Breathing new life into high street businesses25 October 2023
Reports of the total demise of drycleaning are premature, according to Ken Cupitt of the Guild of Cleaners and Launderers, but the sector does need
On 26 September 2021 The Express published a story entitled “Dry cleaning businesses ‘washed up’ after turnover loss in the pandemic” in which Dominik Lemanski wrote: “Scores of drycleaning businesses have been left in ruins after the industry lost almost half its £190 million annual turnover during the Covid 19 pandemic when almost 40%, or around 2,000 of the 4,400 outlets across the country, had closed or were likely to cease trading - leading to a loss of 15,000 jobs”.
The reason given, as we in the industry already knew to our cost, was the lack of commuters travelling to city centre offices during Covid lockdowns which devastated the traditional retail drycleaning and shirt laundering market, leaving many businesses unable to afford their rents. The change in working habits left pre- Covid levels of trade unlikely to return making our type of businesses unviable for many owners.
You will remember that during lockdowns we were allowed to stay open as we were judged an essential service but effectively there weren’t any customers, and you could say the industry then probably lost almost half (£95million) of its turnover. Sadly, 20-25% of outlets closed within the two years following the outbreak, but fortunately not the 40% prediction of The Express.*
The problem at that time was the change in working habits and the lack of a need for formal office wear which had a huge impact. However, there were some success stories because cleaners who could, took in domestic laundry, and this trend increased along with other laundry services, bringing additional trade. Also, wedding dresses came back as people began having formal marriage services again, although formal wear cleaning was down for a long time.
Sadly, many UK businesses have continued to endure severe financial hardship, firstly because of the many lockdowns, and secondly over the past year, the increases in energy prices.
There have been some huge contrasts: lockdowns which saw most of the regular customers staying away, followed by the easing of restrictions prompting an inrush of household goods: cushion covers, curtains and rugs as people had been using their time at home to do some spring cleaning.
Now social engagements are back in people’s diaries and gatherings are recommencing, so customers expect to look their best again whereas, stuck at home all the time, personal appearance was far less important. There is also a gradual return to working in offices again, albeit part-time in many cases, and the resumption of face-to-face meetings rather than those impersonal virtual gathering over the internet.
Many cleaners have now returned to extended opening hours to cope with the increase in trade and added customer convenience with an introduction of a collection-and-delivery service to increase their area coverage.
Throughout the world the number of drycleaning establishments is diminishing, and the decline is not only due to Covid-19 but has also been a trend since the turn of the century. It is now 16 years since the law in the UK was changed to ban smoking in enclosed spaces and this increased the reduction in clothes being drycleaned, mainly because they no longer smell of smoke. The problem here is the clothes are still dirty, but now no longer smell bad.
In the USA Bloomberg, which provides financial software tools and enterprise applications such as analytics and equity trading platform, plus data services, pointed out in late 2022: “It’s not just the pandemic’s fault that drycleaning establishments are on the decline” because from the first quarter of 2001, to the first quarter of 2022, the number of drycleaning and laundry service establishments decreased from 27,204 to 16,497, and this is according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the fourth quarter of 2019, just before the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of establishments was 18,756, compared to 17,722 a year later.
There are industrial and social reasons for this slow decline as polyester, nylon, acrylic, and other synthetic fibres, all of which are forms of plastic, are now about 60% of the material that makes up our clothes worldwide, and these in the main are easy care ‘wash at home fabrics’.
However, there is a trend that the fashionconscious wearer now prefers garments that contain more natural fibres – wools, cottons, linens and silks – and these fabrics require professional cleaning and finishing.
There are 50% more women in the workforce today, and this percentage continues to grow and both men and women require the professional services of a drycleaner because today’s hectic lifestyle dictates that we do not have time to clean and finish our clothes at home. Add to this a whole list of popular exotic foods and beverages (plus paint) that make devastatingly horrible stains that only professional cleaners can remove, such as, curry, blood, saffron, turmeric, sun-dried tomatoes, teriyaki sauce, extra virgin olive oil, red wine, paint, and pesto, which are the 10 most common stains left on clothes.
Another workable plus for drycleaners is the fact that modern houses have little space for a washing machine let alone a tumble dryer, which further benefits the drycleaner.
As with all high-street based businesses the hours are what you want them to be. However, if you’re not open early and late and open on Saturdays then you’re unlikely to do well. People expect to drop off their clothes in the morning and pick them up after work. They also expect to be able to drop off on a Saturday and pick up on a Saturday.
Additionally, drycleaning is also one of those industries where traditionally you pay after the work is done, and that can either be the next day, next week or when the user remembers to come and pick up the garments, therefore it’s wise to put in place a cut-off point at which you can sell the items that are there after a certain time period, and between 60-90 days is normal.
In addition to just providing pure drycleaning there are lots of other valueadded services a business can consider with the addition of a few industrial designed conventional washers and dryers can add even further revenue to your business. Service washes are traditionally normally the preserve of the launderette but an upmarket service wash, like a shirt-laundering service, can also complement your business. You can also add additional specialist cleaning areas like curtain cleaning, duvets, leather and suede, wedding gowns, waxed jackets and things like garment repairs and alterations.
If a cleaner is considering the purchase of an industrial grade washing machine it is worth considering a professional wetcleaning machine because it will extend your range of services for duvets and wedding dresses, although wetcleaning has its place at present has not replaced traditional drycleaning as the skill set to operate successfully a wetcleaning service, on every day garments, is very high, and the time taken to produce the work is longer than solvent drycleaning.
Solvents in cleaning are essential and over the past decade, the cost to the UK drycleaning sector of drycleaning solvent is estimated at approximately 2% to 2.5% of turnover, and their use poses potential environmental hazards and is strictly regulated with a legal responsibility to have some sort of effective solvent management plan to conserve solvent.
Members of the Guild of Cleaners and Launderers (for information visit https:// gcl.org.uk/ ) have free access to the ‘Solv Calc’ system which is recognised by the regulation authorities and automatically builds up to the annual report for submission by the Solvent Emissions Directive (EC/13/1999), still accepted by the UK, requiring drycleaning activities to meet a total emission limit of 20g of solvent emitted per each kg of product cleaned.