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The Whys of Where (Part 2)

Experience teaches many lessons about the placement of drycleaning stores and plants

CHICAGO — The decision on where to place a storefront or a plant is one of the most important decisions a dry cleaner will make. No matter how good the service or how expertly the cleaning is done, if customers can’t find the store, it won’t matter. In Part 1, we examined the decisions of cleaners relatively new to the industry. For this section, we’ll review the decisions of a cleaner with decades of experience — and what that experience has taught him.

THE BENEFITS OF EXPERIENCE

While new businesses must make all their decisions upfront, older, established companies can make choices as they go, examining their changing customer base, economic conditions, area growth patterns and a host of other factors. Locations that made sense earlier can become stagnant, while spots that were once “out in the boondocks” are suddenly developed into desirable areas with upwardly mobile clientele.

David Ziker is the president of Ziker Cleaners and Uniforms, where its operations are based in Mishawaka, Indiana. The company, started in 1917 by his grandfather, Joe Ziker, currently operates a 17,000-square-foot production, distribution and office facility, along with eight drop-off and pickup locations in South Bend, Mishawaka, Granger and Elkhart, Indiana. Over its 103 years, Ziker has adapted and evolved to meet its customers’ needs.

“Oh, how things have changed over the five decades that I have been involved making these decisions,” David Ziker says. “I feel like each market and each operator is different. We need to understand the market, our position in the market, and how our overall strategy affects our location strategies.”

Ziker Cleaners and Uniforms has seen the laundry industry from almost every angle. At one point in the 1940s, Ziker’s grandparents had built their company into a 55-store operation in Indiana and Michigan, operating out of a central point in downtown South Bend. When Ziker’s father, Mort, joined the family business after serving in the Navy during World War II, the company scaled back on locations, acquired competitors and grew its laundry and route business.

In 1972 Ziker diversified into uniform rentals like so many dry cleaners did due to the negative impact polyester and “wash and wear” fashion had on the industry. The uniform rental business was a way to utilize excess capacity in a central plant. That business grew and grew, to the point where the family decided to sell that part of the business in 2014 to focus on dry cleaning.

“In the late 1990s, we started building stand-alone locations,” he says. “This was a good strategy that has served the family and the business well for four decades. These are our best locations. Strip centers are OK if you can secure the best scenario for a full-service drive-thru that allows the traffic to flow normally and has good exposure from the road.”

That drive-thru availability is one of the business elements that Ziker has seen grow from a “nice-to-have” into a “must-have” feature, especially in the past few months. “Today, I would not even consider a store that does not lend itself to a full-service drive-thru lane,” he says. “We use sliding doors so we can service the customers in their cars. Pre-COVID, about half of the visits came through the drive; now it’s closer to 80%. I feel strongly that this is a new reality that will not revert.”

Other consumer habits, fueled by the convenience of online shopping and home delivery, have also altered the market’s landscape during Ziker’s career. “Amazon, GrubHub, Uber and other companies have trained the consumer to expect greater convenience. This is something that successful today cleaners must adapt to. However, the old standard considerations on finding a new location still apply; high traffic areas and being nearby dense upper-middle-class homes are critical.”

Check back Tuesday for the conclusion, where we’ll look at the thought process of tracking the demographics of a community and the decision of whether to lease or own. For Part 1, click HERE.