By Bob Nieman | Jan 31, 2011
How much time did you spend thinking about utility costs last week? Or, for that matter, equipment maintenance? Or hiring an attendant? Or going after that new commercial account?
OK, how about the interior design of your store? How much time did you spend on that?
Yes, interior design can change the entire atmosphere of a coin laundry. And, if it’s done poorly, you’re going to lose customers.
“It’s just human nature,” said interior designer Michelle Pollack of La Petite Maison in Mount Pleasant, S.C. “If you like a space, you want to be in it. If it makes you uncomfortable, you can’t wait to get out. Think Wal-Mart – you can’t wait to get the heck out of there. If you go to any big-box retailer or to a laundromat, it’s a chore. So, anything you can do to make a chore more fun and less ‘chore-like,’ earns you bonus points.”
“The customer is paying attention to it 100 percent, whether they actively acknowledge it or not,” agreed Deborah Burnett, an interior designer and color consultant, recognized as a leader in the emerging practice of epigenetic design, which studies the physiological and neurological relationship between people and their built environments. “They will choose a place that appears safe, that appears comfortably lit and that appears environmentally conducive for them to show their underwear. That is the most basic, elemental criteria that anyone selecting a laundromat is going to go through.”
With interior design, the latest trends are not something to be chased, according to a number of professionals. In fact, the best trend of all is good design, they agreed. And “good design” equates to usable design.
“With a lot of trends, they’re just not user-friendly,” Pollack said. “With design, especially in a commercial setting, the most important element is to make it user-friendly. If it’s not a user-friendly trend, it’s just going to annoy your customers. Yes, make your store aesthetically appealing, but that’s not necessarily trendy.”
“As far as trends, laundry owners are limited because of the durability needed,” said Esther Sadowsky of Charm & Whimsy in New York City. “Stick to nicely painted space, with a mural or some framed prints.”
Step by Step Through Your Store
Let’s take a look at each specific area of a typical self-service laundry, and see how they may be improved by some professional interior design advice:
• Lighting. Lighting is the most important element of good design. Too much lighting, too little lighting or the wrong lighting can be deadly to the design of your laundry.
Burnett suggested separate levels of lighting for the separate areas of a laundromat. For example, above the washers and dryers, she said that compact fluorescent lighting in the neighborhood of 5000 to 65000 Kelvin temperature is perfect “so that the customers can see how white their whites are.”
You can step down the lighting intensity a bit in the folding area, according to Burnett.
“This section doesn’t need to be as high, probably 4100 to 5000 Kelvin,” she noted. “It’s a little bit more relaxing, but you can still see the colors and be sure that you picked up the brown socks instead of the black ones.”
In the other sections of your store – such as the children’s area, the seating area or the computer area – you can lower the lighting even further, to 2700-Kelvin fluorescent tubes.
Burnett added that desk lamps, wall lamps and floor lamps also are great choices for a store’s more relaxing areas.
Basically, you would want three distinct layers of lighting, according to Burnett. “You can use the same color scheme, simply by changing the lighting over the top of your washers and dryers, your folding area, your study area and your relaxing area,” she said. “Then you have the perfect combination.”
Sadowsky believed that “cloud fixtures,” which are white acrylic defusers with white fluorescent light, would be perfect for the laundry setting as well.
• Flooring. Laundry owners are limited with regard to flooring materials, due to the fact that water is involved. The issues you face are ones of aesthetics versus comfort versus utility of the space – and those three issues are hard to combine.
For example, stone and tile are water-proof, but they’re not overly comfortable to stand on. Linoleum and some of the new rubber composite floors are easy on the feet, but they don’t always look very good. By contrast, wood looks great and is comfortable, but it would never work in a laundry because of the water issues.
“The flooring needs to be a hard surface, and it needs to be maintenance-free,” Burnett said. “I would suggest a stained concrete floor or vinyl tile in the work area.
In the relaxing area, Burnett suggested defining this section with area rugs or carpet tiles. “This can even be a raised floor area,” she said. “It can be a step-up area.
“In the children’s area, you need to have some sort of soft-surface flooring. Again, you may want to raise that area and put a small, 36-inch-tall wall around it so that the kids are contained.”
• Ceiling. Ceilings do matter. And the type of ceiling you have depends your specific market, your target demographics and, of course, your particular space.
“Different stores will call for different ceiling treatments,” Pollack said. “If you’re in a hip, urban setting, you’re going to want a whole different ceiling than if you’re in a suburban area. If your laundry has an urban, industrial-type ceiling with those old exposed HVAC units and if it’s part of the historic nature of the building, that’s something you can highlight – if it has historic value and is visually appealing. If it’s cool, funky and has character, you can work with it. If it doesn’t, you need to change it.”
Whether or not you decide on an exposed ceiling in the washing and drying area, Burnett prefers to see a drop ceiling with acoustical tile over the top of the sitting and children’s areas.
“The dropped tile will help with acoustical sound absorption and transmission,” she said. “It’s going to give you a more relaxing environment.”
Burnett also recommended the use of tubular skylights to bring in additional natural lighting through the ceiling.
• Colors. First of all, it’s important to understand the relationship between lighting and color.
“You can’t choose color without knowing what the lighting is going to be,” Pollack explained. “Color doesn’t exist without light. I don’t think a lot of people realize this, and that’s why they get into trouble when they choose colors. What they see in a paint store or on a computer screen is not how it’s going to look in your real-life space.”
“You can’t just say, ‘I like olive green,’ and not know what your lighting is,” Burnett concurred, “because olive green will change, depending on what light bulbs you use.
“If you’re following my advice and going with the 5000 or 6500 Kelvin lighting over the washing area and stepping down to 4100 Kelvin over the folding area, you should go with the teals, the turquoises, the oranges and the whites,” she added. You’re going to be going with the brights.”
In the seating area, she suggested bringing down those colors several shades.
“You’re going to darken those colors, gray them out,” she said. “What was a bright orange and teal blue color combination over the tops of the washing machines and folding area becomes persimmon and sea-green blue by the time it gets to the relaxing area. That’s because the lighting is more yellow-based, more dulling in the relaxing area. The lighting in the folding and work areas is vibrant and is going to enhance the brightness of the colors. Select the lighting first, then the color follows.”
• Seating. Your seating area is where many designers suggest investing your decorating dollars. Comfortable chairs, a television or music – think Starbucks.
“The worst thing you can do in a laundromat is put out some hard plastic chairs or folding metal chairs,” Burnett said. “With this option, you’re attracting only the people who have no other choice to wash their clothes.”
For those looking to take their stores’ seating to the next level, there are a number of fabric selections. For example, many Starbucks locations and airport seating areas are using imitation cotton velvets, tweed fabrics, wools and other comfortable textiles that have a “touch factor” to them. Of course, for durability and washability, vinyl and good old-fashioned Naugahyde can’t be beat.
“I would recommend going with a fabric called Crypton,” Burnett said. “It’s a bit costly on the front end, but in the long run, it will hold up. It won’t stain, stink, mildew, tear – nothing. And it comes in several colors, textures and patterns.”
When it comes to durability, Sadowsky suggested the option of “vinylizing” your fabric of choice.
“If someone finds a fabric that isn’t already vinylized, it can be sent to a vinylizing factory where they will coat the fabric,” she said. “That’s how seating is done at diners, restaurants, doctor’s waiting rooms and airline waiting areas. That’s what should be done in coin laundries.”
“Number one, the seating has to be comfortable,” Pollack said. “People have to stay in that laundromat, and if you’re providing ancillary options for them to spent money, you want to keep them there.”
• Windows. In a coin laundry, you can never have too much light – or, in turn, too many windows. The more sunlight you can let in, the cleaner the store will look. Natural light psychologically translates to fresh and clean.
“To me, ideal lighting is daylight,” Pollack said. “It also goes along with today’s green movement, which is more than a trend – it’s a fundamental part of design that is here to stay.
“Making use of natural light makes good design sense. It makes good economically for the laundry owner. And it’s green, so you can get on that marketing bandwagon if you like.”
• Artwork and Other Design Elements. “Art can create an important focal point,” Pollack said. “It must be chosen precisely, and this includes the matting and the frame as well.”
For Burnett, artwork that portrays natural scenery is ideal for a coin laundry, because scenes, more so than images of people, evoke specific neurological hormonal responses that will automatically relax your customers, she said.
“In a laundry, you want natural scenery,” she said. “The larger the better. In fact, I would recommend going online to Flickr or iStockphoto, and purchasing the rights to some photographs – then taking them to the local Kinko’s and getting them blown up to poster size. Get them backed, and there is your artwork.”
Sadowsky warned laundry owners to keep the artwork fun and generic or extremely localized.
“Just because somebody had a bunch of museum posters that look old or are of a certain style, I wouldn’t put them on my walls,” she said. “It’s not a museum. It’s not a restaurant. I would focus on graphic, punchy color or artwork localized to the area – perhaps some posters of the neighborhood, the street or the town. In New York City, the Starbucks will gear the décor to the neighborhood they’re in.”
She also recommended whimsical wall murals, such as a wave of color, laundry on a clothesline, bubbles and other fun, oversized graphics.
Beyond artwork, Burnett is a big fan of big plants – eight-feet tall or larger, she suggested.
“I would use them as section dividers,” she explained. “I would use plants, because it creates a natural environment that complements the washing. And, if you have natural daylight, it lends itself to that naturalistic setting.”
• Store Layout. How much thought have you given to the layout of your washers, dryers, folding tables and other amenities – and to the way they all complement each other and aid (or hinder) customer flow through your store? This too is a crucial element of interior design.
“One way to make your layout flow seamlessly is to make it convenient,” Pollack said. “If there is a snack bar or café and a seating area, don’t make customers have to think too hard about how they’re going to get their laundry started, then get their coffee, then plug in their laptop and so on. Think like a customer, and make the floorplan flow. It’s not just getting the correct laundry equipment in there, but making sure the traffic flows.
“We’ve all been in space that looks beautiful, but the traffic flow makes you uncomfortable and you just want to get out of there no matter how pretty it is, because you can’t get from one place to another.”
To aid with that traffic flow, it helps to understand human nature, according to Burnett.
“In any retail store, immediately to the right of the front door is the kiss of death,” she said. “That’s the ‘zero zone.’ No sales take place to the right of the front door, because the natural inclination for human beings is to look straight ahead and slightly to the left. So, to the right of the front door would be the natural place to put your seating and reading area or a children’s area.
“You want your washers and dryers in the center of the store. The folding area should be up in the front and to the left. This way, people driving by can see your customers, and that’s what would draw them in.”
Another huge factor in any coin laundry layout is aisle width, which interior designer Greg Koehler found out when he opened his first coin laundry a couple of years ago.
“Now that I’m open I see things I would have changed,” said Koehler, in a past CLA interview. “Being an interior designer, I’m very much into spacial planning. I love to have space. And others kept telling me, ‘You only need a few feet here for people to get by. That’s all your need there.’
“Now that I’m in here, I wish I would have pushed a wall back another foot or two, or changed the angle of the layout. I should have listened to my interior design spacial planning instincts a little bit stronger, and I would have an even better product layout than what it is.”
Sadowsky concurred: “You inevitable bump into a machine behind you or a person with a cart or a folding table down the middle. A little more bending room would be nice. Widen those aisles.”
The Quick Fix
So, what can you do today when you walk into your store? Here are some quick fixes to improve the look and feel of your coin laundry:
• De-clutter. Even if you can’t yet figure out what color to paint your walls right now, at least be sure they are clean. As Pollack noted, “If your walls are currently boring beige, make certain they are uncluttered, pristine boring beige.”
• Clean. Burnett suggested that you begin the cleaning process not with a broom or mop… but with a camera. “Business owners all fail to see the trees through the forest, particularly after they acclimate to the environment,” she said.
As a result, she recommended walking through your front door about five feet, turning to your left and beginning to take overlapping photographs – a minimum of 20 photos for every section of your laundry. Then, lay them flat out in front of you, and with black marker, begin circling the trouble spots.
“You’re going to see things you’ve never seen before,” she promised. “That’s how you start cleaning. Any laundry owner can do that – no matter how small.”
• Change the light bulbs. “If you’re going to put money into anything, make it lighting,” Pollack said. “I tell my clients that, whatever else they do, if they don’t make sure the lighting works, it’s all going to be for nothing. Bad lighting can make the best design ugly, and good lighting can help hide a few design flaws.”
Don’t Do This!
By contrast, here are some major pitfalls to avoid when it comes to your store’s décor and design:
• Physical and psychological clutter. Don’t bombard your customers with too much information and too many focal points. The key to drawing someone into a space is to make it comfortable for them psychologically, as well as physically. Too much and inconsistently designed signage is a common example of this type of useless clutter.
• Dirty windows and restrooms. “This speaks 100 percent to design,” Burnett said.
• Poor accessibility and traffic flow. “I think accessibility and traffic flow are the two things that make or break your patience level in any store – a shoe store, a supermarket or a laundromat. You want the things near to what you’re doing. You don’t want to walk back and forth to do things,” Sadowsky explained.
• Residential colors and materials. “When the owner or the owner’s wife uses residential colors or materials that they have in their own house to decorate their retail space, it speaks volumes to their unprofessional approach to the business,” Burnett noted.
• Paneling, metal folding chairs and magazines that are more than six months out of date. Enough said.
“Treat your space, as if you were welcoming somebody into your home,” Pollack suggested. “Make it comfortable, inviting and hospitable. Make it someplace people want to go to.
“Too often, design becomes an afterthought. It’s the last thing business owners think about. But design is not an afterthought. It is one of the building blocks of your business.”