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business models, strategies and technologies

Launderettes in car parks

Outdoor launderettes plonked in car parks bring a traditional type of business back from extinction – with the Revolution footfall generator

A drab supermarket car park in the United Kingdom is probably the last place you’d expect to see business innovation and disruptive entrepreneurship, or the death of the doughty launderette being disproved.

The launderette migrates outdoors

There’s a well-known cultural meme about launderettes, involving sitting dolefully in plastic tastelessness, mindlessly watching the drum of the washing machine rotate, passing the time until it’s finished.

Except in big cities, launderettes generally followed the path of the dodo as households became more affluent. Everyone wanted a washing machine (and most other white goods) of their own. Launderettes became almost a signpost of small rental spaces and relative poverty, an era gone the way of glass milk bottles, gas meters and communication by telegram. And extinct animals don’t spontaneously re-emerge very often …

Until a seemingly strangely named English setup named Photo-Me launched the equally strangely named Revolution – an outdoor launderette that does away with the all the familiar premises for the ageing washing emporium idea. Outdoors, grey and rugged, they’re plonked down in petrol station forecourts and car parks in the retail deserts outside convenience stores, shopping centres and hypermarkets, equipped with high-capacity washing machines that are ideal for washing  (and drying, which is probably important) large, heavy loads such as duvets, blankets and pillows. This size thing is important, because they’re not competing with the washing machine in your home. In fact, the launderette word the company uses is probably misleading in its connotations!The idea, of course, is to provide an innovative service that complements existing business and helps generate additional profits via more footfall in the shops where people go after parking their cars. It’s important to remember the British retail landscape here, with acres of soulless car parking around groups of supermarkets and shops on the low-cost edges of just about every town.

The Revolution Compact (the smaller of the two models available) takes up less than 5 m² floor space, corresponding to just two UK-sized parking spaces. So it only puts a very small dent in car parking income – but hopefully has a much bigger effect on retail spending. Photo-me reports 2,300 Revolution units already in use.

Installation costs are low (it’s delivered fully assembled and cabled), has a very lower power consumption (energy-saving equipment and only 13kW supply needed). LED lighting and a built-in pump for allegedly eco-friendly washing liquid provides the ideal quantity for each washing cycle and reduces waste. There are two washing machines (8 and 18kg) and one dryer (18kg). Each washing cycle only takes 30 minutes, and there’s a free SMS service to alert the user 5 minutes before the end of the cycle – providing an ideal combination with a shopping visit. Contactless and credit card payment systems are available, and coins and notes can also be accepted to comply with UK usage patterns.

Rethinking time and target group

These outdoor setups are open 24/7, and save the user time by getting the difficult washing (the big, bulky stuff you can’t really do at home) done whilst doing the shopping – that other staple service for keeping households and parental sanity running. In a sense, this time-saver parallel processing element is exactly why the domestic washing machine won out over the launderette – whose UK numbers have shrunk to about 20%, comparing the 1980s with the present day – in the first place.

Because these setups ( I couldn’t really find a name for them – their own brochure simply calls them Revolution launderettes, and their websites and marketing material are very unclear about their profiling) feature large-capacity, multipurpose washers and dryers, they’re also shaking up the traditional industrial/domestic divide. They’re reportedly being used by small businesses that don’t have large enough loads to use industrial services.

Photo-Me delivers self-service vending setups (they call them automatic dispensing solutions) for a wide range of industries, and this context makes a lot of things about this idea clearer. It’s part of a wider trend in which people don’t necessarily feel they need to own everything they use, and where key “life support” functions are available as a service rather than as hardware.

Too mundane to be true?

  • This example of a radical rethink made possible by a mixture of technology and business realignment seems almost too gorgeously mundane – perhaps even accidental – to be taken seriously.
  • But Photo-Me apparently reported earnings of GBP 122.2 million in the six months to 31 October 2017, up 10.5% on the same period the previous year. The company posted profits of GBP 33 million, so they seem to be on to something. But I suspect a key vulnerability for this service will lie in reliability, cleanliness and service – it won’t take much to give people a poor impression that’ll take a lot of subsequent shifting.

  • But JCDecaux succeeded with a new business model for the essentially similar bus shelter, so why not?