Equipment can help drycleaners slash labor costs and streamline workflows, but tech tools and careful management are just as important to operations.
By Ian P. Murphy
Let’s face it: Drycleaning is — and always will be — a labor-intensive business. Unless every article of clothing somehow stops attracting dirt and/or wrinkling, it will require the attention of a garment care professional.
But labor costs money. And any drycleaner worth his or her (water-soluble) salt knows this is the first place to create efficiencies that can actually cut costs. That’s why many are looking to new equipment and streamlined workflow strategies to save on costs and increase profits.
Having the latest and greatest equipment is no guarantee that a plant operates efficiently, though. “Years ago, you could afford to pay minimal attention to productivity, because volume forgave a lot of our sins,” said consultant Don Desrosiers, president of Tailwind Shirt Systems. “This is no longer true.
“You must be poised to make money on every piece,” he said. “If you don’t, you will run out of pieces to process before you run out of bills to pay. Even with automated assembly, you need somebody to look at the garment. It’s a labor-intensive business that requires the skill set of a human being.”
Equipped for Efficiency
Some equipment options that emerged in the industry over the last decade have helped streamline operations. For example, tensioning equipment has earned a spot on almost every plant’s production floor by helping operators deliver a reliable level of quality with minimum training.
“Tensioning equipment has become almost standard these days when it comes to buying new equipment,” said Brian Johnson, DLI’s Director of Education and Analysis. “At the very least, plants can put out a good quality product at the same speed, while cutting training time in half.”
Bar coding systems, which automate and streamline garment tracking and assembly, have also become entrenched in drycleaning plants. About 30 percent of the students in any given DLI class use bar codes in their home plants, Johnson estimated. “People swear by bar coding,” he said. “They say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done.”
“We scan the garment everywhere it goes,” said Dan Miller, CEO of Mulberrys Garment Care, an operation with 16 locations in Minneapolis and San Francisco. “Doing so forces you to see any waste that’s occurring and limits the amount of errors. You can see very quickly if something is off-course.”
To track employee productivity at the counter, some operations now use cameras and audio equipment, Johnson said. MW Cleaners, in Spring, Texas, for example, keeps counter procedures consistent and courteous by monitoring in-store audio. Cameras can also reveal who’s slacking with their smart phone.
Automatic bagging equipment can eliminate a staff position for many plants and reduce poly waste, Johnson said, and improvements to pressing equipment such as sandwich leggers can help deliver a productivity boost. But many new technologies haven’t “spread like wildfire,” he said.
Why? Operators “go to the Clean Show and buy a pants press that promises 60 pairs per hour, and it does 25,” Desrosiers said. “Without training or follow-up, you’re not going to get to 60. You get 25 pairs because that’s all you manage for. The key is to learn to manage your business and run it like a business.”
Measure and Manage
Measuring productivity is the first step toward that goal. Systems such as Wesvic’s PieceCounter, Tailwind’s Profit Maximizer, and the management functions included in many point-of-sale systems can help operators figure out what kind of throughput they’re getting, what kind of throughput is achievable, and what each piece ultimately costs.
“The most important technique Mulberrys uses is data tracking,” Miller says. “ProductionTrac in Spot tracks how many garments each presser completes throughout the day. We measure pieces per operator hour (PPOH), cost per piece, and what labor costs. It prevents things from spiraling out of hand, and also gives us a chance to steadily and continuously get better.”
Mulberrys has tested new workflows using the same measurements, and tweaked or abandoned them based on the results. “You’ll almost always see a little decline at first, because people aren’t used to a new procedure. But you can find out if that’s just a blip,” Miller said. “It’s good to know if you’ve made a mistake, or if you’ve stumbled on something that actually improves productivity.”
Using “lean” manufacturing techniques to reduce wasteful steps, Mulberrys uses a trolley system to move clothing around the plant instead of Z-racks, and an automated assembly and bagging system to reduce garment jostling. Plants also employ automated storage conveyors to sort clothing by route stop and set the most efficient routes through the POS system. “We track productivity and cost metrics every day, and continuously strive to drive them down,” Miller said.
On the production floor, half the battle is keeping staffers supplied with a steady stream of garments to process. If three pressers can finish 100 garments in three hours, “That’s great!” Desrosiers said. “The next hour, they do 10. Why? Because there were only 10 pieces to press. That crew could come in an hour later, and get the same amount of work done.”
A new software company is also helping streamline workflows while it drives business. Starchup supplies client operators with a branded mobile app and websites that customers can use to place, track, and pay for drycleaning orders, while helping operators attract and engage customers and manage delivery service.
“Internet technology provides unprecedented abilities for businesses to connect with customers and identify and use data to improve operations, and today’s customer expects a high level of communication and service,” said Starchup CEO Nick Chapleau. “Customers love the direct communication with their cleaner.”
Cleaners manage orders and customer relationships using an online dashboard. The app provides customers with e-mail and text alerts about order status, and places a delivery manifest on drivers’ phones that optimizes their routes.
“Direct communication with the customer via email and SMS increases efficiency,” Chapleau said. “Starchup users can send an automated notification to route customers the day before their pickup to remind them, and give them the opportunity to opt out.
“We have seen operators implementing these notifications increase pickups dramatically beginning with the first week of use, and on average, reducing missed pickups by 20 to 40 percent per day,” Chapleau said. “In cost savings alone, Starchup delivers, on average, $600 per month savings in the form of fewer hours spent on the road, fewer miles driven, and less gas and maintenance.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to greater efficiency; what works in one plant may backfire on another. “The trend in Japan over the last decade has been to move away from automation in favor of more traditional tagging and assembly,” Desrosiers said, and a few stateside operators have followed suit (pun intended) by abandoning bar codes.
Equipment solutions can often seem so promising that operators put the cart before the horse, Desrosiers said. One client bought a franchise location and wanted to install bar coding and automated assembly immediately. “He needed to learn the business and get more out of his employees,” he said. Another monitored the tire pressure in his vans to conserve fuel, but also employed 19 more staffers than necessary.
“Some plants are so high-tech that cleaning is almost an afterthought,” Desrosiers said. “I like modernization—it’s cool; it’s slick. But labor savings are way better. Systems don’t run businesses; managers run businesses. Managing people and systems is a component of success.
“Everybody wants that magic bullet,” he said. “Plant owners think that somewhere out there is a golden goose that will be the secret to profitability. It only exists in effective, quality, skilled management. Absent management, nothing happens.”
Ian P. Murphy is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. He served as the editor of American Drycleaner magazine from 1999–2011.