By Bob Nieman | May 14, 2009
How safe is your laundromat?
Right off the bat, a coin laundry has two strikes against it – just by the very nature of the business.
First of all, it is a cash business. Secondly, most laundromats typically thrive in low- to middle-income neighborhoods. That's a one-two punch for disaster if you're not wary of the dangers involved – or concerned enough to take the necessary precautions to safeguard yourself, your employees, your customers and your business.
Unfortunately, news stories about robberies – and often violence – at self-service laundries are not as rare as any of us would like – or as some of you may think.
Despite the examples all around, many store owners and attendants get complacent. That's the number-one mistake. They don't think it can happen to them. Everyone thinks it's always going to happen to somebody else.
Here are several ways to take that bull’s eye off your back and make you and your laundry business less appealing to potential thieves and other criminals.
Personal Safety When Collecting
Vary your collection schedule. The first basic tip to remember is to alter your collection schedule. If someone is going to rob you, there is a good chance that he will watch you and your store for a period of time before actually following through with his plans.
“I suggest that people alter their collection times,” said Bill Gilbert of SLM Inc., Belton, S.C. “Don’t collect on the same day all the time. That’s when criminals get a clear idea that, for instance, every Monday morning at 8:00 you’re there collecting money. Break that pattern. If somebody is there waiting for you to collect, this will throw them off. They won’t be able to establish a set time to rob you.”
Generally, would-be thieves know exactly who the laundry owners are. In fact, they probably know more about your business than you think they do. They probably know where you keep your money and how often you collect. What's more, they've probably been in your store more than once. To prevent yourself from falling into a routine, don't collect on the same day or at the same time, because it just makes you an easier target for robbery.
Use discretion when handling money in your laundry. Another key is to not attract attention, especially when you've got your changers open and a stack of bills in your hands.
“Carrying around a gigantic wad of bills and making it obvious that you have that much money is not a good idea,” Gilbert warned. “It just gives the criminal element that may be hanging around that much more temptation to rob you.”
Also, be discreet when carrying the day's or week's proceeds from the store to your car and then from your car to the bank. Don't put your money in a canvas bag with the name of your bank proudly emblazoned across the front. Put your cash in a toolbox, or some other container that will not make it so obvious that you are taking money out of your laundry.
Some laundry owners have even altered large boxes of detergent, placing metal cases inside of the soapboxes. This way it looks like they are just carrying soap in and out of the store. Other store operators put their money at the bottom of a laundry basket full of clothes so that it appears they're simply taking clothes out of the store.
Be observant when collecting. Of course, there's no specific way to not be seen dumping quarters out of your washers and dryers, which is why it's even more crucial that you don't become distracted while doing so.
“I don’t want to stress this to the point of paranoia, but you have to be alert and observant of anything that’s out of the ordinary,” Gilbert said.
Keep an eye on who is in your facility. Obviously, if you work in your laundry consistently, you'll no doubt recognize many of your regular customers. However, if there's a shady-looking character hanging around, don't open your changer.
Alter your route to the bank. After collecting, make your deposit as soon as possible. Don't make a routine stop at your house first, or to some other place where you typically might do your counting, because this could increase the chance that a criminal will follow you home.
“A lot of criminals will allow you to collect the money and walk out with your money bags to your car, but they’ll block you at the next stop sign,” Gilbert noted. “So alter your routes and be observant of who may be following you.”
Just as you vary your collection schedule, be sure to vary your route to depositing your money as well. Again, continue to be as observant of your surroundings as you were when you were collecting in your store. Don't let your guard down. Alter your stops and your route to the bank. And, above all, don't put your money in the trunk of your vehicle and go home.
Collect your store front to back. When collecting, start at the front of your store and work your way to the back. Typically, the offices are in the back of the stores, so many owners start collecting coins as soon as they walk out of their offices. By the time they get to the front of the stores, their bags are full of coins, and they're the farthest from their safe haven, which is their office. They're at the front door, right where a would-be thief is going to be.
“I collect out of particular machines at a time, and once I have a bag filled from that one type of machine, I will take it out and lock it in my car right away,” said Rich Postuma of All Washed Up Laundry in Slinger, Wis. “I don’t let my change pile up in the store.”
Collect during business hours. Collect during the daytime or during business hours whenever possible. If your store is too busy to collect during store hours, lock the doors after hours, or do the collections first thing in the morning.
Most people are less likely to try to take your quarters in a crowded situation.
“I generally try to collect during an off time when nobody’s there or when there are a number of customers there who I am familiar with,” Postuma explained.
Collect with a partner. Whenever possible, use two people when you collect your store. One person can collect and the other person can watch your back. He can keep an eye out for what is going on inside and outside the store. One person can't be aware of his surroundings at all times.
“If possible, use two people to collect,” Gilbert said. “One of them to collect and one just to look out.”
Postuma said that he occasionally collects his laundries with his wife.
Collect in bags, not buckets. Many owners collect their coins in buckets. That can be a big mistake. You should collect coins in bags, according to many security experts, because that way no one can see the coins in a bag. Plus, buckets are loud. When you dump coins into a bucket, it sounds like a drum. And a bag full of money lies on a cart less conspicuously. If the money is in a bucket, it's obvious – and tempting.
When collecting, park close to your store. Park directly in front of your laundromat. Some owners may be tempted to leave a choice parking space near the front door for a customer. However, when you're leaving your store with the day's proceeds, you want to be as close to the safety of your vehicle as possible.
Also, park in a lighted area if you're going to be leaving your store at night. In addition, be sure to equip your vehicle with a remote so that you can unlock it and turn on the interior lights before you get to it.
Call someone. When you walk outside after collecting, especially late at night, be talking to someone on your cell phone. That way, if you are accosted, even if you drop the phone in panic, the person on the other end will immediately hear that something is wrong.
Also, when you call someone to let them know you're leaving your store, you're creating a timeline. Now someone is expecting you. If something does happen, you'll be missed more readily.
Walk tall. Posture can draw or repel predators. People who are afraid tend to hunch their shoulders and lock their hips. Work toward avoiding such fearful posture.
Deterring Crime at Your Store
A less direct but just as crucial way to protect yourself and your employees against crime is to design and equip your self-service laundry so that it is less attractive to thieves.
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't 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. In general, make it as difficult as possible to gain entry into your laundry after closing.
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.
"Lighting is extremely important," Gilbert said. "One reason for this is because surveillance cameras work better in good lighting. The other is that a brighter store is more welcome to customers and less welcome to intruders. Security-wise, also light up your parking lot. Bad guys don't want to be seen. They like to lurk around in the dark. If you've got lights outside, that's another great deterrent."
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.
When buying an existing store, change all locks. It should go without saying, but 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.
Lock up early. Although your store may stay open until 11 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. 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.
Develop a solid relationship with the police. One of the best deterrents is to have the police routinely stop by your store, or to have a police car regularly cruise by.
Keeping Your Employees Safe
In addition to your own personal safety, as the owner, you need to be concerned with the well being of your employees. A part of your attendant training program should include how your employees can keep themselves and your business from being easy targets for thieves and other criminals, as well as what to do if ever confronted with a robber at your store.
"If I were an owner, I would train my employees to be very conscientious about handling money with others around," Gilbert said. "I would also train them to be very observant. It's the surprise things that really throw you off; somebody walks in the door and, all of a sudden, he sticks a gun in your face. Teach your attendants to have it in their minds what they're going to do if something happens.
“Also, if someone’s in the store acting suspicious, teach your attendants to call the police and let them handle it,” said Gilbert, a former police officer. “Don’t approach the guy yourself. If he’s wearing a big trench coat and it’s 90 degrees outside, something’s just not right. Call the police.”
Of course, the main lesson attendants need to understand is to always use common sense and not take matters into their own hands. If a robbery does occur, they should always cooperate with the thief, while trying to be as observant as to the robber's appearance as possible without angering him. After the thief has left, they should know to call the owner and the authorities immediately.
With regard to attendants, uniforms are an excellent visual deterrent. It helps your customers know who your employees are. It also makes most customers feel more at home and secure. And it may scare off prospective robbers who'd rather hit a less-organized business.
In addition, many store owners suggest providing a sacrificial purse at the laundry for attendants. This can have a couple of out-of-date credit cards in it, and maybe 20 $1 bills. That way the attendants have something to give up, and the robber hopefully won't get frustrated.
Keeping Watch: Surveillance Systems
Be sure to further protect your self-service laundry business – and those in it – by installing a surveillance camera system.
For a coin laundry facility that's less than 3,000 square feet, normally four cameras will provide adequate coverage. With a 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.
"If you need to identify somebody for doing damage to your facility, you’ve got to do it when they’re coming or going," said Don Spolar of Active Vision Inc., Ronkonkoma, N.Y. "That’s the best place. They have to walk through a door that’s three feet wide, so you’re guaranteed to nail them right there. As long as you can ID him really good one time, coming or going, the rest of the cameras don’t need to be in extreme detail.
"It’s not retail," he added. "You’re not watching a guy in a jewelry store. Jewelry stores have extreme detail because the items are small and shoplifting is a big issue.
"That’s where laundromats break the rules – they don’t need extreme coverage everywhere. They need general coverage throughout the machine area and extreme coverage at the service counter, change machines and doors."
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.
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.
If a laundromat is larger than 3,000 square feet, perhaps 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 laundromat 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.
"You have to be sure that you have enough cameras to cover the detailed areas of your store," warned Steve Marcionetti of Card Concepts Inc., based in Addison, Ill. "Some systems use too few cameras, and you end up with a very broad view of the laundromat, which doesn’t tell you much more than how busy the store is.
"I recommend a minimum of eight cameras for most laundromats 3,000 square feet and larger."
In addition, Marcionetti suggested two types of cameras for a typical coin laundry setting.
"You want a wider lens on the cameras that cover your entire laundromat, just to see what the store looks like overall," he said. "On your changers and doors, you want your cameras to have a closer focal point."
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.
Many laundry operators are absentee owners. They're at their stores an hour or two a day. Fortunately, several current surveillance systems offer remote viewing capabilities, which means that the owner can dial up his self-service laundry anytime anywhere – and view exactly what's going on at his facility.
Furthermore, some systems will allow you to save video images through the Internet, and the higher-end systems feature 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.
Another nice feature of certain surveillance systems these days is increased compression formats. Basically, the more you are able to compress the images recorded by your cameras to your computer’s hard drive, the more recording time you have.
"It could take weeks before you identify a problem," Spolar said. "If there is a slip and fall, the attendants may not always bring it to the owner’s attention. But, a month later, he gets a summons in the mail because there’s a lawsuit.
"In the past, if the incident occurred a month ago, there was a good chance that video had been overwritten – gone. But higher compression formats will let you have twice as much elapsed time. Some initial systems gave only weeks of recording time, but we’ve got a system out there now with six months’ worth of recording time."
Today's security systems don't stop there. Certain systems can automate an entire coin 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.
In fact, most security companies advise their laundromat clients to purchase systems that are expandable and upgradeable. Security technology is changing quickly, and you don't want to be stuck with equipment that's obsolete.
Of course, 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.
Most security companies from which you purchase your camera and alarm systems can provide you with such signage. Also, perhaps hang signs stating that you will vigorously prosecute anyone who breaks the law in your facility.
A word of warning with regard to security cameras: Never use fake cameras. If a customer slips and falls in your store, the first thing that person_s attorney is going to do is subpoena your video footage. If you've got fake cameras and no video evidence, the lawyer may argue that his client went to your store because she felt safe, due to the fact that you said you maintained a record of what occurred in your facility.
Don’t Be a Target
Always be wary of the possibility that you could be robbed. Adding enhanced safety measures to your store will make it more secure for you and more comfortable for your customers. Many potential coin laundry customers, especially seniors, will often seek out a store that is equipped with security measures, and this could even help boost profits. In fact, you can use the addition of new security systems and procedures as a way to promote your store and distance your business from the competition.
However, the main reason to take such measures is to safeguard yourself and your investment.