11 Secrets of Laundromat Workers

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Fresh, clean clothes help us live our best lives—thanks to the 200,000 U.S. workers who keep local laundromats running. Although they deal with grueling shifts and sporadic tips, there are some perks to handling strangers’ intimates all day: Laundromats often double as meaningful community spaces, and the steady demand keeps business stable. Mental Floss interviewed three workers in the industry to learn about what the job is really like, from the things you probably do that make them wince to the most bizarre items customers have left in pockets.

1. THEY WISH YOU'D TIP.

Laundry workers earn an average of $23,770 a year nationwide to wash your mismatched socks. But Pilar Flores, a laundry worker in Queens, New York, says "not a lot of people tip." At the laundromat where she works, a mason jar of dollar bills sits strategically next to the cash register, even though it doesn't see much action.

However, Jessica Steier, a laundry owner and operator in California, says she noticed a bump in tips when card payment and apps became an option for transactions, instead of just cash. (Her business uses the app Rinse, which works like Seamless, but for clothes.) Thanks to this technology, customers have fewer excuses to skip the gratuity. “I feel like they feel a little guilty if they don’t,” Steier says.

2. THEY MIGHT HAVE TO DO 300 POUNDS OF LAUNDRY IN ONE MORNING.

“You’re constantly dealing with issues, jumping from task to task, on your feet for 8-hour shifts," Steier says. Flores, who works seven hours a day, seven days a week, says she has to wash between 250 and 300 pounds of laundry in the morning shift just to keep up with next-day demand. With such a tight turnaround, breaks aren’t common. “The only breaks we get is when it’s not crazy,” says Flores. “It’s always busy. I can’t even sit here for five minutes.”

3. THEY'VE FOUND SURGICAL EQUIPMENT IN PEOPLE'S POCKETS.

A male hand taking dollar bills out of a pocket
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Careless customers can create a real headache for the people doing their laundry. “Sometimes, especially women, they’ll leave their lipstick and it will mess up all their laundry,” Flores says. Kids are culprits, too, she adds—they leave crayons in their pockets, which can melt in the high heat and stick to fabric, not to mention the machine.

And while staining is a big source of stress, sometimes there’s little the laundromat worker can do. “We try to rewash it, but if we see it doesn’t come out, it’s not in our hands, it’s not our responsibility,” Flores says. “It’s the customer’s responsibility.”

Laundromat workers also often find spare change—but it’s not theirs to keep. “I once found over $60 in a guy’s pockets, and he was absolutely astonished that we gave it back,” laundromat employee Mehunno shared on a Reddit AMA. Other discoveries may be bizarre: “We do laundry for a few doctors, so I’ve found surgical equipment before,” Mehunno writes. “Found a car’s registration, pocket knife, and this guy’s wedding ring three separate times.”

4. THE WORK CAN ENDANGER THEIR HEALTH.

Some surprises workers find in the laundry aren't just odd, but downright dangerous. "We have seen used preservatives, bloodied sanitary pads, dirty baby diapers and even vomit," laundry worker Daysi Raimundo from Astoria, Queens, told Voices of NY. Besides being gross, bodily fluids like blood can harbor bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella—especially problematic since many laundromat workers don't have health insurance, as Rosanna Rodríguez-Aran of the New York-based Laundry Workers Center told Voices of NY. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has detailed information about how to handle contaminated laundry, but many workers just do the best they can. Based on complaints received at the LWC offices, many laundry workers suffer from problems such as back pain, rashes, skin problems, and respiratory problems, caused in part by repeated exposure to cleaning chemicals.

5. ECONOMIC SLUMPS DON'T STRESS THEM OUT.

“In the recession, a lot of people tried to cut back on expenses,” Steier says. “But everyone has to have clean clothes. So it’s recession-proof. You gotta do your laundry.” In fact, the Coin Laundry Association has found that coin-operated laundries thrive in periods of both growth and recession. And as home ownership decreases nationwide, people depend more on outside laundry facilities, according to the association’s website.

According to Steier, California’s droughts have also helped bump up business: When water bills soar for homeowners, customers flock to laundromats instead.

6. THEY HAVE CRAZY WATER BILLS.

It's not unusual for laundromat water bills to average several thousand dollars a month, which can make it hard to keep costs down for consumers. (In 2013, one laundromat in Maryland said it would need to raise prices 565 percent to keep up with their $6000 water bill.)

Joon Sohn, who's run a coin-operated laundromat for a decade in Lakewood, New Jersey, says his water bill comes to around $2000 per month, which he says is forcing him to think about selling his business. Ideally, utilities should only amount to about 20-25% of the gross self-service income from a laundromat, experts say—but older machines and changes in local water prices can make it hard to hit that target.

7. THEY'RE SCRUPULOUS ABOUT CLEANING THE LINT TRAY.

“We clean out lint trays every day,” Steier says. “They can cause lint fires.” That's not just a concern at commercial laundromats, either: The National Fire Protection Association found that municipal fire departments responded to home fires involving clothes dryers and washing machines nearly 16,000 times a year between 2010-2014 [PDF]. Dust, fiber, or lint were the leading causes of these flare-ups.

Frequent cleaning of the lint tray can also help keep utility costs low. That's because dryers don’t work at maximum efficiency when lint trays are full, Steier explains.

8. THEY WINCE WHEN YOU ADD SOAP TOO EARLY.

A hand adding soap to a washing machine
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Ever stared at the soap compartments atop a washing machine, wavering over when to add detergent? You’re not alone. “The thing is that most people put their soap in as soon as the water starts running down. But actually the soap should be thrown in in the second wash,” Flores says. Otherwise, you may have just wasted some soap—and some quarters.

The first wash—or prewash—really just soaks the clothes in preparation for the suds that occur when the second wash kicks in. So be patient, Flores tells folks who use self-service machines, and add detergent when the second wash starts, unless your clothes are really dirty. Chances are, they don't need that first wash, and most of your soap is going down the drain.

9. SOME LAUNDROMATS DOUBLE AS AN ART GALLERY—OR A LIBRARY.

In some areas, laundromats are a get-in-get-out situation. Others try to make customers comfortable with coffee, TVs, and vending machines. But some go above and beyond—Steier cultivates her laundromats as community spaces by offering free Wi-Fi, and at her Silver Lake location, adorning the walls with local artists’ artwork. The nonprofit Laundromat Library League even stocks books in laundromats located in underserved communities across the country.

“You know when you see people on their laptops after their laundry is completed, they are comfortable at the laundromat,” says Steier. “It becomes a meeting place to not just do your laundry, but a destination to be a part of the community.”

10. CUSTOMERS SOMETIMES CALL THE POLICE.

But not everyone is just hanging out at the laundromat drinking coffee. Sohn says that his customers not infrequently break the machines by adding too much soap (more than half of a ladle, as advised against in the hand-drawn signs on the walls). When the machines break down, customers have been known to call police to complain—in fact, it happens three or four times a year. The police generally side with Sohn. “If the machine has a problem, we put an out-of-order sign,” Sohn says. “I tell that customer: Don’t come again.”

11. DISH SOAP IS THEIR SECRET WEAPON.

A bottle of dish soap against a tiled background
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As you might imagine, people who do laundry all day long become an expert on stains—and most of them say you don't need anything fancy to get yours out.

“Dish soap is far and away the best stain remover. It’ll take out anything protein based (blood, coffee, food, grass, etc.)," Mehunno advises on Reddit. “For ink stains, use rubbing alcohol.”

The Cyclone Laundry and Internet Café in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which offers a bevy of stain-busting tips online, says that alcohol stains can often be removed by blotting fabric with a mild detergent solution, or with a mixture of 1/3 cup of white vinegar and 2/3 cup of water. A mixture of boiling water and borax will take off many other stains, while shampoo is great for getting out makeup (sometimes spraying a makeup stain with hairspray will also do the trick).

11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Holiday Window Display Designers

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iStock.com/andykazie

For decades, lavish holiday window displays at department stores have been one of the first signs of the season. But have you ever wondered how the designers behind the windows create those enchanting arrangements? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into making the holiday windows so magical at this time of year—from the best way to arrange lights to the pre-season all-nighters.

1. Every holiday window has a purpose.

The holiday windows are supposed to make you feel something, says Jacques Rosas, New York-based artist, founder, and CEO of Jacques Rosas, which does holiday window installations in stores such as Godiva, Elizabeth Arden, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Whenever Rosas is working on a window, he asks about the personality of the store, what they’re imagining, favorite decorations, traditions, and more—all starting with what they sell. “I try to pull settings that have nostalgia for them,” Rosas says. “I think the magical part is the nostalgia.” He loves the feel of an old-fashioned Christmas—last year, he decked out one store window with handmade stockings, old ornaments, and a real train.

2. You won’t see many Christmas trees in the store windows.

A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

At least not any real Christmas trees, Rosas says. Usually, the windows are hot, dry places, so any live trees would dry out and die. They could also catch fire, so a lot of the newer buildings won’t use them even if they could create the right environmental conditions. “We tend to use a lot of fake stuff,” Rosas says.

3. You also won’t see any products.

While store windows throughout the year are supposed to sell products, this time of year is all about the entertainment, says David Spaeth, CEO of Spaeth Design, which does holiday windows for Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman. Sure, you may see a product or two in some of the windows (it’s not a hard-and-fast rule), but this is the time to seduce customers with gorgeous snowflakes or pretty (fake) trees instead of fantastic outfits.

4. But you will see lights.

A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

Lights are what draws customers to the windows, and they can really make the displays pop. But you’d be surprised at how few lights will make a big splash, Rosas says. “There’s not a lot of lights—that’s a big mistake,” he says. "If you do too many, the reflection will play tricks on the viewer, and you won’t actually be able to see anything but lights.” Instead, he uses a few perfectly placed lights that bounce off each other. Rosas also tends to use plenty of wood composite, fiberglass, bark, paper, and plastic to create his scenes. But don't be surprised to spot other wacky items in holiday store windows, like Lite-Brite (yes, the retro toy), coffee stirrers, and even taxidermy. Anything goes when it comes to creating the perfect holiday window.

5. They plan ahead.

When the holidays start dying down, these designers are just getting started on the following year, says Michael Bednark, owner of Bednark Studio, a Brooklyn-based fabrication studio that is responsible for some of the Macy’s holiday windows throughout the country. Design talks start in January, and by March, the ideas are set. It takes two more months to figure out rendering, and the summer months are for fabrication (building the physical elements). Installation starts even before Halloween—by about mid-October, Bednark says.

6. They have working habits comparable to vampires.

Ever wonder how holiday windows pop up like magic? That’s because the artists work through the night to put them up so that they’ll appear in the morning. Installation for the simpler windows usually takes six to eight hours, Rosas says. “We have to be like wizards,” he explains.

7. Some windows can take weeks to install.

A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

A regular window display is an overnight job, but the team working on the Macy’s windows pre-builds them inside the shop. There’s a fake window inside every single Macy’s store, filled with the entire holiday window display. “We pre-build inside the shop so we can make sure that everything fits,” Bednark says. The pre-build takes about four weeks. If it’s a go, it’s moved into the regular window, which takes three weeks.

8. To make it look perfect, the artists touch every light.

The reason store windows look amazing while your holiday display might look just passable is because these designers really pay attention to the details. “When you decorate a tree, or you’re doing your lights and everything, the secret to really nice displays is to touch and adjust each branch, each light, and position everything as if everything was its own individual thing,” Rosas says. “That’s the secret to styling.”

9. When the season is over, the displays are usually tossed.

Some stores will re-use the decorations in-house, but many will toss them because the décor is so unique. Basically, they don’t want to wear the same outfit two days in a row, Spaeth explains.

10. The holidays aren’t their only busy season.

People love holiday store windows, and they’re great for business. But these artists are busy year-round, Rosas says. In addition to doing store window displays for every season, they also decorate show rooms, do trade show displays, and even create sets for TV shows and product launches. In Rosas’s studio, they have two 7500-square-foot spaces, and they use these for creating fake store windows or for marketing experiences. For example, a yogurt company may hire Rosas to use that studio to build an entire yogurt set as a backdrop for a yogurt product launch. The yogurt company would then invite members of the media to the room, where they’d take pictures and do interviews. “We try to inspire people to write about [the company] there,” Rosas says.

11. If you want to replicate the look, get out your checkbook.

A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

To hire a professional display artist to do your holiday windows, expect to pay anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 per window, depending on the number of details and amount of work it will take, Bednark says. In other words, making this kind of magic doesn't come cheap.

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

12 Secrets of Dollar Store Employees

A dollar store in Brooklyn
A dollar store in Brooklyn
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Discount retailers have probably been around as long as commerce itself, but it wasn't until the 1950s that a string of stores began popping up in the South that shared a common element: Everything they sold was dirt-cheap. In recent years, the country has experienced a wave of frugal storefronts selling everything from stationary to seafood. Stores like Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Dollar General, and a rash of independently owned stores catering to the budget-conscious now outnumber Starbucks and McDonald's in the U.S.

To get a better sense of the activity that surrounds these wallet-friendly outlets, Mental Floss spoke to three employees of Dollar Tree. Here’s what they had to say about stocking their shelves, fanatical customers, and why they spend so much time filling up balloons.

1. Paper goods are the best deal in stores.

You can find practically anything at dollar stores, including frozen food (more on that in a moment), toys, and cleaning products. Assortments can vary widely by store and by franchise, but according to Brenda, the store manager of a Dollar Tree in the Midwest, customers get the best deal sticking with paper products. At least, that's what employees buy most frequently. “The items that my employees and I purchase at Dollar Tree for value would definitely be toilet paper, paper towels, birthday cards, candy, balloons, plastic ware, paper plates, envelopes, stationary products, and the daily newspaper,” she says. At her store, toilet paper and the local newspaper are the top sellers. While the former is a pretty obvious necessity, newspapers at her location are typically cheaper than in other stores; the Sunday edition in particular is up to two or three dollars cheaper. (Like a lot of their inventory, the chain likely gets a tremendous discount for buying the papers in bulk.)

2. They know you won't be in the store for too long.

The exterior of a Dollar Tree store is shown from a low angle
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Dollar stores typically have little signage, few frills, and a small real estate footprint (Dollar General's is around 7300 square feet, or one-tenth the size of a Walmart). But having limited space with easily accessible items is by design—the average shopping trip for a Dollar General store is just 10 minutes. “Planning the store around fast trips is one good way to improve the fast experience many customers are looking for, while also keeping sales high by allowing customers to see many products,” says Hank, an assistant Dollar Tree store manager in Canada. Customers “tend to want to get in and out fast. They are often busy and have other plans for the day and don't want to spend too much time wandering the store.”

3. They want customers to feel like they’re on a treasure hunt.

According to Moody’s, an earnings and credit analysis firm, Dollar General rotates its inventory on a regular basis to make customers feel like they need to buy items now in case they’re not around later—perpetuating what it calls a "treasure hunt" feel. That helps the stores compete with online retailers like Amazon, which typically maintains stock of popular products and may not provoke the same sense of urgency in buyers.

Dollar Tree’s approach is slightly different. While new inventory does arrive from suppliers, it’s not as frequently. “When we are doing the truck we get really excited when we see a new product,” Brenda says. “We only see maybe 10 to 15 new things per week out of 1500 items that are coming off of the truck, so when we get something new we immediately cut open the box and examine it.”

4. They catch a lot of shoplifters.

You can walk out of dollar stores with an armful of goods for $20, $10, or less, but that still doesn’t deter people from swiping even the cheapest targets. “The shoplifting is ridiculously rampant,” Brenda says. “We catch someone just about every day.”

Oddly enough, the price may help facilitate the theft. “The thing with the low prices is that there is no real deterrent from people stealing since none of the products have any security around them," Brenda says.

5. They recommend you skip the steak.

A steak sits on a grill
A steak purchased somewhere other than a dollar store.
iStock.com/NightAndDayImages

Shopping for frozen foods at the discount chains can be hit or miss. Some items might be OK: “I’ve had the little pie slices, the sausage and pancake bites, and the Cinnabon bites are amazing,” Brenda says. “The frozen dinners are good as well. People also love the frozen vegetables and fruit.”

But when it comes to unprocessed food, like meat or seafood, you should probably consider a visit to the local grocer instead. “I don’t eat any of the frozen fish or rib eyes because I don’t trust frozen seafood or meat that costs a dollar,” she says.

Nate, a Dollar Tree manager in Minnesota, agrees. “I would never buy the steak,” he says. “I’ve heard from more than one person that it doesn’t cook [well] and it feels like rubber.” In 2016, television affiliate WCPO in Cincinnati attempted a taste test, serving up the four-ounce $1 ribeye along with a butcher's and supermarket cut to some area firefighters. Among the responses: "I guess it was meat" and "It's not terrible."

6. Other stores use them to stock up.

When most everything is a dollar, it’s easy to see why discount chains find themselves acting as a warehouse for local small businesses. Hank says that he’s observed independent proprietors coming in to stock up on items. “There is one man who runs a convenience store and buys boxes of chocolate bars and bottles of soda,” he says. “We also get plenty of event organizers buying supplies in bulk, sometimes hundreds of items at a time.”

7. They dread the sight of Hot Wheels toy cars.

A Hot Wheels toy car is pictured
iStock.com/CTRPhotos

While many toys at dollar store locations are of suspect quality, there’s at least one bit of inventory that causes a lot of excitement in aisles. “We get a lot of the infamous 'Hot Wheels Hunters,'” Nate says, referring to collectors of the popular die-cast toy car line from Mattel. “I guess they scour the internet and find out when stores are getting shipments. I’ve had people show up a day after my 2000-piece truck [arrives] and demand I go find the one box of Hot Wheels I got so they can be the first to buy them.”

If they’re polite, Nate will try to accommodate them. Some of the nicer Hot Wheels fans even deputize themselves as de facto employees. “The one guy that is a frequent visitor will take the boxes I have and stock them neatly on the shelves while he looks for what he wants," Nate says.

8. They sell pregnancy tests. And they’re reliable.

A home pregnancy test shows a positive result
iStock.com/nazdravie

If you’re wary of the accuracy of a home pregnancy test kit that costs $1, well, you probably should be. But according to Nate, his store stocks a reliable brand. “The pregnancy tests we sell are the same ones used in most hospitals,” he says. Most all pregnancy tests detect a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG, which is produced during pregnancy. More expensive tests can detect lower levels earlier in a pregnancy, while cheaper tests—like the ones in dollar stores—might not register a positive until a woman is a little further along.

But they're still effective. And according to Brenda and Nate, they're also among the most-stolen items in their stores.

9. Balloons keep them aloft.

Most Dollar Tree and many other dollar store locations have a counter devoted to mylar balloons intended for birthday parties and other events. That’s because the low cost and easy storage of the un-inflated balloons makes them a very profitable endeavor. “Balloons do a ton of business for Dollar Tree,” Brenda says. “A ton. Especially for big events.”

In a given week, her store might sell 150 to 200 balloons: “If you think about it, every day is someone’s birthday, baby shower, graduation, or anniversary.”

10. They might warn you away from a bad deal.

Shoppers browse the aisles of a dollar store
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

If you’re on the fence about whether or not a dollar purchase is worthwhile, you can always ask an employee. They might tell you if it’s worth the cash. “I know that the quality of our products is not always the best and I obviously am not going to constantly bring this up to customers, but I am not afraid to give them a bit of heads up when I know a certain item is especially poor, or could be found much cheaper at a competitor,” Hank says. “I know that the company will survive without those couple sales, and I prefer to make customers happy over adding a few more dollars to the wallet of the company.”

11. The store manager is often overworked.

Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and other chains have come under fire in recent years for tasking store managers with a lot of responsibility in order to keep the costs of staffing low. According to Nate, that checks out. “In my district they are trial-running having the stores unload the semi-trucks instead of the drivers," he says. "But they won’t give us the hours to add an extra guy, which means I’m the manager on duty while being in the back of a semi throwing 1800 cases."

12. They can’t keep Donald Duck on the shelves.

Bottles of Donald Duck orange juice line a store shelf
Ted Eytan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In stores filled with a lot of unfamiliar brands, customers like to see one recognizable face: Donald Duck’s. The Disney character is front and center on Dollar Tree’s orange juice, and his smiling bill is one of the most popular items in the stores. (The drink is produced by Citrus World, which owns the Florida’s Natural label and licenses the Donald imagery and name from Disney.) “The Donald Duck orange juice is our third most-sold item,” Brenda says. “To be honest, I’m not sure why it’s so popular. A lot of people stop at our store on the way to work or wherever, so it’s kind of a quick pick-up.”

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