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Surviving the Unavoidable Event (Conclusion)

Making a list of the positives we can take from 2020

CHICAGO — The coronavirus turned 2020 into a year of constant struggle in which no one escaped having to deal with its repercussions — both from its health implications and its economic consequences. This is why the pandemic received the American Drycleaner Publisher’s Impact Award for 2020. In Parts 1 and 2, we’ve examined the challenges the virus has created and how companies have adapted to do business in this new normal. For the conclusion, we’ll take a look at the lessons 2020 taught us — lessons that can lead to stronger foundations.

Searching for Silver Linings

It’s a fact that the coronavirus has had a devastating impact on the cleaning industry — and society as a whole. That said, there is much that can be learned from this time in our history. Just as the Great Depression left a mark on those who lived through the experience, hard times teach valuable lessons. These lessons will enable the surviving drycleaning businesses to build stronger foundations for future growth.

“The cleaners who pay attention, invest and educate themselves and those they work with will see the benefits,” says Peter Blake, executive director of the North East Fabricare Association (NEFA), the South Eastern Fabricare Association (SEFA) and the Mid-Atlantic Association of Cleaners (MAC). “I think we’ve hit rock bottom, and now we can start to climb up again, and I believe we will climb. We were an oversubscribed industry — we had too many outlets to begin with. So, this will help us to reshape and retool.”

Wesley Nelson, president of equipment manufacturer Sankosha USA, believes that surviving such an event also builds stronger communities within the industry.

“I’ve found the cooperation and collaboration of the industry as a whole to be refreshing,” he says. “The virtual events taking place have shown the backbone of our industry and our willingness to work with each other towards a common goal. I’d like to think that this sense of camaraderie will continue and carry on even after the pandemic is over and we are able to gather in person again.”

Doing business in the post-pandemic world has also enabled cleaners to benefit from re-examining some of their business practices they might otherwise have left as is.

“A lot of cleaners I’ve talked to have raised their prices, which is a good thing,” says Nora Nealis, CEO of the National Cleaners Association (NCA). “Many of them were reluctant to raise their prices before, but now the circumstances forced them into doing it. And they realized that it wasn't the catastrophic effect that they thought it might be. It's been a plus for them.”

“There is a wonderful technology arms race taking place for the benefit of the end-users,” says Christopher White, executive director of America’s Best Cleaners (ABC). “Locker technology, 24-hour kiosks, POS systems, real client relations management (CRM) systems, and true route management systems are being developed and utilized. Owners are now finally starting to build external sales teams and going after the market. I think consolidation will bring greater investment and advance automation on the production floor and to the client experience. I really believe that owners will invest more in the personal and professional development of their team members and will become agents of positive change in their communities.”

Perhaps more than anything, people in the cleaning industry have learned that the time to be passive and rest on the “way we’ve always done it” mindset is well in the past. Those who are not moving forward will be overtaken by those who are.

“I go out there and try and do something positive to move my business forward every day,” says John Silverman, president of Tschopp Supply Co., and offers the same advice to cleaners. “Small things can make a big difference, whether it’s spending time repainting and carpeting my call offices or training employees or offering a new service. I would be very proactive and aggressive as far making sure that I was doing something every day to improve my business.”

The Year that Was and the Year that Will Be

For almost every dry cleaner, 2020 left scars that will take a long time to heal. Understanding certain truths — that everyone is in uncharted waters, the longed-for return to the “old days” isn’t coming, and change is the only constant in the universe — is the first step toward building a better future.

“We’ve been through rocky times before,” Nealis says. “Maybe not this rocky as this, but dry cleaning has been a roller coaster since I started watching it in 1975. Wash and wear, recessions … bad times are not new to us. Cleaners need to stay positive and ask themselves, ‘What can I do now?’ and not, ‘When is it going to go back to the way it was?’ Things are going to be different.”

“Stop thinking of yourself as a dry cleaner, and start thinking of yourself as a service industry,” says Mary Scalco, CEO of the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute (DLI). “You are providing a service where you can clean anything — any fabric, any textile, in your customer’s home. Rugs, drapes, blankets … all of that. Become that go-to resource for that person for their cleaning needs.”

Sitting back and waiting to see what the future brings is not an option, warns Diana Vollmer, managing director of Ascend Consulting Group and a longtime American Drycleaner columnist: “Take this opportunity to be aggressive, innovate, expand and up your game in preparation for your future prosperity.”

Above all, keeping your head and making intelligent, rational decisions — rather than simply reacting to the next pain point — can lead to a brighter 2021 and beyond.

“Step back, take some deep breaths and allow yourself the time and space to assess what we know to be true,” White says. “Remove the phrase ‘before COVID’ from all of your thinking, conversations and planning. Start from here and now, and build from there. This is the normal.”

For Part 1 of this series, click HERE, and for Part 2, click HERE.