Dry-cleaning industry pressed by recession, casual Fridays - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Dry-cleaning industry pressed by recession, casual Fridays

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Posted: Wednesday, August 24, 2011 5:49 pm

Is Terri Kaduck the Michelangelo of shirt pressers?

Her boss thinks so.

"She is an artist," says Todd Fennell, owner of Martinizing Dry Cleaners in Pine, near Pittsburgh. "She's been with us for 30 years and I've often told her very few people could do what she does."

Kaduck may sculpt every panel, cuff and collar of a cotton shirt, but she's part of a dying breed in an industry struggling to survive casual business Fridays, melted sequins and dresses that cost $15 to clean -- apiece. Walloped by the 2008 recession, the $7 billion dry cleaning industry is undergoing a major shakeout as consumers cut back.

Over the past decade, about 20 percent of all U.S. dry cleaners closed. About 25,000 to 30,000 businesses -- mostly mom-and-pop operations -- remain, says Carol Memberg, executive director of the Pennsylvania and Delaware Cleaners Association.

"The dry cleaning industry was very good to us for many, many years, except for the Polyester '70s, when everything was washable," says Lenny Plotkin, who co-owns Nu-Life Cleaners & Shirt Laundry in Pittsburgh.

Then came Casual Fridays -- "and Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays," Plotkin adds. "... The clothes your mother and father used to wear to work, they don't wear anymore. We have the same number of people coming in, but the amount of clothes they bring is far less."

With "piece counts" declining and cash flow sluggish, efforts to cut labor costs -- the single largest expense for a dry cleaner -- with automated equipment or poorly trained employees hasn't always helped the bottom line. And the price of the widely used dry cleaning solvent perchloroethylene, for example, has jumped from $6 to $20 a gallon.

If that Cabernet stain didn't come out of your shirt, it may not just be carelessness on the dry cleaner's part. Clothes manufactured in Third World countries may have mislabeled cleaning recommendations.

Recent research by Procter & Gamble found widespread consumer dissatisfaction with dry cleaning, which may have prompted the company to launch its own chain of stores.

P&G officials couldn't be reached for comment, but history is not on the company's side: Dry cleaning is a highly fragmented, labor-intensive business, with profit margins of less than 5 percent. The top 50 companies control less than 40 percent of the market, and efforts to build successful regional or national chains have mostly failed, Memberg says.

Given the competition, some are repositioning themselves as "upscale" dry cleaners. America's Best Cleaners says accredited members of its organization must be able to clean and preserve wedding gowns, offer fine apparel storage, offer hand-finished service, provide pick-up and delivery services, be able to ship anywhere, and offer emergency service.

But "everyone knows that the quality is significantly less than back in the day when cleaners had rows and rows of real live people pressing garments," Fennell says.

Dave Beatty of Murrysville Cleaners would argue that he and his customers are pleased with the $40,000 shirt-pressing machine he just bought, noting that at the recent Clean Show in Las Vegas, attendees crowded around the latest models. The Hi-Steam Turbo 483 and the Unipress Thunder or Lightning units "have redefined shirt quality," declared Don Desrosiers in his "Shirt Tales" column for National Clothesline, a trade newsletter.

Still, "all dry cleaning is local," says John Hallak, who runs an upscale dry cleaning company with stores in New York City, New Jersey and Las Vegas. "The No. 1 consideration when one chooses a dry cleaner is location, then comes the relationship with customers, and only the third is about quality."

Fennell, a 36-year-old former real estate investor, said his dry cleaning business is booming, even though he charges $2.87 for a man's pressed shirt and $10.99 for a dress -- probably slightly higher than average.

He works hard to remove stains, he said. "In a lot of these places, they just throw it in the machine once and if the stain doesn't come out, they put on a 'SORRY' tag. ... Only 15 percent of my clothes go back out the door with a 'SORRY' tag."

Still, "Mustard is hard," he mused. "There's something about mustard."

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