Quarters no longer on a roll during modern laundry days

There was a time before suburban homeownership when I'd always walk out of the bank on payday with a roll of quarters. The heft of a tightly wrapped $10 collection of shiny George Washington portraits hinted at possibilities. Peeling away that paper roll was akin to unwrapping a present at Christmas.

Quarters meant clean shirts, clean pants, clean underwear and socks, clean towels, clean sheets and, if the laundromat's video games still worked, a chance to conquer worlds by playing Galaga, Asteroids or the oddly appealing Joust video games with whatever quarters were left after the dryers were done.

Quarters were a Laundromat institution, as much a part of "laundry day" as "Saturday Night Live" was to Saturday night.

On Monday morning at Laundry World in Hoffman Estates, none of the customers clutches a roll of quarters. The regular customers show up with their plastic "laundry card" already in hand. Others feed bills or a credit card into a machine that spits out a new laundry card, loaded with $5, $10 or $20. Even the vending machine selling $1 pop cans only accepts the plastic laundry card.

"Everything is on the card," says Nilton Barrientos, who oversees the Laundry World operations as a crew cleans the machines, mops the floors and wipes children's handprints off the windows.

If the world of laundry exists in a quarterless environment, a name change might be in order for the Coin Laundry Association, the industry trade association headquartered in Oakbrook Terrace.

"It is a topic that comes up on a regular basis," says Brian Wallace, President and CEO of the Coin Laundry Association. "I wouldn't be surprised to see a name change. But what do you change it to?"

Technology is moving so quickly, it's hard to lock in. Jump too soon and the trade association becomes one of those guys who converted all his old family movies to videotape.

The Coin Laundry Association has already had one name change. It started in 1960 as the NALCC, the National Automatic Laundry and Cleaning Council, and switched to the coin moniker in the 1980s when quarters were everything.

"Quarters have served us well," Wallace says of the industry that racks up $5 billion in annual sales. About 15 percent of the more than 29,000 laundry operators nationwide now work on "alternative payment systems," such as laundry cards, kiosks that control the machines, or individual machines that accept credit and debit cards, Wallace says. The others take cash, but we are, at long last, moving toward that cashless society.

"I feel like the grandpa because I'm the only one with a money clip and some cash in it," Wallace says. There are, however, very practical reasons for a Laundromat to move away from quarters, including the obvious one.

"Quarters are heavy," Wallace says, explaining how $20 in quarters weighs about a pound. As prices have gone up, more coins mean more frequent emptying of the machines and more work for employees.

At Laundry World, washing machines start at $1.99 and the big washers with the 80-pound capacity cost $8.99, which would eat up 36 of the 40 quarters in a roll. "Sometimes people bring four king-size bed spreads and put them in one machine," says Barrientos, who says that is a bargain compared to dry-cleaning them.

Using machines that aren't dependent on quarters also allows incremental shifts in pricing, Wallace says. Instead of a 25-cent drying suddenly jumping to 50 cents, a cardless machine can be set to accept a more gradual increase.

Whether a machine runs on quarters or even whether the trade association still keeps "coin" in its name isn't the main issue, Wallace says.

"Laundry's a chore," he says. People care less about the payment plan and more about clean machines, comfortable places to sit and friendly staffers. Even in suburban areas where it seems that everyone has a washing machine in their residence, people still use laundromats when they need to clean bulky comforters, handle the mess of holiday company or wash a bunch of things quickly, Wallace says.

During that wait, Laundry World offers customers eight flat-screen TVs, video games, Internet and a chance to get a tan. The full name is Laundry World & Tan, and the plastic laundry card works next door at a tanning salon, where prices start at $10.

Of course, if you miss the days of quarter rolls and Galaga, Asteroids and Joust, you can download those old video game apps on your phone. No quarters needed.

  The era of the small Laundromat that ran on quarters has changed. Laundry World in Hoffman Estates offers dozens of machines of all sizes, and none of them takes coins. Burt Constable/
  In place of a change machine that would pump out enough quarters to keep your washer going, this machine issues plastic cards for customers at Laundry World in Hoffman Estates. Burt Constable/
  The payment method isn't as important as cleanliness for businesses such as Laundry World in Hoffman Estates. Burt Constable/
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