my stuff. I didn’t know I could have my laundry done for me.”

The willingness of people to outsource this work is growing solely due to the number of businesses offering it and the amount of visibility we, as an industry, are receiving because of it.

If we got just 1 percent of the laundry loads that are done at home to convert to becoming loads done by a full-service wash-dry-fold operator, our industry would be buried will all of the extra business. Just that 1 percent would completely change the game.