Here, Ken Cupitt of the Guild of Cleaners and Launderers gives his own personal take on the extreme situation experienced by all sectors of the industry. He stresses his views are his own and not necessarily those of the Guild

Our industry has just gone through 10 months of Hell, never before experienced by any previous generation, with revenues being squeezed through seemingly never-ending lockdowns changing the way of working for many and putting in jeopardy the earning power of others.

Government-led initiatives have provided some financial benefits but whole swathes of the business community have been left out, putting businesses, and the lively hood of their dependents at a severe risk.

For the vast number of the populace in work generally, we see a change from working in central locations turned around to working from home in tune with the mantra from politicians. Commuting is frowned upon in favour of social distancing, but this has all taken its toll in bringing down, in most cases very seriously, the revenue-earning stream of businesses in laundry and retail drycleaning.

One major result of this has been the effect on UKFT, the trade body representing the fashion industry, which for the past three years has looked after the association business for the retail sector but is now regretfully unable to continue to do this after, said the organisation, losing around three quarters of its drycleaning membership. This means that there is no longer anyone managing the drycleaning arbitration and mediation service which was set up by the then TSA many years ago and inherited by the UKFT. Does this matter you may ask?

Well, just wait, drycleaners, until you have a claim when you dispute levels of fault or value of items then you will find that Trading Standards authorities relied on these services for guidance on settlements.

Commercial laundries

Larger scale commercial laundries, serviced by the Textile Services Association (TSA), have fared no better with hospitality launderers, serving the nations hotels and restaurants, having seen their revenues fall dramatically because their customers are no longer there. Yes, drycleaners and launderers are exempt businesses from the lockdown orders, being deemed an essential service, but this means nothing if the customer is not there to provide the income to keep the business going.

If restaurants and hotels are closed, linen is not being used and people are not on the High Street because shops are closed, there is no point in the drycleaner being open if there are no customers coming through the door. If people are not at work because they now work from home, they do not see the need to have professionally cleaned clothes.

There is also the failure to recognise the importance of the industry in the supply chain with the Government not having a dedicated Minister for Hospitality, especially given its importance to the annual income of the country in the years ahead when we will have to pay back the money doled out to keep the economy and its people going.

In the healthcare sector, the TSA has tried hard to persuade the Government to use reusable gowns, the shortage of which caused such a crisis in the early days of Covid-19. This, for the UK Government was a massive error, because our industry could have provided a valuable backup service in the early days when PPE was in such short supply by washing and turning around in short cycles, but with only single use items specified and purchased, this was made impossible.

Now, we have the vaccine, or three vaccines and maybe more still to come, and the promise that when delivered to most of the population we will at last beat the virus. Well, the fight is certainly still not over and when it is how serious will be the damage to our industry?

I am not sure that continuing working from home will be as universally popular as some think because human beings are social animals and many who worked exclusively from home were already practicing a hybrid of some days in the office and the rest of the week at home (at least until the third lockdown). Zoom type meetings have become extremely popular over the past year and these will certainly continue because they can save thousands of pounds annually for a business and make it more efficient by keeping employees working longer at their job rather than undertaking a long commute to an office or meeting. These people will still have a need for suits to be cleaned and shirts to be washed.

The continuation of meetings over the internet may have an effect on hotels in our major cities, which will mean fewer sheets and towels to wash, but I think this will quickly be balanced by people taking more leisure breaks as the economy improves.

Post pandemic

Looking ‘through a glass darkly’, what sort of industry will we have post-pandemic? Some businesses will not have survived because the cash help made available either did not reach them because they fell outside of the rules or it proved insufficient to provide adequate cash flow to cover all commitments. This gap in the market will be quickly taken up by those who have survived and are eager to replenish their now near-empty coffers. Business debts, however, will have risen over the course of the pandemic and these will have to be paid back but we will still have an industry and we will have a market to serve.

Not all the population, pre-pandemic, used our services and following the ‘all clear’ there is no reason to believe this will change. Some laundries with the high standards required will pick up the re-usable gowns business within our hospitals, but profit margins will be tight and maybe the pressure to return to single use PPE will prevail.

Drycleaning has been under pressure to maintain volumes since the smoking ban following the Health Act in 2006 but even this coincided with the surge in the use of polyester fibre in clothing making home washing and finishing much easier. Central heating in homes also had an impact on the amount of clothes worn as well as the weight of fabrics. However, not all the population shopped with drycleaners and as dressed up days became less popular the occasional trip to the cleaners was also less frequent. Dress down days are now very popular and acceptable even by politicians, many of whom like to be seen without a tie which is seen to be a ‘man of the people’ statement without carrying a placard.

Lessons to be learned

Will our industry learn any lessons from what has happened over the past year? One thing is certain, if you do not support your trade association it cannot survive and will no longer be there to help in your time of need.

One thing that has become popular, and the buying public will not wish to give up, is home delivery and our retail sector, if not already satisfying this requirement, may have to adopt, or buy in to, some form of home collection and delivery.

Quality of service will always be of paramount importance and being in the ‘clean’ business we should practice what we preach and provide a level of service equal to the task, with articles free from stains, well finished and returned on time. The end of the pandemic will see a return of the social human with opportunities to dress up and dine and be seen with people, to visit other towns and cities and, of course, stay in hotels.

Will the change to more use of polyester type fabrics impact on the long-term viability of textile care businesses surviving the pandemic? There will be more pressure to slow down the use of synthetics to avoid the over pollution by micro plastics and there will be more pressure to use clothing for longer than we have become accustomed to. Which will help those drycleaners who set themselves up to provide the right type of service.

At the same time, the public wants a life beyond washing and ironing. And although there will always be a section of the population that will not be able to afford to pay for these services, the well-off will want our services, just as they always did.

Let’s see how our industry fares when the vaccine has been successfully rolled out.