Why owning a laundromat is not what it used to be
(This post originally appeared on The Washington Post)
Once upon a time laundromats ruled the world. Or at least many large cities. Since the first automated laundry shop opened in Fort Worth, Texas in 1934 laundromats grew (with the help of technology) to a multi-billion dollar industry, made up mostly of mom-and-pop operators, around the country. Going to the local laundromat “became a fixture of the urban experience,” wrote Marc Vartabedian in The Atlantic. Things were booming for operators through the 1990’s and up until a few years ago.
Unfortunately, things aren’t what they used to be.
In today’s sharing and gig economies, many urban dwellers are renters with extra cash who desire – no, expect – amenities like a washer and dryer to be included in their apartment. Those that can are buying these units. Developers looking to attract new renters are installing them. As a result, laundromats have been rapidly losing business.
How much have they lost? Since 2005, the $5 billion industry has suffered a 20 percent nationwide decline, according to the Census Bureau. But that’s not the least of the industry’s troubles. Margins are challenged by the rising cost of utilities like water and sewage services as well as the increased maintenance expenses to keep machines running. The economics have rapidly changed. Today, a family that normally does a few loads a week can spend up to $100 per month doing laundry, or $1,200 a year. It doesn’t take a math genius to see that the payback from buying a washer and dryer wouldn’t take that long.
The Coin Laundry Association is putting up a fight, according to The Atlantic. During its last conference, owners discussed ways to turn things around like offering wi-fi, creating apps and building cafes or craft beer establishments to bring back the communal experience shared over a spinning dryer. These tactics and an ever-growing population gives some hope.
No wonder the association’s mantra is “the more people, the more dirty clothes.”