In a competitive market, cleaners need to be proactive in seeking additional business. Tapping into a range of specialised skills to provide customers with services outside the shop’s normal range can give the business a competitive edge.

In 1997 Barry Barker, a drycleaner with 30 years experience and a chain of shops that cleaned suede and leather as well as standard items saw a gap for a business that could the provide the drycleaning trade with this kind of expertise. With his son Justin, he set up the present business.

Today,from its base near Hatfield, Herts, Sovereign Specialist Cleaners serves some 1000 independents and also has a contract with a major supermarket.

There are around four other suede and leather specialists, but Sovereign claims to be alone in the extent of its range and in offering a nationwide service with weekly delivery.

The business itself operates 24-hours-a -day and, with the exception of invisible mending, processes all work in-house.

Services include suede and leather, repairs and alterations, rewaxing, wedding dresses, “F” cleans, rugs and carpets. It also gains a competitive edge with niche areas such as duvet and eiderdown re-covering and a service for horse blankets that attracts business from stables and racecourses. A £500,000 investment in expansion has already begun and the business has taken over the adjacent premises, giving it a total of 9000sq ft.

Expert team

Substantial investment has gone into staff. Earlier this year Howard Bradley, one of LCN’s Drycleaners of the Year in 1997, joined as technical consultant working alongside Phil Lafferty one of the country’s foremost suede and leather processing experts. This strengthens an already strong team, with Barry Barker and Matt Hannigan, an expert finisher of skins and textiles, who has worked with Barry some 21 years. Barry calls us his “golden nuggets” jokes Howard Bradley and he says that between them the team scores over 150 years experience of the drycleaning business.

The company is taking on 11 extra staff including specialist silk finishers, pressers, office staff and in the key area of customer services. It is expanding its delivery fleet.

Investment in staff will include training and Howard Bradley plans to introduce the Guild’s Q-Star scheme. Building up its services is also part of the plan. A key element in Howard Bradley’s role will be to establish a garment analysis service.

The company is investing in equipment with new perc and hydrocarbon machines and extending the washer-extractor line.

Sovereign has also started a more pro-active marketing programme. Howard Bradley believes there is a need to “educate” the consumer about drycleaning and the specialist services on offer. That in turn may well mean “educating the cleaner” by pointing out areas which could increase profitability.

As a prime example, many cleaners fail to realise the full potential of a wedding and ball-gown service and often undercharge. He explains that a proper charge does not mean “ripping the customer off” simply that pricing should be more realistic. An average wedding dress costs around £1500 and cleaners should be able to charge around 10% of the gown’s price.

He wants cleaners to sell a full “heirlooming” service. This means that once cleaned, dresses need to be correctly stored. Standard packaging material can be slightly acidic. Polythene can also lead to acid formation over the longer term as moisture forms beneath. Such conditions can cause yellowing, particularly with natural fabrics such as silk and cotton.

Sovereign can supply a box with an acid-free chamber made of neutralised materials, a method approved by museum archivists.

The wedding-dress service will eventually be built into a separate section with a dedicated drycleaning machine and will be promoted with specially commissioned leaflets. Howard himself will supervise the processing of each dress that comes in.

The pillow-clean service will also receive special attention and a leaflet is already available explaining the need to clean bedding regularly to destroy the dustmites which cause around 75% of all allergic problems.

Pillows are particularly difficult to launder. Sovereign removes the feathers and puts them in a chamber where they are sterilised under ultravoilet light. The feathers are then put into a brand new pillow tick.

As technical consultant, Howard Bradley’s role also includes advising cleaners on processing. The company produces a 17-page operational manual which he describes as “ a friend on the counter.” He sees a need to look carefully at the whole drycleaning process and offers personal advice on suede and leather processing.

“I cannot emphasise strongly enough that when you clean a suede or leather you need to think of the whole cycle from taking in the item at the counter to packaging it in polyrobe as one process. Every part of that process can bear on another.”

Under promise

In suede and leather processing in particular, he says that cleaners should always “under promise and over deliver”.

When cleaners have accepted an item, they should consider the most suitable option before proceeding further. Check for care labelling, check any trimming. Test the looseness of the colour if necessary.

Try to remove stains prior to cleaning, but do not forget the effects spotting agents can have on dyes and oils. If in doubt test, test and test again.

Having chosen the process and classified the load, any additional processes, such as impregnation of oils, should be accurately monitored and measured and must always be applied at the correct time in the cycle. However good the cleaning , poor finishing and presentation will let the service down. Post-cleaning care can involve re-oiling, re-tinting, mist spraying, water atomisation or a combination of all of these. It will also include polishing, brushing and reshaping the item on heated bucks and formers. This last part is vital if the correct size and shape of the item is to be restored. People often think that the drycleaner’s service starts and stops at cleaning, but the service starts at the counter and ends only when the customer departs with the finished garment.

One of the strengths of the specialist cleaner is the expertise to judge finely the process needed for each individual item and the access to a wider range of specialist equipment.

Sovereign can employ perc and hydrocarbon drycleaning, wetcleaning and laundering as well as more specialised machines such as the UV sterilising unit, and a Bane spray-extraction system for rugs and carpets. It has a full range of finishing equipment including that for leathers and skins.

It is in this light that Howard Bradley looks at the emerging technologies. On a personal note he feels that Green Earth may have potential, although he is less sure about carbon dioxide, but it’s maintaining the choice of processes that really matters.