Glen Sheeley is definitely a carwash man. Like his father and grandfather, his passion for the business is as strong as it is apparent. So, why is it that those rainy days don’t exactly put him in a foul mood? The answer is simple.
In addition to being a carwash man with seven locations in Orange County, New York, Sheeley is also in the vended laundry business. Two of his locations are combination carwash/vended laundries. So, on rainy days when the carwash line is quiet, he’s still generating traffic on the laundromat side of the business. A full parking lot translates into solid revenue for a laundry.
“It always seemed like it made sense,” Sheeley says of pairing up the carwash and laundromat businesses. He added that the self service nature and similar clientele make the two excellent complements.
That’s what led him and his father to open their first combination business in Walden, New York. In 2017, Sheeley and his dad, Wayne, put all they learned in Walden into opening a showplace Wash Co. Car Wash & Laundromat in Middletown, New York. Built on five acres along a busy road, the store is an example of what a modern laundromat looks like, coming in at almost 4,000 square feet. The carwash is 160 feet long and has 20 vacuums.
Why a laundromat?
The vended laundry business has evolved from the dark, dingy and run-down shops that many people remember. Much like the carwash industry, today’s laundromats are far more high-tech, modern, clean and professionally run.
“Increasingly, we are seeing high-level investors and entrepreneurs show an interest in this business,” says Kathryn Rowen, North American sales manager for the Huebsch brand of laundry equipment. “The relatively low startup costs compared to other businesses, no franchise fees and high success rates are attractive selling points to investors. There’s no doubt they pair nicely with a carwash.”
Laundromats see an average return on investment of between 20 and 35 percent, and they are resistant to recessions or economic downturns. The stable customer base, cash nature of the business and ease of management provide additional benefits to owners.
For Sheeley, the fast ramp-up of the laundromat was equally advantageous, especially compared to the carwash business, which requires more time to cash flow. He got hints that Wash Co. was going to be a hit when prospective customers kept rolling in while the facility was under construction. Two even stopped while the parking lot was being blacktopped.
Just like any business, it’s all about location. Meshing the carwash with a laundry requires a good car count for the carwash, which also benefits the laundry, and solid demographics for the laundromat.
“Owners will want to see a large renter population of 35 percent or more within close proximity to the proposed location,” Rowen says, adding that middle- to low-income areas typically do well.
Sheeley recommends prospective owners do some legwork of their own. In his case, it was surveying current competition.
“I would drive around and try other laundromats,” Sheeley says, adding that the other part of the equation is working with a full service distributor who can assist in a variety of ways.
A well-qualified distributor also will be able to help with store layout, equipment selection and, in this case, access to a manufacturer’s finance program. These programs simplify financing and can act as an extra review of the location.
“They’re great compared to going to a bank,” Sheeley says of the quick and easy review/approval process for financing Wash Co.
Creating an experience
On the carwash end of the business, the Sheeley family has built a reputation for the pinnacle of customer service. They have — and always will — deliver a great experience to their clients, including free vacuums with every wash.
That was the plan for the newest Wash Co. location. The laundry features wide open spaces, 13-foot ceilings, 65-inch televisions and warm colors with bright green accents to give the store ample character.
“I want you to feel like you are coming into my house,” Sheeley says. “You have to make it an experience … and think outside the box.”
That experience also includes free Wi-Fi, refreshment vending machines and power doors to make it easier for customers lugging bags and baskets of laundry to get in and out.
The experience is also about the little things as well, like putting more outlets in the store, knowing that so many people are plugging in devices to charge while doing their laundry.
Of course, at the center of the store is the equipment. Sheeley wanted to offer customers the extra capacity they desire to get in and out quickly. Pairs of 100-pound and 80-pound washers help them do just that, while a mix of 20-, 40- and 60-pound washers give customers ample options.
Meanwhile, it’s the washers’ 200 g-force extract speed that really helps them get out the door fast by removing significantly more water from loads than competitors’ 100-g models. More moisture being removed helps reduce drying times.
Sheeley says it’s “music to his ears” when he hears customers say, “I love when I take loads out of the washer; they’re almost dry.”
True to Sheeley’s business model of giving the customer more than the competition, Wash Co. lets clients earn free dry credits with every wash they purchase — a 20-pound wash earns three credits, while a 100-pound load earns 14 credits.
On the carwash side, $6 gets a basic wash, while Wash Co. also offers memberships ranging from $14.99 to $32.99. In addition to the free vacuum use, the business again goes the extra mile with a towel exchange program for just $3. Clients exchange their towels after use, and Sheeley says the program has worked well, with their towels holding up for four to five years.
A look at operations
The Wash Co. experience extends into operations, where staff is cross-trained on both sides of the business so they can assist customers. This customer-centric approach has served the company well, as word-of-mouth advertising is a cornerstone of its success. A large digital sign is also key to raising the business’ visibility to passing motorists, while Facebook helps it connect with customers as well.
To this point, Wash Co. hasn’t done any major cross-marketing between the carwash and laundromat. However, books of wash cards are available for purchase in the laundry’s clear-front vending machine. In the future, Sheeley may implement a points reward system, where laundry users can earn free carwashes.
Building a better customer experience has undoubtedly showed in the results. Since opening last year, the business has posted solid results, with Sheeley joking he wished he would have added a couple more 100- and 80-pound washers. This strong start is even with several laundromats and carwashes within a mile from their new location.
Sheeley has also held firm in the prevailing viewpoint among many of today’s progressive vended laundry owners: If your store gives customers an exceptional experience, it doesn’t have to match competitors’ prices.
“Our business has changed, and Wash Co. is a prime example of what success looks like,” Rowen says. “Clean, spacious and well run, and providing equipment that gives customers a variety of wash options to tailor cycles to their needs — the Sheeleys are truly giving their customers a premium experience.”
Sheeley has simple advice for carwash owners thinking about adding a laundromat to their carwash business: “Go for it.”
“There’s nothing bad about running a business like this. Go do laundry at other laundromats in the area, the same way that you would go to other carwashes,” he says, adding that if they aren’t up to standard, you may have an opportunity to provide a far better environment. He advises that owners pay close attention to what customers have to say and tweak things along the way to make the experience even better in both businesses.
Today’s advanced management technology also makes operation of the business simple and doesn’t require owners to be on-site as much to have an idea of how things are running.
“Laundry management systems and technology now enable owners to check revenue, change vending prices, monitor equipment performance and much more from virtually anywhere in the world with an internet connection,” Rowen says.
Technology alone, however, is not what has made Wash Co. successful. The Sheeleys’ love for the business — both of them — and commitment to customers is where it shines.
“My father and I open the store together each day,” Sheeley says. “That’s the best part of my day.”
Randy F. Radtke is global public relations manager at Alliance Laundry Systems, the global leader in providing laundry solutions. He is an award-winning journalist, who also has more than 10 years of laundry experience, having written on the topic around the world for industries such as hospitality, long-term care, fire service and others. He can be reached at [email protected].