Italians have complained all this year that their buying power has been weakened by soaring food and petrol prices, as inflation continues to climb.

The overall figure is forecast to reach 3.5% this year, though the economists think it will ease to 2.9% next year. In May, consumer price inflation was put at 3.7%, its highest level for more than a decade.

There’s more gloom on the government front. The fiscal deficit, the gap between the government’s spending and its revenue, which fell to 1.9% of gross domestic product last year, is expected to rise gradually towards 3% next year.

The growth in gross domestic product itself is thought likely to slow this year and bounce back next year. Yet in the first three months of 2008 it rose by 0.5%.

However, the new right-wing government has said it is preparing an ambitious plan to boost productivity and that has to benefit the laundry and drycleaning industries.

So too must the boom in tourism, the activity on which the industry depends for much of its income.

The number of foreign tourists increased by 17.2% last year and the catering sector is hopeful for this year, despite the strong euro hitting sterling and the dollar particularly, and the chaos in the Campania administrative region, including Naples, where local authorities ran out of landfill sites and rubbish piled up in the streets for months.

Official negative statistics rarely reflect the day-to-day goings-on in Italy. For example, Jensen, the European manufacturer of laundry equipment, reports it is busy, to a large extent thanks to the hospitality sector, creating good rental business.

German laundry equipment manufacturer Kannegiesser registered 20% more sales in Italy this year.

The industry attributes much of its prosperity to the old Italian favourite, tourism. The summer season suffered a setback after rain in May and early June, particularly in the northern resorts, delayed the usual spurt by six or seven weeks.

However, a good winter season at the start of the year compensated for the early summer losses, so that overall the laundries did not suffer.

Carlo Miotto, general sales manager of Imesa, supports the forecasts that 2008 will go down as a profitable year. “Tourism is as good this year as last,” he said from his base near Treviso in the Venice area.

Although there are fewer British and Americans in the Italian resorts this year, the numbers appear to be made up by Russian visitors, says Davide Rotondi, chairman of the Italian distributor of the Ipso brand. “There are more Russians because they are not so price-sensitive. They are coming to Sardinia, the Tuscan coast and the Adriatic coast,” he adds.

However, changes are coming in the sector, says Miotto at Imesa. He points to the rising cost of petrol and growing congestion on the roads, delaying deliveries.

Hotels and even some restaurants are minimising costs and improving efficiency by installing laundries on site. Other hotels located close to one another are making savings by sharing an on-premises laundry.

Focus on hygiene

Another trend is the growth in laundries dealing with the healthcare sector.

Miotto at Imesa also notes the growth in healthcare and says this is another factor contributing to the company’s sales.

Electrolux sees the healthcare sector as fertile ground. Wolf-Markus Frank, sales vice-president, has announced that the company is investing in growing sales in this market.

Frank says: “Electrolux is developing a specific plan to offer not only machines, but also solutions.”

The only gripe that the equipment makers and distributors have is that Italian public bodies and establishments, particularly hospitals and care homes, are slow to pay, sometimes taking up to three years.

A recent development in the workwear market is working to the advantage of laundries and their suppliers.

More companies now have to provide workwear for their employees, and the garments have to be cleaned by specialised laundries.

Clement Salvaggio, Jensen’s western Europe sales director, said: “The workwear market, which has been quiet in recent years, is now very lively. A lot of rental laundries that were previously not interested are showing an interest.”

Kannegiesser’s focus on helping laundries improve their efficiency is being applied to the handling of workwear. Equipment that is labour-efficient is especially acceptable, so the company reports that it is concentrating on logistics inside the laundry, as well as automation. This has led to innovative transporting and sorting systems for workwear.

At present only 4 or 5% of Italian workers are supplied with workwear, but Giovanni Sacchi, of Kannegiesser, Italy predicts considerable growth in this area in future.

Generally, there is consolidation in the Italian laundry sector, though it is not clear whether this will benefit the manufacturers. Enlarged companies can streamline their business by closing branches, which can reduce the number of customers for equipment.

On the other hand, they may wish to modernise and replace ageing machines.

Jensen’s Salvaggio observes that large groups are buying the smaller laundries, or at least their healthcare activities.

Kannegiesser’s Sacchi sees similar trends in the hospitality sector.

If consolidation is a threat to business, the Italians’ insistence on quality is good news. Wim Demeyer, export director of the Belgian manufacturer Lapauw, is pleased to say his company is still selling its machines in Italy because laundries have high quality in their sights. He said confidently: “Business at present is steady and demand for quality will stimulate it.”

Rich pickings must lie ahead in a few years’ time in northern Italy.

Thousands of hotels are being planned in the Lombardia region to accommodate visitors to the 2015 Universal Exhibition. This year Milan won the bidding to host the economic and cultural extravaganza, which promises a flood of business and trading.

The growth in the number of coin-operated laundries is another factor that could boost sales.

Coin-operated laundries are now beginning to appear in Italian shopping streets and centres.

Jordi Bosch, European sales manager of the Spanish Girbau company, believes there is only small growth, but Ipso’s Rotondi is more upbeat. “The numbers are growing,” he said. “We have supplied 50 so far this year.”

Drycleaners are adapting

Even the drycleaners, reports Miotto, are adapting their shops so that they can be used as coin-ops in the evening. Electrolux predicts the present growth will continue for up to five more years. Miotto recalls that even ten years ago, coin-op laundries were limited mainly to university towns, as they offered students a convenient way to launder their clothes. Now families, who often live in small flats, and the growing number of singles are also turning to coin-op shops. The coin-op is cheaper than the commercial laundry and any areas where savings can be made are welcomed.

Economic impact

The social and economic impacts are certainly continuing to be felt by the drycleaners. The shops are still closing, though precise figures are impossible to obtain. There were 40,000 in 1990 and about 20,000 in 2005. The present figure seems to be barely 17,000.

Miotto forecasts the eventual number will be 10,000. Gabriele Cuppini, sales director of Union, the Italian manufacturer, thinks an ideal number would be 13,000.

Falling sales caused by an n increase in washable clothes and rising costs are all having an effect, but there are a few signs of innovation to attract business.

Delivery is one tactic. “It helps a little,” says Roberto Grandi, sales manager at the Italian manufacturer Realstar. The move to wet cleaning is another of the attempts by shops to retain their popularity. Most of the shops are now also operating a shirt service. “This brings in business,” said Cuppini, “but not a lot.”

Replacement sales

From the manufacturers’ point of view there is some hope of sales growth from the surviving drycleaners. Grandi points out that many machines are due for replacement and he is expecting a better second half of 2008. So he is optimistic about the next few years, even if the number of shops continues to fall.

A development predicted by Rotondi is that many of the shops will be bought by the big companies and small cleaning factories will be created.

Something similar is expected by Marco Niccolini, export director of Renzacci, the manufacturer in central Italy. With some optimism he says business is steady but he thinks the shops will have to provide a general cleaning service of washing and drycleaning.

“They need to be flexible to deal with new types of cloth,” he said.

Angry at rumours

Niccolini, however, is about angry rumour-mongers who say that the drycleaners’ machines will not be permitted under European law. This, he says, is just not true, but those who spread inaccurate information could harm the trade further.

Cuppini, meanwhile, considers the sector is still good but finds the small shop owners are not good managers. They need to improve their image and market their services better. They also need a better representative organisation to help them to sharpen up their business. “I am pushing the professional associations to do more for them,” he said.

As part of this campaign, Union is holding a convention in October when the company will encourage the trade bodies to give more guidance and help to individual businesses. The equipment makers will wish him success.