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Running a launderette

At a glance

  • Industry is bouncing back as people become busier and more time-precious
  • A community-based business that can service both the public and local companies
  • You can supplement income by offering extra services
  • Can be run easily by just one or two people
  • Demand, and therefore revenues, tends to be quite steady
Launderette washing machines grey

Launderettes have an image problem.

They tend to be seen as places frequented only by students and other people on low incomes, staffed by women resembling EastEnders' Dot Cotton.

On top of the image problem there have been economic difficulties, too. The falling price of washing machines - both to buy and to rent - has dented the launderette market and many established businesses have had to close. 

But, recovering from what seemed an inexorable decline, the launderette trade is reaping the benefit of certain demographic changes in modern Britain. Buying a launderette isn't such a crazy notion after all.

For a start, there are more single people than ever before, working longer hours and leading busier lives. Money might not be at a premium, but time certainly is.

So, while the dilapidated, dingy launderette still exists, increasing numbers are revitalising their decor and facilities, raising the standard of their service and courting the cash-rich, time-poor customer. Ironing, dry cleaning, clothes repair or alteration services, collection and delivery, and the cleaning of special items such as duvets are just some of the ways in which launderettes have diversified their service.

One Manchester-based launderette even offers internet facilities for customers so they can surf the net while doing their washing. It's hard to see how someone could be visionary with regards to a launderette, but that is a fair description of Northmoor Launderette's founders.

"It started when Kathy, who I work with, wanted to wash a large blanket," Jane Miller, project assistant and founder of Northmoor Community Association, told the BBC. "She went to the launderette and it was pretty run-down.

Busier lives

Money might not be at such a premium for the modern professional, but time is

"There wasn't anyone working there any more, just someone who went in and opened up. It came to light that the business was in decline and the building might be available. She said: 'Shall we?'"

The inspiration for computers came from the unlikeliest of sources: McDonald's. "They've got internet access in one corner, where you can use it in your lunch break, and I just thought it was a good idea.

"I mean, you're doing your washing, it takes up to an hour and generally you're just sat there. It's a bit boring, so why not put some computers in?"

The launderette also incorporates the local community association's offices. "It means that people who may never set foot in the community centre to see us can do so when they come to wash their clothes," says Jane.

The founders even want to somehow utilise the heat emitted from the back of the building by the launderette's tumble dryers.

Additional services

As self-service laundry takes time, finding things to occupy people while they wait can keep them coming back - and perhaps create extra revenue streams. Televisions, music systems, advertising from local businesses and food and drink vending machines are some of the relatively easy ways by which launderettes are improving their image and differentiating themselves from the competition.

At the bottom end of the sector launderettes do not make a huge amount of money - unless they offer additional services and products.

 

Of course, launderettes have always offered certain services over and above the standard coin-operated washing machines (which have now been replaced in many by a card or token system) - notably the service wash, where customers can have their clothing washed and ironed for a set fee. And as custom typically comes from the local community, launderettes have tended to expand their customer base by offering services to local businesses as well as residents.

Despite moves upmarket in some city areas, most launderettes still tend to be located in districts with low-income or transient populations. Students and those working away from home will often not have access to a washing machine.

Young professionals - particularly in London - may not have the space for one, while low-income families might not be able to afford one. Businesses in the centre of cities can be quite lucrative, though they're also more expensive to buy.

It's important to bear in mind that people don't travel far to use a launderette, so being near where people live is important, as is car parking space to allow people to drop off and collect easily.

A word of warning: launderettes are expensive to fit out. Electrolux estimates that the typical cost for five standard and two large washing machines, plus seven dryers, is £19.5k.

The leasing alternative will cost around £500 per month over a five-year period, with a six-month deposit payable in advance. Many launderettes on the market will be in need of substantial refurbishments, some of which may be legally necessary - for example, the installation of flues, air vents, new power sockets or an extractor to remove excess water from the premises.
 
The business is seasonal to a minor degree, as the winter months can bring in people who don't have tumble dryers or enough space to dry their clothes indoors.

A major advantage is the fact that it's an undemanding business which can be run comfortably by one or two people. It's fairly secure, too, as you're offering an essential service which will be required regardless of the state of the economy.

The viability of extra services really depends on whether you have a budget business in a low-income or transient area, or are aiming at businesses or the time-poor professional. If it's the former, for instance, then your customers are less likely to have a computer, so internet access might be a popular addition.

Running a launderette isn't glamorous, but the successful transformation of some neglected operations shows you can have some fun being creative with whatever space you have. Your challenge is to reinvent a concept that not so long ago seemed like an anachronism.
 

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