By Bob Nieman | Apr 15, 2009
About a year ago, a young woman walked into Lmaries laundromat in Bowling Green, Ohio. Looking slightly bewildered by the rows of frontloading washers and stack dryers, she was clearly not a regular. In fact, it was her first visit to the card-operated store, which is located across the street from Bowling Green State University.
“I asked her if I could help her,” explained owner Duane King, who has been in business for four years. “She said that she was a student and had never been here before. However, she had one of my cards in her hand, so I asked her where she got it. As it turns out, she won it in a poker game.”
Perhaps only on a college campus can you expect one of your store’s main marketing tools to be thrown into the pot during some after-hours Texas Hold ‘Em action.
“She said she was told there was $19 or $20 on it,” King added. “So I showed her how to put it in the machine. And she’s still a customer today.”
Although the card system didn’t work exactly the way he had envisioned it would, King said that he installed the system specifically for the college students.
“I thought they would take to the technology well,” said King, whose clientele is made up of 60 percent to 65 percent students. “My thought was that they would come in and put $10 on the card and then leave. But, the next week, when they do their laundry, they’re going to have a balance on that card, which is going to bring them right back in.”
King’s plan noted nothing of the card being used as backup currency to support a gambling jones – but, for Lmaries bottom line, business is business.
King goes to great lengths to get his store’s cards into the hands of Bowling Green State students – from giving some to the university to hand out at the student union to distributing them at the local campus bars.
“Whenever I do a mass mailing, I will get a 1 percent or 2 percent return,” King said. “But I’m in the 90 percent return range with the cards. These almost always come back.
“We sponsor a comedy night at a local bar,” he added. “And for $500 a year, my store’s name is up all over campus and downtown Bowling Green. And I give out a lot of free cards there.
In addition, on the Lmaries Web site, King has a form that parents can send in (with a check, of course), asking King to mail their students a card.
“In September, I’ll receive several dozen of these requests,” King said. “A lot of times, their parents are putting $50 or $100 at a time on the kid’s card. This way they know the kids are doing laundry with that money and not spending it on beer.”
The Web site has also turned into a great way for students to get in touch with King when he’s not at the store.
“If they lose something or have a problem, they can send me an e-mail,” King said. “I don’t have a phone number posted in the store anymore, because I was getting calls at three in the morning, asking if they could wash this red sweater with those blue jeans.
“Some 19-year-old girl’s emergency is not necessarily my emergency.”
Advertising and Promotions
”Traditional forms of advertising and marketing don’t work in the college environment,” said Josh Swank, who owns the Squeaky Clean laundromat in Peoria, Ill., which is home to Bradley University. “You have to do untraditional things.”
Each summer, Swank includes a brochure about his store’s laundry services in every student orientation package, which goes out to approximately 2,500 students. This brochure includes a coupon for a free wash at Squeaky Clean.
”We get a lot of those back each fall,” explained Swank, whose self-service laundry is located directly across the street from the university. “It’s valid within the first month of school.”
In addition, during the first weekend of the fall semester, all of Squeaky Clean’s employees hit the campus to distribute flyers to everyone who is moving in for the school year. These flyers feature coupons for $5 off of the store’s wash-dry-fold services, as well as a “do one load, get the second load free” discount.
Squeaky Clean also places advertisements in the school’s newspaper every two weeks, along with running an ad in Bradley’s annual directory of fraternities and sororities, which is given to every student at the school. What’s more, a quarterly postcard mailing is send to everyone on campus.
“Visitors to my Web site can print out a coupon for a free wash,” said Sally Collins, who owns two Speedwash Launderettes in New Jersey, just a couple of miles from Rutgers University. “I find that the college students are the ones who are most into computers and looking for bargains. I wouldn’t have a Web site unless I was near the college.”
On the marketing and promotions side of things, Swank said that his store’s printed nylon laundry bags have been a huge hit with the college crowd.
“I’m going through about 800 a year at this point,” said Swank, who estimated the college students make up about 25 percent of his clientele. “We’re selling them for $8 each.”
Lake Effect Laundry in Buffalo, N.Y., which is near both Buffalo State College and Canisius College, has run a popular promotion where students who show up with a valid school ID get a free laundry bag – in the college’s colors and with the school’s name (along with the name of the laundromat) printed on it.
This fall, King plans to print about 700 T-shirts with his store’s name on them and give them away for free.
“If you’re caught wearing your Lmaries T-shirt anywhere other than in the laundromat, I’ll give you a $3 bonus on your card,” said King, who also sponsors several Bowling Green sports teams as well. “If you have your card with you, you get an extra dollar. And if you can correctly pronounce Lmaries, you get another dollar bonus.”
One of Swank’s past promotions aimed at the college market had to be cancelled – but not due to lack of interest.
“Three years ago, we did this thing called Squeaky Clean Live,” explained Swank, who will celebrate Squeaky Clean’s fourth anniversary in October. “We had local college bands coming in on Friday nights and playing in the laundromat. It was very cool. But because of the acoustics and the low ceiling in the store, it was so loud that it was deafening. So we had to stop that.”
To Swank’s surprise, the store enjoyed great laundry business on those nights – and not just from college students. Many of the Mexican and South American immigrants in the area enjoyed the live music and the sense of community, which reminded them more of their cultures, according to Swank.
”It was a lot of fun while it lasted,” he said. “I could book out every weekend night all year long with bands, if I would let them. I felt bad pulling the plug, but truly, I was going deaf.”
However, Squeaky Clean continues to come up with new ways to draw in students, and Swank gives his attendants full reign to come up with promotions events.
One of the ideas they have tossed around for the coming semester is Tuesday Night Date Night, which would be a speed dating event for college kids. Along those same lines, the store is mulling over a “Singles Wall,” where students could put up their photos and background information for other students to peruse – with Squeaky Clean acting as somewhat of a matchmaker for their laundry customers.
Swank also names a Customer of the Month. Customers can fill out a short profile card each time they come in. Those cards go into a fish bowl. Each month, a new card is pulled, and the winner receives $25 worth of free laundry. (Of course, the cards feature the customers’ addresses and e-mail addresses, which help Swank when it comes time for future direct mailings.)
“College kids are very into that, because they want the free laundry,” Swank said.
Bradley, like many universities, offers students their own college debit account, into which they or their parents can deposit money. This account can be used at virtually any business on campus – the bookstore, convenience stores, vending machines and so on. However, there also are restaurants off campus that accept it. And, beginning this year, Squeaky Clean will be the first off-campus service to accept it.
“We use the Easy Card system,” Swank explained. “So we’re going to automatically debit the account and put that credit onto the student’s Easy Card. We’ll just be transferring money. We’re giving them an easier way to pay us, because so many students use the university’s debit account system.”
A word of warning from Swank: “I would not spend a whole lot on sponsorships. It’s an easy way to use up a lot of marketing dollars, and I have not been able to quantify the benefits at all.”
Amenities and Décor
One thing almost all college students have in common is a need to surf the Internet – whether for school assignments or pleasure. Squeaky Clean has offered free Internet access since it opened for business in 2002. However, Swank has noticed a huge upswing in its use within the last year.
Squeaky Clean also features a pinball machine, televisions and plenty of magazines geared toward the college demographic.
Lmaries – which also features free Internet access, as well as being open 24 hours to accommodate the students’ often erratic schedules – offers the college kids a 100-game MegaTouch video game, a pool table and air hockey.
“I thought about giving up the air hockey and adding some more folding tables and a few more washers, but the people who play air hockey in here are very loyal to it,” he laughed. “They would kill me.”
In addition to the Internet, the other thing most college students can’t get by without is caffeine – and Lake Effect Laundry gives it to them in style, featuring a separate bistro-type café with a popular locally branded coffee concept and an array of freshly baked dessert items.
“College kids really like their caffeine,” said Matt O’Connor, owner of Lake Effect. “Coffee is the jolt. It’s that extra thing to drive them in.”
What literally drives many of O’Connor’s customers to him is the school’s shuttle bus.
“Because Buffalo State is a city campus that spreads over several blocks, the school has a shuttle bus route through that campus,” explained O’Connor, who estimated that 20 percent of his customers are college students. “We were put on the shuttle stop path, so a student can get on the shuttle with his or her laundry and get dropped off at our facility.
“We’re trying to take as much pain out of it as possible for the student. After all, it can get a little snowy in Buffalo.”
As for college-inspired laundry décor, Squeaky Clean includes a separate bulletin board, strictly for Bradley University news and announcements. What’s more, the front of the store is decorated with a Bradley flag, along with several fraternity and sorority banners.
King also furnished Lmaries with the college student in mind, especially in regard to the seating. “I put in several large booths so that they can spread themselves out, read the paper or study,” he said.
Tim Biggs, who owns Convenient Laundromat in Pittsburg, Kan., has taken college amenities and décor to a higher level. The 6,600-square-foot laundry, located just blocked from Pittsburg State University, features a separate room for Biggs’ video games, pinball machines and pool tables.
In addition, Biggs, who played football for Pittsburg State, has decorated a four-foot area above his dryers, all around the laundry, with Pitt State sports memorabilia.
“I have the last 24 years of football schedules, basketball schedules, coaches’ pictures, win-loss records – all of it,” said Biggs, whose son coached volleyball and track at the school. “The students love to come in and look at all of the old scores and photos. We’ve got a great football tradition here.”
Running Your Store
”We focus on educating our customers about our frontload machines,” Swank said. “We have four topload washers. But we’ve made the decision not to replace them. As those toploads die, they are going out to pasture. We’re not going to pull them out until they die, but we’re not going to invest any more repair money into them.
”When I train my attendants, we spent a lot of time on the differences between the machines and how to educate the customer,” he added. “College kids are the easiest to train because they know the least about laundry.”
King said that – operations-wise – college kids are like everyone else.
“They’re looking for machine availability and cleanliness – the exact same thing everyone wants,” he said. “You don’t have to do anything different, as far as running your store.
The Drycleaning Option
A drop-off drycleaning service is not a huge draw for the college crowd. However, they do use such services from time to time, Swank said.
“They use it more in the spring during interview time,” Swank explained. “The fraternity guys will use it two or three times a semester because of formals – for dress shirts. And girls will use it for dresses.”
In fact, because the students are so budget-conscious, Swank said that, within the next month or so, he will be switching the drycleaner he uses for his drop-off service, in an effort to make this service more hospitable to the students.
“The college kids were my motivation to do that,” he said.
Staffing Your Store
One advantage of locating your laundromat near a college campus is a steady stream of potential attendants.
Swank employs a full-time manager, but the rest of his staff of seven part-timers are college students. And retention has been excellent.
“They don’t leave,” he marveled. “We just had our first person leave, and that’s because she graduated. She was with us all four years.”
As a result, Swank has created the Golden Duck Award – for employees who have been with Squeaky Clean for the entire four years of their college experience. In addition to a nice plaque, the winner receives a $1,000 bonus toward their spring break during senior year.
The inaugural Golden Duck winner used her grand to defray some of her expenses to Cabo San Lucas this past March.
“I have at least two other girls with me right now – a sophomore and a junior,” Swank said. “They both said that they want that award. It’s motivation to get them to stay.”
Pickup and Delivery Services
In addition to the walk-in business he might attract from students in off-campus apartments, Swank also goes to the source – offering a pickup and delivery service to the dorms and Greek houses.
He charges the students a rate of 95 cents per pound, with a 20-pound minimum. Students can sign up through the Squeaky Clean Web site, using their credit cards.
“At the beginning of the school year, parents will come in because they want to make sure that their kids have clean laundry and drycleaning all year long,” Swank explained. “So we’ll take their information down, and charge the parents’ credit card on a monthly basis, for whatever services have been used in the past month.
“We e-mail monthly statements to the parents, if it’s the parents’ card – or to the student, if it’s the student’s card.”
Squeaky Clean employees use their own vehicles for this service, and Swank pays them for their mileage. Currently, the store does a total of about 1,000 pounds a day in drop-off laundry – between wash-dry-fold and commercial accounts.
“This year, we’re going to start being more aggressive with our wash-dry-fold contracts with the college kids,” said O’Connor, who currently has 40 such accounts for pickups and deliveries at the dorms. “You try to appeal to the parents, and parents are relatively indulging of their children nowadays: ‘Yes, they may have free laundry at the dorm, but it’s difficult to get a machine and it’s very time-consuming for a student, when he or she should be spending time in class and at the library.’”
King also pointed out the seasonality of the collegiate clientele, saying that he loses about 20 percent of his business during the summer.
“If you’re going to build a store in a college market and cater to them, your sales will be up and down,” he warned. “When they leave for holiday break, it’s dead quiet.”
He added that Christmas and summer breaks are ideal times for annual cleaning and maintenance.
“I schedule most of our maintenance between Christmas and New Year’s Day, because everyone goes home then. You can tear into a whole row of washers or half of the dryers and not worry about impacting any customers. You want to take your vacation too, but that’s when you’ve got to get your work done.”
In addition, Swank advises that it is important to listen to the students.
“We have comment cards, and we really do listen to their feedback and adjust accordingly,” he explained. “Also, try to get involved in the local college scene – whatever that may be.”
Lastly, it’s crucial to build relationships with the college administrators and staff.
“Let them know that you’re here to support the community and help the students spend more time in the library,” O’Connor said. “The second step is to be patient, because it takes time.”