Small businesses are the cornerstone of the UK economy, and often the lifeblood of innovation and new ideas. From Dyson’s vacuum cleaner to Bayliss’ clockwork radio, there exists a spirit of invention in the UK almost unmatched elsewhere in the world.

Barry and Marilyn Freeman are experienced retail business owners. As past proprietors of a groceries store, a newsagents and an off-licence, new ideas and innovations have always been at the forefront of the Freeman’s plans for their businesses.

The Freeman’s two Smooth-It Ironing Centres—one in Burnley and one in Prestwich, which was the first to open in 1992—have, however, been their greatest successes.

Mr Freeman says: “We began by taking ironing in as an additional service when we owned the newsagents and were surprised by the manner in which it took off. The success we have enjoyed is evidence of ironing centres being a niche and growing business.”

There is little doubt that ironing services are making rapid progress. As more people, and particularly career couples, look to offload the daily household chores and make the most of their increasingly limited leisure time, ironing services are gaining in popularity.

The success of the Smooth-It ironing centres has not, however, been simply down to the adroit assessment of consumer needs by the Freemans. It can also be put down to expert planning, attention to detail and the determination to progress new business ideas—from pricing to marketing to technology innovation.

The Freemans see great potential for ironing centres but feel that for progress to take place there needs to be more communication on issues integral to the success of the industry—such as pricing.

Mrs Freeman said: “Businesses are still underpricing the services they offer and there is no standard method in the industry for setting a price. Some ironing centres weigh the items in a load and some will count the number of items and set a price accordingly.”

The Freemans insist that weighing is the best method of pricing, both for the customer and for the ironing business. Mrs Freeman said: “We installed a set of electronic scales and are currently charging about £1.35 per lb, or £3.80 per kilo of clothing. This is calculated to allow for 30% labour costs, 30% overheads and 30% profits.

Mr Freeman argues, however, that the most important issue that the industry needs to address is staff.

He says: “However big or small your business, you still need people to process the garments. Some staff last for many months, but many last only a few days or weeks. This is because they see limited career prospects in ironing for a living.

“We need to raise the profile of their job by providing training, both in their core skills base and in improving their textile knowledge.

“There is also an image problem with the use of the hand iron which, since being invented has not changed its appearance or its essential design. It is also highly labour intensive and requires the operator to stand for long periods whilst applying a continuous downwards pressure.”

The Freemans undertook a study which showed that during an average day’s processing, an operator will exert about 3.5 tonnes of downwards pressure.

Mr Freeman said: “There is a need to improve the profile of ironing as a career. We recognised three factors integral to the achievement of these aims—elimination of the labour intensity; the development of new technologies; the improvement of skills and knowledge.”

The Freemans recognised that all of these factors revolved around the design of the iron itself and applied for a DTI grant to help finance investment into its redesign.

An investment of £16 000 was required to research and build a prototype machine. The DTI provided 50% (£8000) of the investment and Smooth-It invested the other 50%.

Following a number of meetings and briefings on the design and function of the iron, envisioned by Mr Freeman, an engineering company in Lancashire was employed to build the prototype machine.

The new design, named “Scanpress”, consists of a pneumatically-controlled press attached to a manually-controlled mechanical arm and, says Mr Freeman, combines the flexibility of an iron with the high finishing quality of the traditional press.

He says: “The Scanpress meets the goals we set for its design. It can be operated from a sitting position and its unique floating press head requires no lifting on the part of the operator. It is a high-tech tool which eliminates some of the labour intensity involved in the ironing process and improves perceptions of ironing as a skilled career.”

Not content with the development of the Scanpress, the Freemans have also developed a packaging system which allows customers to collect their garments and get them home whilst preserving the finish.

Mr Freeman established three aims in the design of the RagBag system—a hanger and bag packaging system which is manufactured from card and paper and allows finished shirts to be soft-folded into a briefcase-sized package.

“Firstly the packaging must be appropriate and must preserve the finish. Secondly the packaging must be environmentally-friendly and disposable. Finally, the packaging must be used as an extension of the service brand and carry advertising.”

The Freemans believe that the combination of the RagBag system and the Scanpress improves dramatically the profile of the ironing service both to staff and to customers.

In particular, Mr Freeman sees a role for his innovations in the development of a kiosk style “drop and shop” shirt processing unit, located in a supermarket or a shopping centre.

He says: “Shirts represent about 80-85% of our business and is the growth area. Shirts are today’s uniform and men want to feel that their shirts are crisp to the touch when they put them on in the morning.

“The shirt processing unit must have a stylish image and dynamic design to fit in with the modern world and to appeal, in particular, to professionals looking for a high quality service and with limited time on their hands.”

The kiosk system, says Mr Freeman, must be up front and provide an element of production theatre for the customer. It will also allow customers to develop confidence in the service and to understand and appreciate the skill of the operators.

• Smooth-It has also produced and is selling a comprehensive ironing service operations manual for start-up and existing ironing businesses, as well as drycleaners and laundries looking for add-on business.