The past 12 months have not been the easiest for many businesses in the UK retail sector. On a world scale, worry and concern over the unknown implications of a war with Iraq have had a devastating effect on the global economy. Closer to home, we have seen the beginning of rising inflation, falling house prices and less money being spent in the nation’s high streets.

Scarcely surprising

When examined against such a backdrop, it is scarcely surprising ­ indeed, would be astonishing ­ if there were many companies in the UK laundry and cleaning industries that could truthfully say that business had been booming.

This has certainly been the perception of Colin Hill of the Blue Dragon group of drycleaners. Blue Dragon is a chain of six unit shops and one receiving shop at its factory, all located around Buckinghamshire and Middlesex except for a London branch in Mill Hill.

“The high street is not as busy as it was 12 or 18 months ago,” Colin says. “The uncertainty in the Middle East has put people off cleaning their clothes as often as they used to do. Instead of having a business suit cleaned once a month, say, that suit may now only be cleaned once every six weeks.”

Colin’s perception is very much supported by the performance of Blue Dragon’s Mill Hill shop.

Mill Hill is one of the more affluent areas of north London and, according to Colin, most of the customers using this outlet are stockbroker/investor type people. Although trade has picked up since Easter, the last year has been hard work.

Blue Dragon is a company that prides itself on offering a quality service. The company ethos does not encompass the type of offers promoted in many independent outlets ­ four garments cleaned for £9.99, for example ­ and a lot of its work comes from regular customers.

According to Colin: “In the past 12 months, we have concentrated on letting people know exactly what we can do. We have good customer relations and offer a good quality service.”

Drycleaning profits are below what had been hoped, but the company also offers a laundry service and this has remained pretty steady. The domestic side may be slightly down, but the commercial side has been booming.

Fresh ideas

Nevertheless, the company is facing the future on a positive note. Colin has a lot of ideas in the pipeline. Two examples: he plans to introduce new, preferential services, and he is having the shopfronts redesigned to create more of an impact.

And, as he points out, a lot of drycleaners opened up over the past few years and many of them must be struggling. If the current climate was to put a few of the “cowboys” out of business that might not be such a bad thing for the industry.

Meanwhile, keeping turnover as high as possible has been the main priority for the Barker Group over the past year, according to managing director Matthew Barker.

Anthony A Barker is a name little known in the high street, yet this company, formed some 25 years ago, is now one of the largest suppliers of domestic laundry services for the drycleaning industry in this country.

In 1978 the company bought a run-down laundry in Bournemouth that supplied laundry and linen rental services to many local hotels and restaurants. With his background, Anthony Barker knew that drycleaners were unable to provide their customers with a reliable hand-finished laundry service as well as drycleaning. With this in mind, he set out to provide this guaranteed service.

Nowadays, the company, run by Anthony’s son Matthew, supplies customers over a catchment area encompassing southern England and Greater London.

In addition to the laundry, the Barker group also owns a chain of five drycleaner outlets in the Bournemouth/Dorset area.

Profits through training

According to Matthew, the most important thing by far for maximising profits is staff training. It is vital that staff thoroughly know the products and so can give customers exactly what they require.

Again, this is another company that does not want to go down the road of bringing in volume at a very cheap cost.

“We offer a high-class service,” Matthew says. “We do not do offers as we prefer to put emphasis on retaining the loyalty of existing customers.”

With this in mind, the company in the past two months has launched the Barker card. This is a loyalty card scheme. To join, customers buy an annual membership for £10 and, in return, receive a 10% discount on Barker products and services. They also get discounts at 37 other services providers ­ such as local restaurants, taxis and retailers ­ and a smart garment cover for transporting clothes between their homes and Barkers.

“The intention of the scheme is to give value for money,” Matthew explains. “We wish to provide a marketplace

for people who want quality and

service. By introducing the Barker card, we hope to encourage regulars to offer

it to their friends and, in this way, go out to a wider market.”

It’s early days for the loyalty scheme, of course, but the group has certainly been growing and appears less affected by the current difficult trading climate than other outlets, in London especially.

“The Bournemouth area is one of great resident wealth,” says Matthew. “It is a very good area of the country and does not seem to have suffered from the economic conditions experienced elsewhere. We haven’t seen any drops in turnover, rather a modest growth in the past two years particularly.”

Nevertheless, by his admission, being able to actively sell its own domestic laundry service has been very beneficial to the bottom line. Most of the company’s laundry work used to come from outside Dorset. Now, about 50% is locally derived.

Electronic answer

From the large scale to the smaller, computerised tills have been the answer to maximising profitability for Lee’s Drycleaners, a family-run outlet in Rainford.

According to owner, Tony Lee, “We have definitely seen an increase in turnover since we installed the system. The prices at the machine are standard for everybody. All the members of staff know them so there is no discrepancy.

“There could be two or three prices for a particular type of garment, depending on the services required by the customer. With this in place, staff do not need to wonder what to charge.”

The EPOS system definitely increases the speed of service at the counter at Lee’s and by linking a conveyor garment rail to the till, Tony says he has been able to save on the expense of one of the counter staff.

The storing of information electronically assists with keeping a check on all the items of work coming into the shop and how much has gone out. It aids accounting, produces management reports and provides opportunities for increasing profitability through targeted marketing of services.

“We run a very efficient unit shop,” says Tony. The EPOS/garment rail certainly improves the flow of work.

Lee’s takes pride in maintaining a good workflow, and prefers to tackle jobs as soon as they come into the shop.

“I can’t understand shops where the staff ask when an item is wanted, and then maybe don’t clean it until just before it is needed. What if a boiler breaks down or something happens?”

Nevertheless, for every success story, there is little doubt that many drycleaner outlets are struggling. The traditional high streets outlets are disappearing fast, squeezed out in favour of out-of-town shopping malls with their lower rents and easier access for shoppers’ vehicles.

The fact of the matter is that it is irrelevant how attractive a shop’s décor is, how efficient the staff, and what offers and services are available, if customers can’t get to the shop during the week because of the long hours they are working and then can’t park nearby at the weekend. Moreover, it is difficult to see what extra the shop owner can offer that will entice.

So what is the future? If a lot of customers can’t get to the shop then the shop can go to its customers.

All Hours Drycleaners is a London-based company that has taken up the gauntlet. In addition to outlets in Willesden and Clerkenwell, the company now offers a pick-up and delivery drycleaning service throughout the London area. The customer can access and print off a detailed order form and price list from the company’s website, then simply calls the company to make suitable arrangements. The downside is that the service comes at a premium, and the prices may be too high for widespread appeal.

Internet route

On a greater scale, Johnson the Cleaners is another company that is going down the internet route too. It is linking up with Pressing Matters to create a new concept of franchises that offer ironing linked with drycleaning as a door-to-door service.

Customers contact the company over the internet and can arrange to have their laundry collected for ironing, and work to be taken to a nearby branch of Johnsons to be drycleaned. This is collected from and returned to the customers’ homes at convenient times to fit in with work and leisure commitments. The delivery service will be free and prices are said to be comparable to shop ones.

At present, the service is only available in limited areas. But as the concept grows, more franchisees will open up. So it may not be too far in the future before the service becomes widespread.

So, is the internet the death knell for drycleaning outlets as we know them? Probably as much so as it has proved to be for supermarkets. Internet shopping might be the way of the future, but while shopping is the major pastime for a large percentage of the population, it still has a very long way to go.