There’s nothing like a recession to remind good drycleaners that they could use a fallback plan. Every time unemployment rises, operating costs jump or consumer spending dips, it seems, drycleaners see a little bit of their profits disappear.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to bolster business by bringing new and old customers cleaning solutions they may never have considered. Take the concept of cleaning beyond what people wear today, and there’s no limit to the business.
Operators throughout the country are tapping markets large and small to shore up sales. Gown preservation and suede and leather are obvious add-ons that build reputations. Wholesale fire-restoration and commercial work is seeding fortunes. And others are making money out of thin air.
Young Cho has introduced a lot of firsts at Manhattan-based Symphony Dry Cleaners in the last 20 years, including hand finishing, wash-’n’-fold and a valet pickup-and-delivery service that practically unpacks cleaned clothing into customer closets. “These services just weren’t done before we came along,” he says.
But 2009 was the first time Symphony’s sales had fallen since Cho bought his original store in 1986. “I had to add more revenues in different areas,” he says. “I don’t think I lost customers, but they’re using 10% less money. When business comes back, I don’t think they’re going to spend 10% more right away.”
Cho got an idea when he discovered that one of his store managers was moonlighting with her own maid service, and advertising it in the store. Instead of issuing a reprimand, Cho thought that Symphony should expand upon the service.
Going up against established corporations and graymarket entrepreneurs, Symphony began promoting apartment cleaning in store windows. “Because of our reputation, they try us out,” he says. “In New York City, everyone knows my company’s name.”
The company charges $40 per hour for one cleaner ($45 per hour for two), with a minimum charge of two hours. A typical one-bedroom takes two to three hours.
Cho cross-promoted the house-cleaning service with drycleaning customers, offering a 50% discount on the first month if Symphony already did their clothing, too. Dual-service clients can take 20% off both if they decide to continue.
Six months later, the company’s crews clean more than 100 apartments a month. “We pretty much recovered what the operation lost because of the recession,” Cho says.
“The new service gives him another way to touch his customer,” says Michael Fanger, president of Eastern Funding LLC, Cho’s longtime financial partner. “Young has come up with something that’s a little different. There aren’t a lot of people doing it.”
Cho’s latest endeavor is to help fellow immigrants achieve similar successes in business with the launch of his Atlanta-based Noa Bank. Early on, “we knew he had what it takes to be successful,” Fanger says. “He did more marketing than the average drycleaner. A lot of people who come into the business expect people to just walk in.”
“We were always concerned with quality, and offered new services that made a difference,” Cho says. “We somehow became a brand. You apply common-sense ideas, like ‘The Customer Is King.’”
FLUFFING UP SALES
With a high-quality pillow costing $100, pillow renovation is a cost-effective alternative that fits well with drycleaners’ core competencies and helps save customers money, too.
Harris Pillow Supply has been selling its pillow-treatment system and supplies for more than 50 years. Using it, operators take in customers’ pillows, sterilize the contents, add fill if necessary and renew the exterior ticking. Each pillow takes less than five minutes and a few dollars to process, and resells for $12 and up.
Harris provides marketing materials to educate customers about the importance of pillow cleaning, including hanger tags, posters, counter cards and more. Many users target hotels or display a dirty pillow next to a newly refreshed and reticked one. “They’re not going to be successful unless they sell it,” says Patrick Harris, vice president of the Beaufort, S.C.-based company.
“That machine represents one of our best products,” says Ed Longanecker, operator of Iris City Cleaners in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. “We do hundreds of pillows. Feather pillows deteriorate; we recommend refurbishing them every year or so. We suggest giving a set of pillows as wedding present. It’s something that will last a lifetime.”
Not every extra profit center is an everyday thing, though. Hangers San Diego picks up a nice chunk of work every year when Taylor Made — the world’s largest manufacturer of golf apparel — debuts its prototype garments at an annual meeting of decision-makers.
Every garment is brand-new and one-of-a-kind, but may not be ready to show after traveling from the factory folded in bags. Hangers steams them for the unveiling.
“They come out with new styles and fly people in from all over the world,” says operator Gordon Shaw. “They decide that this design is good, or this one doesn’t cut it. We press them and deliver them to the resort where they have the meeting.”
The company has now steamed Taylor Made’s samples for three years. Last year was the biggest collection, Shaw says, when the U.S. Open was at the nearby Torrey Pines Golf Course. Although the work had to be done over Memorial Day weekend, employees enjoyed the extra hours. Shaw paid time-and-a-half and held a barbeque in gratitude, and still saw a profit.
“When the check comes in, it’s really nice,” Shaw says. “It makes one week a very healthy week. Right now, those are the types of things I’d like to be doing for 20 or 30 different companies — and make every week a healthy week.”
It’s part of a can-do attitude that many drycleaners need to embrace as they seek out extra profit centers, Shaw says. Wholesale steaming “is not the thing I market, but when someone calls and says, ‘Do you do this?’ we say, ‘Yep, we do now.’”