Have you ever walked past a downtown coffee shop and glanced in the window? What did you see? A counter full of people perched on stools staring back at you. So why, in our industry, do we think our customers should sit with their backs to the window and stare in? Is watching a stainless steel cylinder spin our unmentionables in soapy water that interesting?
These are the types of questions Colleen Unema asks. The answers, and in some cases a lack of decent answers are the foundation for how she built her Bellingham, Washington-based Q Laundry. Yes, retirement may have taken Unema, a former teacher, out of the classroom, but that doesn’t mean her thirst for learning stopped…or that she might not be poised to teach the vended laundry business a thing or two.
Scientific approach… proper investigation and research
Unema didn’t jump quickly into the coin laundry business. No, this nationally certified science teacher formed her hypothesis, questioned, researched, and interviewed over the course of two years.
“We never came across a ‘game over,’” she said of not finding a sticking point in her business plan, which started with an exit strategy first.
Along the way, Unema crunched numbers, talked with industry veterans, and studied the competition. She also stressed how important it was to surround herself with good people, those who forced her to be firm in her plan and numbers. She jokes that her brother, a CPA, and a “conservative” one at that, “holds me to the fire” on pro forma projections.
Electrolux distributor, Rich Boyd, owner of SeaTac,Washington-based CESCO Laundry Systems, was another of her team of trusted experts. “He is much more than our consultant; he has become a trustworthy friend,” Colleen shared. “We leaned heavily on his advice, recommendations and insights.”
The culmination of best practices – and something completely different
When it came time to put her plan to action, Unema adopted industry best practices, and as the “Monty Python” show used to say, “…and now for something completely different.”
So in an industry as mature as ours what could possibly be new? Well, you won’t find a 50-inch HDTV…or any TVs for that matter.
“We have a great sound system,” Unema said of letting her music soundtrack set the atmosphere of her 3,000-square-foot laundry. But that’s not where the atmosphere stops.
Forget about those tired, old drop tile ceilings, boring white walls, and cold lighting. Q Laundry features natural wood, warm colors, and complementary lighting. How about that hole in the wall that an attendant peeks out from? Not here. At Q Laundry, the service counter is an attractive, sweeping, focal point.
“It’s artistic and crafty…it’s not what everyone would do,” Unema said. Very true. Not every store boasts a custom chandelier from Italy hanging above the front counter.
“I wanted to raise the bar and create a whole new laundry experience – and Electrolux was the perfect partner to help make that happen. It’s important to me that my customers know we chose equipment that is not only innovative and produces great results, it fits with our community’s philosophy on sustainability,” she added.
The ABCs of community and custom
Bellingham is an outdoorsy community situated 90 minutes north of Seattle and about 45 minutes south of Vancouver, Canada. There are a lot of rentals within a mile of the store and houses within the community are mostly small. “You can’t really get big machines in most of the homes around us, so our laundry comes in handy,” explained Unema. The store is near a big university and two community colleges as well.
This is the type of place where the term “green” means something to people. So when word spread that Unema was installing a laundry that wasn’t just “green” in name, but had ultra-efficient Electrolux Professional laundry equipment to be green in practice, people wanted to be part of it.
How else do you explain a man stopping in during construction to tell Unema one of his cedar trees fell over and he was going to use the wood to make her custom coffee tables and stools…for free? Or the concrete contractor who decided stained concrete would work well with her store’s color pallette and did the staining work for free?
Clearly, there was a buzz in this small community well in advance of her grand opening.
“People just want in on this,” Colleen shared. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in building this business and serving my community.”
Plenty of other custom elements await the Bellingham community. A local sail-maker is creating custom bags to fit Q Laundry’s carts, while folding tables feature solid butcher block tops.
What Q Laundry customers won’t find much of is plastic. Those stiff, slippery plastic chairs that are almost standard issue for many laundries have been replaced by comfortable wooden stools.
The green machines
Unema explains that machine selection was one of the first decisions she made. And this science teacher wasn’t going to be fooled by green claims. The company she chose wasn’t just going to be efficient it was going to be dedicated to manufacturing in an environmentally sustainable manner.
“I’ve been watching what they do,” Unema said, adding that Electrolux’s role as one of the most sustainable companies in the world is impressive. Every year since 2006, Electrolux has been named sector leader in the prestigious Dow Jones Sustainability World Index for long-term economic, environmental, and social performance. Equally impressive, however, is the company’s track record of customer satisfaction, durability, and world-class products. “I wanted a machine that’s going to last 15 years or more.”
Q Laundry offers customer 39 Electrolux coin washers, ranging from 62 and 45-pound capacity solid-mount units to ultra-high 350 G-Force extract soft-mounts in Energy-Star rated 18-, 25-, and 45-pound capacities. Eighteen Electrolux 45-pound capacity stack dryers complement the washers. Even the installation of the washers veered from the norm. Those with a keen eye will note there are no chases — those narrow walls that run from the ceiling to the bulkhead to house utilities. CESCO installed the equipment with utilities hidden in the floor and bulkhead.
“I’m really proud to offer the community the Electrolux products I have!” Colleen exclaimed. “Whenever I’m asked the question ‘what makes your store green,’ the answer is simple: It’s the machines. The Electrolux models use less water and less energy – plus they dry faster, which my customers appreciate. Electrolux delivers on its promises and I couldn’t be more satisfied.” Rebates the business received for installing the efficient products are a testament to their green status.
Elevated customer service
Those arriving at Q Laundry with baskets and bags of bulky items to wash will find unique amenities to help them efficiently accomplish their task.
Unema programmed her Electrolux Professional washers with special cycles for materials like Gore-Tex, fleece, nylon and canvas. She added a roll up overhead door for ease of loading and unloading. With Bellingham being a hub for outdoors activities, she also created a unique drying area that utilizes a hanging metal frame for hoisting laundered tents for drying. The space has floor-to-ceiling tile and two large fans to make short work of the drying process. It’s the perfect spot for really tough clean-up jobs.
Customers are also treated to free wi-fi access and a store that is fully attended. In addition to offering drop-off service, once a week Q Laundry hosts a professional to perform alterations.
“Go big or go home,” Unema joked of her approach to the business, including a heavy focus on marketing to the community.
With Q Laundry’s location in a busy strip mall that’s anchored by a Trader Joe’s, the store is sure to see ample traffic and excellent visibility. There is also a large university and two community colleges nearby.
“We have a great neighbor in Trader Joe’s, an amazing and supportive community, and a great landlord,” Unema said. “Top that off with Electrolux Professional equipment and we have a real recipe for a sustainable and successful business. We are thrilled to be part of it all.”