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Surviving the Unavoidable Event (Part 2)

How cleaners found ways in 2020 to work around the challenges of the pandemic

CHICAGO — The coronavirus received the American Drycleaner Publisher’s Impact Award for 2020 because it simply was unavoidable, and changed the very nature of how dry cleaners operated their businesses. In Part 1 of this series, we examined how many cleaners were forced out of their comfort zones and had to rethink the services their businesses offered. Today, we’ll take a look at how staffing needs — and staffing availability — has changed, and how cleaners can actually gain market share with the right approach.

Who (and How Many) to Hire?

The pandemic has caused cleaners to rethink how they staff their stores and plants. Business falling off forced many owners to cut employee hours — or entire positions — to make their numbers work. When business picks up again and starts to approach its “new normal,” these lessons should still be taken to heart.

“I think the pandemic has actually helped the dry cleaner operator in this area,” says Kelly Kelleher, vice president of Kelleher/Casares Equipment, LLC. “It’s been very difficult to find pressing operators at a rate that the dry cleaner could afford pre-pandemic. This has forced dry cleaners to realize that they could operate differently — and more efficiently. In the past, for instance, a person forced to operate on both the legger and utility press was thought to be ‘improvising’; this could now be viewed as the norm.”

Businesses are being forced to work “smarter” to gain and keep market share, and this philosophy can extend to hiring practices.

“The person behind the counter or answering the phone is the face of your business,” says Mary Scalco, CEO of the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute (DLI). “You may see their pay scale have to go up a little because you’re going to want a person who can be trained to say, ‘By the way, we’re having a special…,’ or, ‘Did you know we also offer this service?’ Because, many times, customers don’t know you offer that service, and they would love to have that information.”

When staffing — or restaffing — a store, cleaners should also be aware of the benefits hiring from certain groups can bring.

“Take advantage of whatever tax breaks are out there for who you can hire,” 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). “There are tax programs where, if you hire veterans or disabled individuals, you can get a tax incentive, which can be pretty sizable.”

Gaining a Larger Slice of the Pie

Most of the group believes that there will be about 30% fewer drycleaning storefronts once things settle, but no one is certain how the attrition rate will ultimately shake out in the industry. There is no doubt, however, that there will be fewer operators at the end of 2021 than there were in 2019. And, while there may be lower piece counts, as well, thanks to the work-from-home movement and other societal factors, there will still be a need for the classic and new services a dry cleaner provides. So, how can a cleaner gain an increased piece of the market share left by those who are no longer in the business?

Sometimes, the answer can be as simple as asking for it.

“Buy the client list, contact information and sales data from the exiting cleaner,” says Diana Vollmer, managing director of Ascend Consulting Group and a longtime American Drycleaner columnist. “A small investment in the list can allow the seller a small stipend and jump-start your customer expansion, especially if the seller wholeheartedly recommends you.”

For a cleaner getting out of the business because of economic difficulties or just taking this opportunity to retire, Blake believes this type of request can be a blessing.

“It can ease that person’s burden when someone asks, ‘Is there a way that I can take your inventory? You can send your customers here, and I’d be glad to disperse their clothes for you,” he says. “That is a huge service. So, it’s good for the customer, and it’s good for the person who’s closing the doors and trying to get out as quickly as possible.”

To gain market share, cleaners should think from the perspective of the customers they want to attract. Reputation management and engagement are two key elements that will draw — or repel — potential clients.

“The first thing a customer will do when they see their cleaner has closed is open Google and search ‘dry cleaners around me,’” says Christopher White, executive director of America’s Best Cleaners (ABC). “Those cleaners in the top three ranked spots by positive reviews will more than likely get that new business. Learn to understand the value of your online reputation and find the right partner to make sure you are getting frequent reviews. The positive part of the review process is on you to deliver.”

The basics, of course, should never be neglected. Fred Schwarzmann, CEO of A.L. Wilson Chemical Company, believes that there is no substitute for a job well done.

“It comes down to garment quality,” he says. “At the end of the day, word of mouth is still a critical component, and if you are known as the dry cleaner in town who puts out an excellent garment, you should get it. Once that happens, you can prove yourself to new prospects.”

For Kelleher, gaining new clients comes down to a 1-2-3 approach: “First, contact the previous owner and try to work with them in some way to obtain the customer list,” she says. “Second, implement a first-time customer special, and third, advertise all the new laundry and pickup services you’ve developed.”

Check back Tuesday for the conclusion, where we’ll find some silver linings in the dark cloud that was 2020. For Part 1, click HERE.