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A customer once gave John Curry some advice: “Have a small field and flower it well.” The words of wisdom came shortly after the death of his father nine years ago, not long before Curry purchased the family dry cleaning business in Savannah, Georgia. He took the remark to heart. While, over these last seven decades, Curry and his family haven’t been plowing the same plot of land, they have been laundering the apparel of Savannah’s doctors, teachers, lawyers, and film actors working in the city at Curry Dry Cleaners, their family-owned and -operated dry cleaning shop — a bonafide field of flowers, passed down from father to child twice over.
Curry also recognizes the need for change — his industry isn’t the same as it was when he began working at Curry Dry Cleaners 33 years ago. Churchgoers used to regularly bring in their Sunday best; bankers no longer wear suits and ties. After a boom in garment cleaning in the 1980s, Curry says he’s noticed a steady decline in demand.
That pinch isn’t exclusive to the American South. Since 2012, US dry cleaning revenues have been in a steady, but slight, decline at a net negative .5 percent decrease, though that rate is predicted to increase over the next five years, according to a report by IBISWorld. At their peak, garment-cleaning revenues neared $11 billion, in 2010. As of 2017, they’re at $9 billion. Between the recent shuttering of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, mom-and-pop Empire Cleaners — which opened in 1933 — and the bankruptcy and immediate closure of Brockton, Massachusetts-based chain Zoots, the physical evidence of change is often swift and personal. Experts in the field — from business owners to industry organization leaders — credit the downturn in business to many things, including the 2008 financial crisis, increasingly casual office dress codes, smoking bans in bars and restaurants, and fast fashion made from cheaper, machine-washable materials. Taken together, the result is a rapidly changing market that sometimes feels out of control.
“It really troubles me that the industry as a whole has issues through no fault of the industry itself, just changing culture,” says Jerry Pozniak, owner and managing director of high-end cleaner Jeeves New York. “Who would’ve predicted that video stores — which were, again, everywhere — would ever cease to exist?”
Pozniak remembers the days when instead of Duane Reade, dry cleaners populated the corners of hundreds of New York City blocks. When he began working in garment care three decades ago, he owned a smaller business that catered to a more mid-market clientele, but back then people dressed up to go to work. Now, at Jeeves, Pozniak works on a number of luxury projects, like being the official cleaner for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and cleaning the costumes from Downton Abbey. Still, he maintains that middle-of-the-road services like cashmere sweater cleaning and furniture upholstery stain removal will always be essential.
All the while, the shift to “pajama culture,” he says, compounded by cheaper clothing and relaxed startup and tech workplace attire, has diminished this customer group. “Some are spending $50 for a dress,” Pozniak says. “If you go to a regular dry cleaner it’s $12 to $15. Unless you love it, you might not want to spend $20 [to] clean a dress.”
When Chicago-based franchise group CD One Price Cleaners went into business in 2001, CEO and co-founder Rafiq Karimi Jr. used the burgeoning casual movement to the company’s advantage. By offering one flat fee for every product, from comforters to khaki pants, CD One Price was able to establish itself as a one-stop shop for all laundry needs. In recent years, it’s begun pushing wash-and-fold services and prides itself as being ahead of the curve when it comes to industry trend forecasting. Marketing director Jonathon Reckles recognizes the need for digital and informational marketing to help customers see the value in CD One Price’s services. An infographic on its website, for instance, details the time and cost of doing laundry at home versus with CD One Price’s wash-and-fold. Another strategy includes automated emails, including a welcome email and a follow-up cleaning reminder, on behalf of franchisees, which have resulted in over 3,000 incremental sales. “We see a lot of mom-and-pops doing the things they’ve always been doing,” Reckles says. “What makes us different is we’re responding to customers’ needs.”
And the most desirable customer base is, of course, millennials.
“You’re trying to appeal to the millennial now,” says Mary Scalco, CEO of Drycleaning and Laundry Institute International. “It’s all about convenience. It’s not that they can’t wash and dry their own clothes, it’s that they don’t want to and they want someone else to do it.”
The dry cleaning industry responds to lifestyle changes, Scalco says. Since the recession almost a decade ago, when the unemployment rate rose to 10 percent and dry cleaning became a less essential expense, American culture as it applies to attire and convenience has moved the needle in terms of market need. On a professional, organizational level, this has resulted further education for DLI members in the form of social media courses and tips on app development. Business no longer relies on foot traffic, instead benefiting from a digital footprint, catering to the supposed needs of a younger generation.
Gimmicks and social media presence aren’t what get Katie Ciocca through the door at a mom-and-pop cleaner in Ridgewood, Queens. Instead, quality service draws her there. Once Ciocca began investing in higher-end pieces that she didn’t trust herself to hand wash on her own, she sought out a dry cleaner. The owners now know her by name, and by items in her wardrobe. In New York City, style is a way of branding, she says, so she finds the $50 to $75 she spends monthly on professional cleaning — on everything from T-shirts to denim — a part of the maintenance in keeping up that branding. Quinne Myers, another New York City-based millennial, also sees dry cleaning as necessary upkeep for items like coats and structured dresses. Even though she works from home in a robe most days, it’s an expense that holds true value. “One of my friends didn’t get it — ‘Why do you keep spending money on something you already bought?’ — so I kind of compared it to oil changes for your car,” Myers says.
For people like Myers’s friends, who don’t see the use in dry cleaning or don’t want to risk ruining a prized piece at a potentially dicey cleaner, there’s Rinse, a dry cleaning pickup and drop-off service that acts as a liaison between customer and cleaner. Founded by James Joun, who grew up working in his family dry cleaning business, and his friend Ajay Prakash in 2013, Rinse partners with local small- to medium-sized businesses in five cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, for the cleaning itself. Customers schedule their pickup and drop-off times through an app and Rinse handles the transport. Through an intensive screening process that looks at the company’s owner, plant, and operations, Rinse selects their cleaning partners, helping some underutilized businesses earn new clientele without having to rely on social media strategies or advertising. “The cleaning partners are very good at cleaning once you’re in the door and they get your clothes,” says Prakash. “What they’re less good at is getting customers in the door.”
As far as John Curry is concerned, getting customers in the door isn’t the problem, it’s getting them to leave. The average patron spends around 15 minutes at Curry Dry Cleaners, “which sounds bad,” he says, but is a testament to the community and kinship fostered by the art of cleaning clothes. “It’s nice to be on a personal level rather than a name and a number,” Curry says. “I do think that holds the business for the future; it’s a lot of personal relationships.”