CHICAGO — While businesses can endure for years, decades and even centuries, the one thing they can’t do is stagnate. Changing economic conditions, shifting societal norms and evolving customer demands put pressure on business leaders to make sure their companies are still serving their clients to the best of their abilities.
Dry cleaners are no stranger to this necessity, and the past couple of years have underlined this fact. Keeping up with fluctuating circumstances can mean adding locations, shutting down underperforming storefronts or changing the very way the company interacts with its customers.
Anton’s Cleaners of Tewksbury, Massachusetts, has seen its fair share of changes during its more than 100 years of operation. Today, the company has 37 locations, with 26 of those being processing plants.
“We feel, with the plant, you have more knowledgeable and sophisticated employees on the premises and can offer quicker service,” says Arthur C. Anton Jr., the company’s chief operating officer. “That’s why we had built the business on that sort of model.”
With that many locations, some tough decisions had to be made during the difficult days of the pandemic. “Since 2019, we’ve closed seven locations — three in 2019 and four in 2020,” Anton says. “Three of those locations had been open for more than 50 years. Those were closed because of COVID, and the decision was all volume-driven. You’re not going to pay someone to sit there for 40 hours for just a handful of customers.”
The slowdown also affected the company’s other locations in different ways. “When the floor fell out as COVID hit, we chose to open our locations only 40 hours a week so we could continue to pay our managers their salaries,” Anton says. “We also used to offer same-day service, and we rarely do that now.”
Anton made sure to communicate with his customers to minimize any negative effect these decisions had on their future business.
“I personally called the top customers — probably 10 to 20 customers, depending on the volume — and told them we were moving, and they appreciated that,” he says. “Most of them went to other locations. We also put many of them on our route business. Some were a little frustrated because they had a cleaner right there in their neighborhood, but it wasn’t worth keeping those stores open just for those few customers.”
Altering the Business Model
Anton’s Cleaners made use of the fact that route service for pickup and delivery has become an increasingly attractive alternative to the brick-and-mortar storefront in the eyes of drycleaning customers.
Tom Prionas, president and general manager of Fabric Care Cleaners in Indianapolis, also converted one of his company’s locations to a route system.
“In April 2020, the three-year lease of one of our stores was coming due,” Prionas says. “We already knew it wasn’t performing very well, and we decided we didn’t want to renew the lease. Coinciding with the lease renewal was the uncertainty of COVID, so we decided to close that store. When we closed it, we tried to convert as many of those customers to our routes, and we used the 80/20 rule. We took the 20% best customers — who added 80% of the revenue for the store — and added them to our routes.”
Prionas believes that the decision to substitute routes for the underperforming store was the right call, both at the time and for the future.
“We gained the reduction of fixed expenses from that store — the rent and the staff — to save 80% and operate it with one route driver, or add customers to a route that already exists,” he says. “That vastly reduces the expense of serving those customers.”
But there were other factors to consider.
“The downside is, once we closed the store, we were never going to reopen it,” Prionas says. “We’re not going to go back to that spot and open a new store now.”
There were emotional considerations, as well. “We didn’t like doing it, but it was the right thing to do. We offered our staff the opportunity to work in other locations, but some of them took it hard.”
Chris and Craig Bamberg, owners of Platinum Dry Cleaners in Naples, Florida, made a similar decision, going from four locations to two, and then adding expanded route service.
“As we started coming out of COVID, we took a look at two locations and made a decision that we felt that those geographic areas were ripe for delivery,” Craig Bamberg says. “Even though this is a more senior-citizen-based market, they were extremely receptive to it. We call it the ‘Amazon Effect.’ We took a long, hard look at that, and we decided it was time.”
Bamberg believes the company’s structure is now optimized for the population and the economy.
“The two remaining locations are very tried and true — very established and flagship-oriented,” he says. “They are in our repertoire, and they’re going to stay in the repertoire for a very long time. But for the other two, the timing was just right. The leases were kind of coming up, and we had to decide if we wanted to renew.”
Familiarity with the area and with their customers was key to making the decisions, Bamberg says. “We feel that we’re very in touch with our customer base. Chris and I have five solid years in the drycleaning market, and we’ve lived here since 1996, so we know the market and felt educated in making that move.”
Come back Tuesday for Part 2 of this series, where we’ll discuss cleaners’ resizing reactions to the pandemic, and where they see their companies going into the future.
Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].