Does a shirt-laundering service offer a huge potential for growth for the independent high street cleaner? According to some in the industry, more and more drycleaners are looking to offer a laundry service as an add-on to what they already provide.

By offering an add-on such as a shirt service, the general cleaning business also benefits, as customers who come in regularly for their shirts may take up other cleaning services. And yet shirts can be something of a problem area for cleaners. There are few items that are as labour-intensive and as difficult to finish to a professional standard as a shirt.

All of which requires some careful decision-making by the business concerned. Should the outlet invest in dedicated shirt finishing equipment? Should it employ additional staff to use an ironing table? Just what volumes are needed to warrant the investment required to provide a professional service?

According to Andy Lambert of Firbimatic UK, shirt processing can be a very profitable adjunct to normal drycleaning turnover. He says that once cleaners have volumes of more than 250 shirts per week, this equipment becomes a realistic proposition.

For drycleaners and launderers looking to expand their business by offering a shirt laundering service or simply looking to replace existing machinery, Lambert points to the Barbanti 481 shirt finisher and the P510 collar and cuffer. These units are capable of finishing 40 shirts an hour with consistent results every time, he says.

For ease of operation, the finisher is computer controlled and offers nine programs to give ultimate flexibility in the type of shirts processed. Because any shirt machine has a lot of moving parts it is important that the computer has a built in self-diagnostic system where all the inputs and outputs of the machine can be checked automatically so any fault can be isolated immediately before an engineer is even called out. The Barbanti has this feature.

The shirt is held in position by vacuum until the front and rear padded clamps are positioned by photoelectric sensors and activated by foot control.

The full height front clamp is then activated to ensure a perfectly clamped shirt. Automatic sleeve height adjustment along with internal and external cuff clamps are then used to hold the sleeves at the correct height to ensure a crease free underarm.

The P510 collar and cuff press can be simply operated. Both cuffs and collar are held on the padded buck by vacuum and then two buttons are pressed simultaneously, bringing the head down. Using this method prevents an operator’s hands being accidentally trapped under the bucks and, as a secondary precaution, there is also a safety frame around the head. The Barbanti P510 has both heated head and buck, which gives a quick cycle time along with a quality finish to both collar and cuffs.

The units come in both all-electric and steam versions, with the steam version being capable of finishing both wet and dry shirts.

“The key to the successful operation of shirt units is in the commissioning of the unit from new and the operator training given,” explains Lambert. “To enable you to get the best possible results all the Barbanti units supplied by Firbimatic UK are commissioned and fine-tuned by factory-trained engineers.”

Superior finish

In the UK, using a shirt service is perhaps not yet regarded as the norm as it is in, for example, the USA. It is perhaps the lack of consistency in the actual finish that is perhaps keeping demand in check. After all, if people are being asked to pay for a “professional” finish to their shirts, they expect a result that is superior to what they can achieve at home.

Colin Hill, managing director of the Blue Dragon group of drycleaners, says that if a shop is going to offer a shirt service, it needs to decide from the start whether it is going to go the low cost or high quality route. His view is that it would be wrong to regard shirts as a loss leader. “In some respects, drycleaning a suit is far more straightforward than providing a high quality professional shirt finishing service, which can be far more time-consuming,” he says.

Blue Dragon does not provide a dedicated shirt service; rather the shirts are seen as an integral part of the group’s overall domestic laundry and drycleaning service. The company presently handles around 800-900 shirts a week from customers in the group’s operational area, which is based upon seven shops, all located around Buckinghamshire and Middlesex, and a north London branch at Mill Hill.

Three delivery vans pick up domestic laundry that is left at the drycleaning shops and take the items to the group’s laundry facility at Hillingdon.

There the shirts are finished on one of two BMM Weston shirt finishers at the unit. “We have not deliberately marketed a shirt service, although we may look to pushing this more next year.”

According to Tony Dickens of BMM Weston, the market for shirt services has a great deal of potential. At a time when the drycleaning sector is under pressure, the shirt market is one of definite growth. He believes that more drycleaners are looking to add a laundry service .

The reason, he argues, is simple; a shirt customer is likely to come into the shop on a far more regular basis, maybe once a week, compared with the average drycleaning customer who is only likely to call in every few weeks or so. Being known for offering a shirt service will build up a regular customer base – and customers might also bring in drycleaning more regularly.

Loyalty is a key element in developing the shirt service. It is a lifestyle choice, providing a service to a section of the population that can afford to pay someone to do the work for them. “Busy people do not want to spend their leisure hours ironing” says Dickens.

However there are pronounced regional differences, with shirt services found mainly in the south-east, London and M25 areas. “We have now put in more than 200 machines, 180 in and around the M25. So far we have installed only two in Manchester, and none in Leeds or Liverpool for example. We see further development in the metropolitan areas in future.”

So what should a cleaner be looking at to become involved in this sector? Dickens says that a unit should be offering a completely pressed, quality finish. Prices can vary, from the heavily discounted 99p up to a premium service in central London charging around £4.60. “In my experience, the average is around £1.80”, he says. “With that type of pricing, a unit should be looking at around 500 shirts a week for a viable service.”

He gave one example of a drycleaner that branched out into laundry and shirt services. Taking over the shop next door, the cleaner installed laundry equipment including a shirt machine and return feed ironer.

BMM Weston is the only UK-based manufacturer of pass through and return ironers, presses and tunnel finishers. The company is also the UK agent for Unica, the Belgium-based manufacturer of washer extractors, and for USA-based Unipress and its range of shirt finishing equipment.

Renzacci UK is another supplier that regards shirt laundering service as a tremendous growth area. According to Jason Alexander: “Shirt laundering services have gone from strength to strength in the past couple of years, but it is still a market offering huge potential for growth especially amongst the independent high street sector. Cleaners that introduce shirt services can find that their general cleaning business also benefits as customers who come in regularly for their shirts take up other services.”

He explains that in the past processing shirts meant either investing in a large, expensive shirt machine or relying on ironing boards with resultant high labour outlays and no guarantee of consistency between operators. Faced with that choice many cleaners decided however much they might like to operate a specialist shirt service that it simply wasn’t a realistic proposition.

“Now we’re able to offer shirt finishing technology on a size and price scale that will make it desirable for cleaners dealing with up to 1,000-plus shirts per week, as well as businesses that are just entering the market and looking for a unit capable of expanding with their changing needs.”

Renzacci UK’s compact range from Pony is a system that is described as affordable, easy to use and has a great deal of flexibility.

Pony’s equipment allows the drycleaner or launderer to finish up to 45 shirts per hour to an exceptional standard . With running costs of less than £1 per hour, the Pony MG402 shirt former and CCPV collar and cuff press offers a versatile and quick way of processing all types of shirts.

The MG402 features fully programmable microprocessor control with a capacity of 100 programs, complete with cycle-counters. The microprocessor provides the operator with all the necessary information about the cycle, while also allowing the option of adjusting these pre-programmable times for steam, steam/air/blowing with warm air (according to the residual moisture content of the garment to be finished for centrifuged shirts or according to the cloth quality for new shirts) and for the addition of cold air at the end of the cycle. Users can also operate the unit manually, bypassing the microprocessor programs. Additional features include pneumatically operated shoulder width and automatic release of the garment when the cycle is finished to speed up garment unloading.

A trolley fitted with a photoelectric cell automatically aligns of the rear paddle with the lower shirt edge, allowing the operator to dress the shirt quickly and easily. Front and rear paddles are pneumatic while the counter paddle incorporates both suction and heating to fix and dry the shirt centre line.

The sleeve tensioner is fitted with pneumatic clamps, which are fully adjustable according to size, including a short sleeve option.

Renzacci’s shirt-finishing range also includes the MG397 and MGC397 which can finish both shirts, jackets and coats, and the MG399 designed exclusively for shirts with the added advantage of a vacuum centre line clamp and automatic adjustable shaping.

The size of the former bag can be adjusted pneumatically and results have proved to be exceptional, the company claims.

“The results speak for themselves. Once you have experienced the speed, efficiency and all-around quality of a Pony-finished shirt there really is no going back to a hand iron,” comments Alexander.

“In fact, when you compare the quality to the traditional high-speed, polished-buck shirt units available, and then compare the price of the Pony unit, which is about a third of the cost and in addition costs substantially less to install, you really are looking at a system which is both affordable, profitable and consistently delivering results.”

Equipment can be either be purchased outright or via one of the company’s tailor-made finance packages.

Combining services

One company that is successfully combining shirts with its existing cleaning services is White Knight Laundry Services. White Knight, perhaps best known for providing workwear rental and laundry services to hotels, restaurants and industrial businesses throughout the south-east, also operates a very successful domestic drycleaning and laundry service based out of Woking in Surrey that serves households via its franchise network.

According to Robert Adams, director of franchising at White Knight, shirts form an integral part of the overall door-to-door laundry collection and delivery service.

Adams does not see White Knight as competing directly with the high street cleaner. “I believe there is room for smaller high street operators as well as a business like ourselves,” he says. “For example, the small cleaner will be able to offer a same-day service which is something we cannot do, while we can provide a value-added quality service that is extremely competitive on rates.”

Flexibility is seen as a major factor in developing the domestic business. Shirts can be collected once a week and cleaned to order together with other items at the Woking laundry. “We are not offering a same-day service but turnaround is reliable and on time,” he says. “It would be hard to find a service that is comparable in size and quality that does not charge a premium rate.”

“Take a customer who wants to take items in to be drycleaned,” he continues.

“Instead of a customer having to spend time trying to drop items off at a high street cleaner, we tell the customer we can clean and return those items directly to their door at a time that suits them.” A Saturday delivery and evening service is also available.

An ironing service is provided for a minimum of five shirts. The shirts can be finished to the customers’ requirements, on presses or hand pressed, with ironing to collars and cuffs where required.

They are then bagged and wrapped and can be returned to the customer either folded or hung, depending upon preference. The finished laundry is wrapped in tissue bearing the White Knight logo.

Convenience also is also a recurring theme when talking to Stuart Tofts, the co-founder of Oxford-based drycleaners Purple Label. In anticipation of what he believes will be “strong growth in personal laundry”, the company is offering a 48hour door-to-door laundry and ironing service, including a shirt service. Shirt laundering is charged at £1.95, with ironing and pressing £1.50; for folded, the prices are £2.50 and £1.95 respectively.

Tofts and partner Louise Evans have successfully applied the principles they learned while working in IT to develop a high quality laundry and drycleaning collection service for the area’s major business centres.

“Modern lifestyles mean people are time-poor. They may not have time to visit high street drycleaners, and are unlikely to want to spend their weekends doing laundry. Yet they are part of generation that is interested in fashion and who care about their appearance,” says Tofts.

A drycleaning and laundry business may seem a strange choice of career move, given that the IT industry was perhaps notorious for its code of “dressing down” with jeans and sweatshirts in the office, but even there, a shift in mood is apparent. “People are now looking for a smarter appearance, a more business-like approach” says Tofts. “They like to dress in fashionable clothes, both for the office and for casual wear. We are providing a professional service for people who want to care for their favourite clothes.”

Based in Oxford’s Milton Park, home to what is said to be Europe’s second largest multi-user business park, Purple Label can delivers its services to all the business parks in the Oxford and Abingdon area.

Though the couple operate a shop unit in Oxford, they feel it is not a core part of the business, and the important element has been setting up the logistics to collect and return clients’ clothes cleaned at the end of the same day or the next day.