CHICAGO — While there’s no substitute for experience, the drycleaning industry has entered into an era when past lessons might not apply to future decisions as well as they once did. Shifting demographics and evolving consumer behaviors — supercharged by the changes brought by the pandemic — have clouded the crystal balls of both industry veterans and those new to dry cleaning.
One fact that no one can argue is that the past 18 months have been some of the most difficult in the industry’s history.
“To put it bluntly, the pandemic weeded out a lot of the weaker cleaners,” says Joe Gagliostro, president of Muldoon Dry Cleaners in Auburn, New York, and a third-generation cleaner. “If you were a mom-and-pop cleaner barely hanging on to begin with, or you were on the border of retiring, COVID either put you out, or you said, ‘The heck with this — I’m taking my money, and I’m running.’”
Gagliostro believes that this change could actually be good for those who survived the challenges of the past few months. “The pie is going to be smaller, but for those of us who survived, the piece is going to be bigger. This jump-started a lot of the fallout that might have happened over the next two or three years.”
Casey Walker, who grew up in the industry and is now director of retail operations for Max I. Walker Dry Cleaners & Launderers in Omaha, Nebraska, agrees that the pandemic altered the course of dry cleaning — or at least quickened it.
“COVID certainly accelerated the already-existing trends of the strong surviving and a consumer-driven demand for convenience,” he says. “Other service-based businesses started offering curbside service, so our customers came to expect that from us; they still do and likely will forever. That’s something that’s permanently changed, and now it’s a thing you have to be able and willing to do to compete.”
Kurt Lucero, owner of The Cleanery in Albuquerque, New Mexico, also grew up in the industry and has found that the pandemic has altered his outlook, both personally and professionally.
“It changed me in a profound way,” he says. “I appreciate what I have more. I appreciate my customer base and my team a lot more.”
This new appreciation, Lucero says, can only make his business stronger.
“I think it’s really important to listen to my customer base, now more than ever,” he says. “I actually can’t say that I did that very well in the past. I’ve had to hustle a lot more, but I’ve also slowed down and started to tune into my customers’ needs and wants. I now ask myself what problems are they experiencing right now? How can I solve them? What do we do? What do I need to do to not only keep this client but get more of their business?”
Rob Walker, Casey Walker’s father and president of Walker’s Inc., also believes that understanding the needs and desires of clients is critical for survival.
“It made everyone look inwardly at how they can best serve their customers,” he says. “Does that mean fewer store locations and more routes? Does it mean the permanent addition of new services like curbside pickup? Does it mean store hour adjustments? Does it mean lockers? It’s different for every business and every market, but everyone’s habits and expectations of service businesses have rapidly changed. It’s up to dry cleaners, like any service provider, to adapt to changing consumer preferences.”
Come back Tuesday for Part 2 of this series, when we’ll examine the outlook of some newcomers to the industry as they look toward the future.