Perception Just as Important as Reality

Howard Scott |

Apparently apathetic dry cleaner in biz 50 years appalls author

PEMBROKE, Mass. — I walked into a long-established dry cleaner—50 years in existence, second-generation ownership—to a pitiful sight. The flagship plant store looked like a squalid movie set. Barren, ugly, dilapidated, dirty and uninspired are some of the adjectives that would best describe the premises.

The space was small. Paint was peeling off the walls. The front counter looked like it had been there from day one.

There was no seating for customers. There were no signs stating proudly the cleaner’s identity. There were no pictures on the wall, no touch of attractiveness, no sign of humanity. The front window contained a half-dozen taped-on notices about town events.

What gives? The company had four drop stores, plus the plant, so surely there is enough revenue to make changes. Moreover, surviving 50 years in the industry gives management something to brag about; two generations of owners and family have walked through that front door.

Has no one noticed that the place looks grungy? Does management not understand that customers don’t feel encouraged to bring in their clothes to be cleaned, that the workspace isn’t uplifting for employees? Is no one in authority ever inspired to give the place a face lift? Has everyone lost hope?

It angers me to think that I am in an industry where such neglect still exists. Of course, no one can force the owners to do anything about the disastrous front. I suppose I could be considered as someone with influence. And I could expose them in this article. I could name them, offer photographs as proof, and possibly embarrass them into making a change. But I will not do that. It would be one thing if the company was struggling to pay its bills, but 49 years in business and it’s come to this embarrassment. Come on.

What could be done in such a small space? Well, first, it doesn’t have to be such a small space. Management owns the property, which gives it the right to double or triple the storefront space. But, even within the existing space, much can be done. For starters, they could make the front entrance attractive.

Put in freshly painted wooden flower boxes in front of the large windows. Tear down the town notices. Install an interesting display, such as a life-sized mannequin, attractively dressed, with a rakish hat angled forward, with a sign that reads, “We make you look swell here.”

How about a scrim of wood with several lovely outfits hung or spread out to show their classic lines? The sign nearby: “Beautiful garments aren’t born, they are dry-cleaned regularly.” Or place an old-fashioned tub washer with attached rollers alongside a high-tech machine, with a sign that reads, “We combine the best of old-fashioned and high-tech.”

Replace the worn wooden counter with a glitzy chrome and glass unit, including a mirrored surface and metal racks to take in clothes. Or, have a counter custom-built to perfectly align with your space. Perhaps a half-circle counter would do, with inlaid wood of a different color. In other words, create gracefulness in your front.

Clean up the walls. Paint the surfaces. A wainscoting effect might give the space a classy, colonial touch.

Hang pictures enclosed in lime-green frames. Include a picture of your entire staff, your mission statement (handmade in artful calligraphy), a collage of several well-dressed customers, and a photo of the Little League baseball team you sponsor.

Rotate these shots with a photograph of the owners and an aerial view of the store with accompanying shots of each drop store. Contrast photos of the business in its early days alongside a photo of today’s plant, and several black-and-white shots of key employees. The possibilities are endless.

Improve the lighting, because nothing creates a sense of freshness like strong lighting. A bank of fluorescent lights covering every square inch of floor space would do the trick. Use track lighting to highlight displays or the workstation; the bright glow would make processed garments look really clean, and that’s what you want.

Add a few funky touches. The place is small, but there is still room for creativity. Set up a table stand that carries a book which explains, in simple terms, what dry cleaning does, every step of the way. Place a bowl of mints—not those cheap red-and-white candies that everyone puts out, but something special—on the countertop.

Hang a photo montage of different clothing styles—turn-of-the-last-century formal, flapper age, Depression chic, practical ’40s, golfing ’50s, hippie ’60s, casual-look contemporary, etc.

Examine your hobbies. If you are a sailor, hang photos of your boating adventures. If you are a car enthusiast, place large models of your favorite dream cars on wall-mounted shelves. If you like to fish, create a life-sized photograph of you, and mount it onto the wall using wallpaper paste. Your image holds a fishing rod extended from your fingers. Dangling from a string is an enlarged drycleaning invoice with the words, “You’re our greatest catch.”

If you are creatively challenged, hire someone to do the imaginative thinking. It doesn’t have to be a professional designer. It could be a local art student. Perhaps he or she would do it for the experience, or you might have to pay a few hundred dollars. Young artists have such fertile imaginations these days that you’ll come out with something really exciting and unique.

If the owners of that shop I described read this article, I’m curious what they’ll do. Would they argue that they’d be throwing away good money on decoration, that the customer doesn’t care a whit about their store’s appearance and are only concerned that they turn out quality garments?

Or, would they finally grasp that a clean, wholesome storefront would go a long way toward the customer thinking he/she received good value for the money spent. And that giving customers this perception is just as important as the reality.

Two things could happen: 1. More patronage would come in. 2. Management would raise prices perceptibly, and make more profits.

But, hey, who cares about what I think, right?

About the author

Howard Scott

Industry Writer and Drycleaning Consultant

Howard Scott is a former business owner, longtime industry writer and drycleaning consultant. He welcomes questions and comments and can be reached by writing Howard Scott, Dancing Hill, Pembroke, MA 02359; by calling 781-293-9027; or via e-mail at dancinghill@gmail.com.

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