SAN ANTONIO — “We as a family consider ourselves very fortunate to have been blessed with the opportunity to operate our business for over 100 years,” says Jess Culpepper, president and general manager of Culpepper Cleaners, founded here in 1911. “Many changes have occurred over the years, and currently the drycleaning profession is experiencing major challenges with declining volume for over a decade nationally. To survive, many of us have found other sources of revenue.”
And that’s where cleaning The House — household items such as comforters and linens — comes in. But that’s just the start. Add route business, along with other services such as cleaning shoes, hats and wedding dresses to discover the full-service garment care pro inside you.
Culpepper first started working for the business during summer breaks while he was attending high school. He made dry cleaning his career choice in 1978 as the third generation of the Culpepper family to do so.
“We are truly a family-run business; I have my wife, Jo Anne; my sister and brother-in-law, Terri and Mickey Walker; and my son and daughter, Ethan Culpepper and Isabel Culpepper, both representing our fourth generation, all working in the business,” he says.
Culpepper Cleaners operates one plant and two drop stores, employing approximately 75 “talented people,” he adds. Its goal is, and has been for better than a century, to provide the best in customer service and drycleaning and laundry service to the people of San Antonio.
“We have, over the years, added square footage to our store on five separate occasions and it serves as our central plant today,” Culpepper says.
The business has targeted a specific area of service for growth: household items, such as comforters, bedspreads, drapes, sheets, cushion covers and more.
Household items have typically accounted for 3-5% of Culpepper Cleaners’ gross income.
“Our goal is to increase the current volume by 50%,” he states. “We have concentrated on in-store advertising of this service and have shown a steady increase in the household segment of our business. As garment piece counts have trended downward, the household piece count has continued to rise.”
The COVID-19 “stay home” recommendations caused the volume of garments to clean to drop by as much as 70%, but Culpepper’s cleaning of household items actually increased over pre-pandemic numbers during the same period, which he found very encouraging.
“Keeping at least some of these items visible for customers to see in the customer lobby is an easy way to promote this service, as well as hang tags advertising this service on outgoing orders.”
Culpepper says the business has always specialized in the cleaning and preservation of wedding gowns and restoration of vintage garments. It takes longer to grow this part of this business, he says, as it requires achieving a level of experience and expertise in order to build a reputation.
Talking with retailers of wedding gowns and formal wear in your area and explaining your process and level of experience can go a long way in improving sales in that department, he suggests. It’s definitely worth the effort due to the potential profitability of this segment of the business.
COVID-19 SLOWDOWN PROMPTS LAUNCH OF ROUTE SERVICE
Besides household items, expanding profit centers can include many things, such as more ways for customers to connect through apps and emails. Another popular way to add services: routes.
Culpepper says the business has now launched its first route service “since the old days” in hopes of increasing its profitability.
“We had been considering initiating a route service for some time, but the slowdown due to COVID-19 is what really pushed us to make this decision,” he explains.
Culpepper recalls his father, Richard, delivering clothes in the 1950s and ’60s and he would occasionally ride along on the route. The elder Culpepper did this after regular business hours and had maybe 15 or 20 stops along the way.
“I enjoyed it because it allowed me to spend time with my dad,” Culpepper relates, “and away from chores or homework at home. He, however, did not seem to miss the route after he gave it up when he opened another store in 1969. I suppose the growth of the business and 12- to 16-hour days will do that.”
Culpepper recognizes that his business is late to the game, given that routes have grown to be very popular over the last 10 to 15 years.
“To prepare for this, we talked to as many people who are running routes as we could, and read anything we could on the subject as well. One common theme from these resources, which we have taken to heart, is to be fully committed to doing this the right way. During the infancy of this undertaking, it has been an ‘all family on deck’ attitude, and has turned out to be a great experience for us all.”
Customers are excited and have been appreciative of Culpepper Cleaners offering free pickup and delivery of their items.
The business started by converting existing customers to its route service, plus it has picked up some new customers just from the delivery van being seen in the neighborhood.
“Our next step is to begin advertising in neighborhoods we feel are aligned demographically with our service,” Culpepper says.
Of course, starting a route service during the slowest period in Culpepper Cleaners’ history has allowed its staff the luxury of learning the process without the normal pressures that team members would typically face day-to-day in the operation.
“If that was not the case, we would have looked for help from a consultant at the outset, but we will soon seek some professional guidance from a consultant.”
He says it’s too important of an undertaking to not educate everyone on all that goes into operating a successful route.
“Our plan is to grow the route and our experience level at a compatible rate. So far, so good, and better late than never!”
Culpepper puts the opportunities to expand profit centers today in perspective.
“The professional services we offer our customers as an industry changes requires us to make decisions which will allow our businesses to become more profitable and viable in the future.”
There are other areas where drycleaning business owners have seen great success, such as the wash-and-fold segment.
“I have long thought that referring to our profession as the ‘dry cleaners’ is a very limiting and confining description of what we actually do,” he opines. “It is our responsibility to educate our customers as to all the services we offer and to the value of those services, least of which is the value of time.”
Coming Thursday: Florida’s Oceanside Cleaners commits to providing extra services