CHICAGO — For the bulk of the drycleaning industry’s history, consumer demands remained predictable and, for the most part, unchanging. In the past few years, and certainly in the past 18 months, however, those demands have evolved to the point where what worked in the past for cleaners was no guarantee of future success.
For this series, we wanted to ask dry cleaners — both experienced and new to the field — what they see coming in the industry, and how they can best adjust their businesses to meet these present and future demands. In Part 1, we asked several cleaners with long track records their take on the changing nature of customer service, and in Part 2, we’ll look at a couple who are just starting their adventure in the cleaning field.
New Faces, New Ideas
Chris and Chheavy Lema, the owners of Martinizing Dry Cleaning in Elk Grove, California, bought their store in 2019. The couple, who also own a financial planning practice, were looking for a way to diversify their income stream when they got into the drycleaning field. They believe their status as people familiar with, but not a part of, the industry has helped them.
“We’ve always worn dry-clean clothes and business attire, so we were familiar with the consumer side,” Chheavy Lema says. “We knew some of the things that we would want, from a consumer perspective, that no other drycleaning store around here was offering.”
That being said, there were still surprises the Lemas faced when entering the field. “It has been extremely difficult and a steep learning curve,” she says. ”The biggest surprise has been COVID — no surprise there. Outside of that, staffing and equipment issues have caught us off guard. The tight labor market is a huge challenge.”
When looking toward the future, one of the things the Lemas believe they understand is the mindset of today’s consumers, which will help them provide the services that will grow their business.
“We think the business will be one of convenience rather than that of necessity,” Chris Lema says. “As more garments are manufactured that do not require dry cleaning, the obligation to use our services will decrease. At the same time, people are busier than ever and value what little free time they do have. Our industry has the opportunity to provide exceptional customer service and, in turn, give people a larger amount of time back by taking on all of their garment care. The perception of what we offer has to change and, therefore, we need to be aggressive at marketing and spreading the word.”
And, while piece counts might be dropping, there is still profit to be made from caring for the right pieces.
“You can’t survive by focusing on customers who bring in $6 or $8 every other week,” Chheavy Lema says. “We see growth in wash-and-fold laundry, household items, and the finishing of business casual clothes. We see shirt laundry decreasing in necessity. The good news is that the growth areas, if handled properly, can have very strong profit margins. You’d have to do 15 shirts to get the price of a household item, which is much easier in the labor and talent that goes into cleaning it.”
Keeping a long-term view of their business, rather than worry about the day-to-day profits and losses, is key to the Lema’s business strategy, Chris says.
“Our biggest advantage is coming into the industry with the intention of building a scalable business,” he says. A lot or people enter this industry looking to create a job for themselves and, in turn, create a business that is reliant on their daily performance to be successful. We look at this business differently. We are investing in team development and scalable systems. It is not the fastest way to break even; however, it is the only way to build a business that will allow for less reliance on our daily involvement. This will free up time to focus on growth and allow us to peruse high value opportunities.”
Come back Thursday for the conclusion of this series, where we’ll get the outlook who an owner transitioned within the dry cleaning industry, and wrap up with a look toward the future. For Part 1 of this series, click HERE.