Making the Brand

Ian P. Murphy |

Saturated with drycleaners of every shape and size, the Chicago market can be tough for a new operation to crack. Going up against the hundreds of Mom-and-Pop shops, chain stores and couture cleaners can seem like an impossible task.
But with focused market positioning and a strong brand, a new operation can still carve out a niche for itself. Now two years old, DryClean Direct has done just that with a green-hued value proposition that’s designed to appeal to urban consumers.
Pricing drycleaned garments at $2.79 per piece and billing itself as the “Environmentally-Friendly/Wallet-Friendly” option, DryClean Direct has grown fast. The chain already operates nine stores in densely populated and affluent neighborhoods on the North Side of Chicago and its suburbs.
Consumers in these neighborhoods and towns tend to be well-educated, white-collar professionals. Many of them are making their way up, starting families, launching businesses and paying mortgages. They demand quality and value.
DryClean Direct recognizes customers more for “a lifestyle than a demographic,” says Yale Gordon, the company’s chief executive officer and a former marketing and advertising executive. “It’s hard to say we skew toward high or moderate incomes. If they’re looking for quality and want to save money, it doesn’t matter whether they make $15,000 a year or $150,000 — they’re looking for ways to reduce their expenditures.”
But part of that lifestyle is that no matter how much these consumers spend, they try to spend it responsibly — with an eye toward their health and that of the planet. They recycle, join health clubs, and pack the organic vegetables they buy at Whole Foods into reusable grocery bags. They know enough about drycleaning to know what perc is.
Hence the “green” message: “We’re The Green Cleaners,” announce oversized buttons worn at the front counter. “Celebrate Earth Day Every Day,” posters say. “Save Money. And The Planet,” a tagline reads.
DryClean Direct runs Exxon DF-2000 in new Firbimatic machines, biodegradable poly (tinted green), and a hanger-recycling program that recovers more than 30% of wire hangers. The company even recently discontinued giving its customers bottled water because the plastic bottles had become an eco-issue.
The chain knits the budget-friendly and eco-friendly messages together with a “Renew — don’t buy new” concept. “Research says that consumers’ biggest concern is that they don’t destroy the garments they spend so much money on,” Gordon says. “We’re telling them, ‘Bring in your clothes — they’re going to look like new; they’re going to feel like new; you don’t have to buy new.’”COMMUTERS EQUAL CUSTOMERS
DryClean Direct targets cost-conscious commuters on Chicago’s light-rail system aggressively. Ads appear on El trains and platforms; the chain hands out coupons at stops convenient to DryClean Direct locations. “In-your-face advertising is the best advertising,” Gordon says. “At the Bryn Mawr stop, we have a location [that’s] literally just feet away.”
Stores appeal to city dwellers with tasteful hardwoods and condo-quality granite countertops. High-definition monitors play a continuous reel of local news and weather, fun facts about drycleaning, and DryClean Direct promotions. Customers can help themselves to a cup of gourmet coffee free of charge, saving them an additional stop and expense on their way to work.
The chain buys inserts and sticky notes to place in and on newspapers, and reports high redemption rates for the corresponding offers — often a 99-cent deal for first-time customers. It also cross-promotes with local restaurant chains: “After you eat, clean up on your cleaning,” flyers say.
Most customers probably come from the many indistinct midrange cleaners dotting Chicago’s blocks, which vary in quality and reliability, and change hands frequently. “We’re at $2.79 and they may be at $4.50 — that’s where our business is coming from.”
Though it offers a simplified pricelist, DryClean Direct doesn’t see the city’s other big one-price chain, CD One Price Cleaners, as a primary competitor. When a customer goes discount, they’re “just price-shopping,” Gordon says. “If they find a better price, they’ll take their business there. You can’t build loyalty that way.”
To convert first-timers into loyal customers, DryClean Direct offers the Clean Free frequent-user program, which rewards every $100 spent with $5.00 in free cleaning. Progress toward the goal is printed on receipts, subtly encouraging customers to continue to patronize DryClean Direct or bring in additional items.
Occasional sales and a rolling slate of promotions target regulars on slow days. And recent giveaways have played off high gas prices (awarding a $50 gas card) and the company’s connection with the Chicago Machine professional lacrosse team (offering free tickets). “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks, a longtime friend of the company, also occasionally appears at stores to hobnob.
Located in a light-industrial area near I-90/94 and two major city streets, DryClean Direct’s 16,000-sq.-ft. central plant keeps quality consistent and costs down. Maineline software tracks garments, all of which arrive bar-coded from stores. The plant’s twin Metalprogetti assembly conveyors and Sankosha baggers save about six full-time positions for additional cost control.
The plant has room to grow, and Dry-Clean Direct is looking to move into new areas such as the South Loop and additional suburbs. And while the sluggish economy has slowed expansion plans somewhat, it’s only a matter of time before the brand — where every day is Earth Day and prices are at an “everyday low” — expands again.

About the author

Ian P. Murphy

Freelance Writer

Ian P. Murphy is a freelance writer based in Chicago, and was the editor of American Drycleaner from 1999 to 2011.


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