CHICAGO — In business, as in life, the only constant is change. With the turbulent times the drycleaning industry has endured over the past couple of years, many owners have had to question many of the aspects of their business, including its size. Is it too big for the volume of business coming in? Is it too small to take advantage of opportunities that could come along?
In Part 1 of this series, we examined some cleaners’ strategies of slimming down their businesses during the pandemic and altering their business models. Today, we’ll continue by looking at reactions to changing economic times.
Changing with the Times
Matching services to consumer demand is way of making sure a dry cleaner’s business stays relevant to its customers. While Gary Maloney, owner and president of Nu-Yale Cleaners in Southern Indiana, didn’t close any of his 15 storefronts, he did revamp some efforts during the pandemic.
“We stayed open,” he says. “We cut our hours down and we cut our trips (to the plant) down. We don’t do (service) the same day anymore. We used to, but now we’re doing everything next day. We worked on cutting our expenses and just surviving through the times. There’s a song lyric that stuck in my mind: ‘If you’re going through hell, keep on going. You might get out before the devil even knows you’re there.’ And that was our approach to all this — just keep going.”
Automation and other factors then entered into Maloney’s plans.
“We started putting lockers in all of our stores so people could have more access,” he says. “If they’re coming in early in the morning or late at night, we just gave them a key fob, and they went in and got their clothes and dropped them off. And, as that evolved, we took five stores and put in the kiosks. They definitely gave more access to the customer.”
Since the kiosks are new, Maloney says, he’s eager to determine the effect they’ve had on his business.
“What I don’t know is if I’m taking the same customers and spreading them out, or am I picking up more customers and more volume,” he says. “We’re not deep enough in to answer that question yet. Another reason we went with them is that staffing was just so hard, and I didn’t see it getting any easier.”
The Expansive Mindset
As with any business, there are cycles of growth and contraction in the drycleaning industry. While the pandemic forced many cleaners to retract, some are not closing the door on building for the future, thanks to lessons from their past.
Indianapolis’ Fabric Care Cleaners started as a single-location laundromat in 1960 and expanded into dry cleaning in 1965. For many years, it stayed small, but in the mid-2000s, an opportunity for expansion came its way.
“In 2008, a 100-year-old cleaner was going out of business that had three good-sized delivery routes, so we talked to them about acquiring those routes,” says Tom Prionas, president and general manager of the company. “We only had one location back then. So, we talked to the owner, and we got two of the three routes they had, and that got us into home delivery. These delivery routes were to single-family homes in established neighborhoods and so forth. That got us the experience.”
The idea for Fabric Care Cleaners to add stores came from examining the existing customer base and their needs, including the area hotels that were providing much of their business.
“Soon after, we were thinking that, since we’re going downtown to the hotels every day, sometimes two, three or four times a day, what if we had a store in that area?” Prionas says. “We opened our first drop store in 2013. It took a while for that to establish itself, so we subleased some space to a seamstress so we could share the expense.”
Taking advantage of these and other opportunities, Fabric Care Cleaners now has seven locations and multiple routes. While the past couple of years haven’t been conducive for expansion, Prionas believes that future growth is a definite possibility.
“I foresee us taking advantage of ‘good fit’ opportunities that might come along, or that we seek out,” he says. “We have an opportunity that we’re working with now, but we don’t know if it’s a good fit yet, so we haven’t committed to it.”
Arthur C. Anton Jr., CEO of Anton’s Cleaners of Tewksbury, Massachusetts, has also taken advantage of “good fit” opportunities. “In 2018 and 2019, we purchased two high-volume locations,” he says, noting that opportunities such as these have to be fully examined before going forward. “You look at your competition and see what’s in the area. Is there a bad cleaner in the area? Are there no other cleaners in the area? That’s what you look at.”
When it comes to expansion, Anton believes that finding existing opportunities rather than breaking ground on new properties is the way to go.
“We’ve built stores from scratch, and it takes years,” he says. “I’m getting older, and I don’t want to wait. People will tell me there’s a great location here and there, but it takes years to really build a business and get the right people in there, and right now, we can’t get people to work. So, I’m not going to go into an area and try to open something — that doesn’t make sense to me.”
Maloney has also picked up two new storefronts in recent years. “They basically said that if I take over their lease, I could have their business,” he says. “We were trying to build volume up, and they were decent volume stores, so it made sense.”
He’s also looking for ways to diversify his business, recently adding restoration services for his customers.
“I think we’ll be doing more things in different areas, like expanding what we do in the restoration field,” he says. “We’re part of the CRDN franchise, and they’ve added art and now electronics, so that keeps expanding the capabilities of what we can do. It’s almost a different business, but then again, it’s not. I don’t think I could survive with dry cleaning alone.”
Come back Thursday for the conclusion of this series, when we’ll explore the role of risk when it comes to setting a company’s size, and when it makes sense to stay put. For Part 1, click HERE.
Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].