Dry Cleaning Industry Feeling Pressed

The first dry cleaner was started by an entrepreneur:

    “A Frenchman, Jolly Belin, accidentally spilled some kerosene on a stained garment and discovered that the kerosene removed the stain. This led to a series of experiments to refine the process, and in the 1840’s, Belin opened the first dry cleaning establishment in Paris.”

That is still true today. In the U.S. there are 30,000 dry cleaning establishments, with 85% being small mom-and-pop establishments. The average firm employs 5 people and generates US$200,000 in sales.

But changing consumer, environmental and market trends are making it harder to be a dry cleaner.

Consumers are using less dry cleaning today due to the casual dress trend in the workplace, increasing use of home dry-cleaning kits, and changing fabric trends and care labels.

Stricter environmental laws regulate the use of perc, a carcinogenic substance in dry cleaning solvents. That in turn has led to higher hazardous waste disposal costs, expensive changes of equipment to new cleaning methods, and loss of leases by landlords concerned about environmental issues.

And finally, increases in minimum wages and intensified competition have taken their toll.

Despite all these issues, the dry cleaning industry is expected to grow at a modest 4% annually over the next several years, according to Integra Information.

Successful dry cleaners are dynamic and taking the industry issues in stride. They are making a number of changes to compete successfully.

First, they are migrating toward environmentally friendly methods of cleaning, eliminating the use of perc.

Second, and most importantly, they have gotten much better at customer service. The best ones have even become innovative. My local dry cleaner is a good case in point:

  • They are going to the customer. My local dry cleaner sent a person door-to-door in my neighborhood to sign up customers for free pick-up and delivery service. And when I haven’t been in for a while, my dry cleaner calls and says “we notice you haven’t been in for a while–would you like us to send out a truck to pick up your dry cleaning?” Of course, the call reminds me that I have a few items needing cleaning.
  • My dry cleaner has a loyalty card program. After 20 purchases of $15 or more, I get $20 in free dry cleaning. It’s a significant benefit that makes the card worthwhile, and keeps me coming back.
  • The staff is well-trained and uses technology appropriately. If I forget my cleaning receipt, they look it up for me in the computer system — willingly and with a smile.
  • They offer special services such as off-season storage and alterations.

My dry cleaner is NOT the least expensive. In fact, they are at least 15% higher than other nearby cleaners. But I keep going back because the service is better and I like the way they are being innovative to make things more convenient for me. That’s everything in a service industry.

Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.