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Clever Solutions to Everyday Problems

Howard Scott |

The drycleaning business is a tricky one. Largely, it’s doing the same thing day after day, and doing it well. Unfortunately, owners are often lulled into a repetitive mentality: Go in, look at the work, get it done, deal with disgruntled customers and go home.
Successful drycleaners take that extra step. They think about what they’re doing and try to come up with improvements; the really good ones come up with solutions. The three clever solutions we’ll examine in this issue show just how ingenious drycleaners can be.The Tax Levy. Greg Johnson, owner of Quality Cleaners in Gainesville, Fla., had a problem. The state had passed an ordinance forcing every drycleaner in the state to charge customers a 2% environmental tax, mainly to recapture Superfund contributions drycleaners were forced to pay. Since Florida has a sales tax, an invoice had two itemized lines for taxes.
Johnson hesitated, reasoning that 2% might pay for the current charges, but would never cover the total bill. He sat down with his accountant and together, they estimated that the total environmental cost to his business was 4.5% to 5% of volume—a lot more than 2%.
So, he asked himself, wouldn’t charging an environmental tax that covered the whole expense be more fiscally accurate? Could he be bold enough to charge more than 2%? After all, most competitors would be following the guidelines, adding only 2%. Would this appear to be overcharging, like charging an 8% sales tax instead of 6%?
He pondered his concerns. He realized this would probably be the only time he would ever be able to transfer his environmental costs to consumers; everyone was increasing prices at the time. It also seemed that this was a great opportunity to tout his concern for the environment.
Hadn’t he complied with every environmental regulation zealously? Wouldn’t customers like to know this? Wouldn’t they support such a concerned company, even if it translated into higher drycleaning bills? Weren’t they willing to pay a few extra coins on every order to save the earth?
He finally created a 6% environmental tax, put a concise explanation up in his front window, in his store, in branches’ counter areas, in all promotional efforts and on all invoices. The result? Volume immediately jumped 10%, and his chain continued its forward progress. Furthermore, the decision gained renewed support from his clientele.No More No-Shows. Joe and Russ Petrozzi, owners of Capital Cleaners in Niagara Falls, N.Y., were having an attendance problem. Almost every day, a worker would call in sick. Some days—Fridays especially—three or four staffers were AWOL.
The problem created all kinds of pressures within the organization. “I would have to chew someone out, knowing it wouldn’t do any good, knowing the person would do the same thing next week,” Joe says. “It wasn’t a question of pay, because they would be docked. It was a question of organizational disruption.”
The father-and-son team spent several bull sessions trying to come up with a solution. Then, a lightbulb went off: Offer the staffers a bonus based on minimal absences. Give it out at Christmastime, after a year’s worth of meeting standards, and reward the help when they needed it most.
The company instituted a full-time employee bonus system in which every full-time staffer who missed six days or less in a year would earn a $1,000 bonus. Every missed day after six would cost the employee a portion of his bonus.
“One competitor told us we were crazy,” Russ Petrozzi says, “that giving out several thousand dollars for nothing was throwing money out the window. He suggested firing the offending employees, and keeping at it until [we found] people who work.” Petrozzi knew, however, that the competitor’s suggestion was worse.
Capital put the bonus into effect, and staffers stopped missing days. They wanted that $1,000. Absenteeism dropped 400%. Moreover, an ethos of attendance became the norm. The program worked so well that the company instituted a similar $500 bonus program for part-timers.
Employees also stayed with the company longer. They no longer quit on a whim; turnover dropped precipitously. “Before the bonus was in place, workers would be offered 10 cents more an hour and would quit,” Joe says. “In the fall, as Christmas approached and retailers needed more help, the problem would get worse. This, unfortunately, coincided with drycleaning’s busy season, so we were really stuck.”
Today, the bonus system is firmly in place. “It’s one of our key employment features,” Russ says. “How many companies can they go to and be guaranteed a $1,000 bonus just for coming to work? Our whole employment situation is turned around.”Access Granted. Before opening its first store, the management team at Massachusetts-based Zoots Cleaners analyzed how drycleaners let customers down. They came up with one big problem: access.
Though drycleaners work long hours—usually 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.—retailers stay open later, often until 9:30 p.m., seven days a week. Plus, the busy families whose time is at a premium would be Zoots’ prime customers. If Zoots could expand its hours, management thought, it could win a sizeable share of the market. Staffing a store 24 hours was too costly, but there must be more than one way to skin a cat.
Zoots came up with a 24-hour drop-box locker system with individual combinations. The lockers were placed in stores’ foyers, which were open all the time. Customers could drop off clothes to be cleaned and pick up clothes, seven days a week, any time of the day or night.
Zoots president Todd Krasnow was inspired by seeing bank customers use entryway ATMs after hours. This was what he wanted to achieve—and succeeded in achieving—with the drop boxes. Today, Zoots is the fastest-growing chain in the country. Its 24-hour drop boxes are one of the features the franchising sales staff promotes, and it is the only cleaner in the industry to have 24-hour access of its kind.
Each of these innovations sprang from seeing a problem or, conversely, an opportunity. Aren’t problems and opportunities two sides of the same coin? For example, Capital had the absenteeism problem from which most drycleaners suffer. But they turned it into the opportunity to motivate employees with bonuses.
Each solution required thought. It took Zoots months to conceive of its 24-hour drop-box system, abandoning several alternatives in the process. Sometimes, a solution relies on a stretch of imagination or leap of faith. In Quality Cleaners’ case, guessing that its customer base wouldn’t protest a 6% price increase took faith. The situation could have been a disaster, but Quality Cleaners made it come out okay.
Each solution was a bold stroke. The three cleaners came up with unorthodox solutions, and management had the tenacity to see them through and benefit. Don’t just do the work — make it easier, more efficient and more market-friendly. Seek out clever solutions like these.

About the author

Howard Scott

H&R Block

Industry Writer, Drycleaning Consultant, and H&R Block Tax Preparer

Howard Scott is a longtime industry writer and drycleaning consultant, and an H&R Block tax preparer specializing in small businesses. He welcomes questions and comments, and can be reached by writing Howard Scott, Dancing Hill, Pembroke, MA 02359.

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