Side hustles operators can consider to help shore up their bottom lines as the pandemic’s impact subsides
By Ian P. Murphy
The initial coronavirus lockdowns hit drycleaners hard last year. Business dropped 40% to 50% for most operators as people suddenly retreated into their homes. People who were able to keep their jobs did them at a distance, rarely making the effort to dress professionally for Zoom calls.
Some of that drycleaning business returned as restrictions eased. But the pandemic has made an indelible impact on the way people communicate and work. The casual workplace is now the rule, and dressing for the office is the exception to it.
Many businesses have shut their doors for good, and if yours isn’t positioned to maintain piececounts and attract new customers, it may soon become another casualty of the coronavirus. But what can operators do to keep their plants buzzing and their bottom lines stable?
There are a number of extensions to a drycleaner’s core offerings that don’t require a big investment to bring in new work — or new kinds of work. Here are a few suggestions that have proven effective for operators looking to shore up their shops.
Lock and Load
Lockers have long been an option for after-hours or 24/7 dropoff and pickup at drycleaners’ physical locations, and they are increasingly seen as a good way for operators to expand their reach without a new route, store or plant. And in pandemic times, lockers are an attractive option for consumers looking to get their clothing cleaned with little one-on-one contact.
Apartment buildings, colleges and universities, offices, grocery stores and gas stations may be good options for a locker installation, said Breezy Laundry Lockers. Operators only need about $1,000 per location to get started, and the company offers assistance in scouting and vetting potential locations.
Given the proper marketing support — on-site promotion, decals, brochures, online advertising and an attractive website that converts customers — a locker location can pay for itself in just a few months. Installations can bring in $500–$3,000 per month, depending on the operator’s services, pricepoints and margins.
“A drycleaner will do better in a large apartment building where their lockers are in plain view of a lot of working professionals,” said Dan Stoof, director of Breezy Laundry Lockers. “A laundromat that offers wash-and-fold might be better off installing lockers at a university.”
Breezy helps operators develop pitches and proposals for building owners, and will assist with writing contracts, too. Many landlords will set aside a few square feet rent-free. “It’s important to have things legally binding and professionally locked down,” Stoof said. “Breezy can provide a sample agreement that defines whether you connect to the building utilities and so on.”
The steel lockers come in several configurations and feature automatic door closures, RFID locks, keypads, and a POS interface. Customers can drop off, pick up and pay for their orders seamlessly via mobile app. “The main benefit is convenience,” Stoof said. “Customers can avoid a trip to the store. They make a payment online and get their receipt via email.”
If the Shoe Fits
Drycleaners are used to maintaining tailored garments. But another long-lasting, often expensive part of the professional wardrobe is being neglected as skilled cobblers disappear from American cities. “It’s a craft, and it’s an art,” said Carroll Kelly, operator of the Austin, Texas-based Shoe Hospital family of companies. “But if the old man doing it dies, nobody takes over.”
While the company previously offered wholesale shoe repair services to drycleaners nationwide, its new Cobblers Direct division is launching a self-service kiosk system to make it even easier to offer cleaning and repair for shoes, purses and other leather goods to customers with little to no training or investment required.
The aim is to give plants a turnkey business that complements their main offerings and brings foot traffic through the door. “Everyone is fighting Amazon,” Kelly said. “Retailers are looking to get people into the store with services. They want foot traffic — something to separate them from the competition.”
Under the direction of COO Stephen Kelly, the next generation of the 115-year-old business, Cobblers Direct will install a self-service kiosk — basically a 42-inch iPad — in a drycleaner’s counter service area. Based on customer inputs, the kiosk will produce a diagnosis and preorder confirmation; the customer will then hand the shoes to the attendant, and the cleaner will ship them to the processing facility.
“When we receive the shoes, we do a courtesy call and a phone consult for the customer,” the younger Kelly said. “We talk them through the process and give them the pricing, do the work and give them back to the drycleaner.”
The system hopes to avoid the “disconnect” that used to occur when a drycleaner would accept shoes for service without a thorough knowledge of the process. “Shoe repair is an amazing opportunity, but you can’t take it for granted,” Stephen Kelly said. “It is a complicated service; you’d better know what you’re doing.”
Under the old system, customer disappointments didn’t reflect well on the middleman. “Drycleaners don’t want to lose a drycleaning customer to a shoe repair job,” Carroll Kelly said. “If the strap on a $5,000 Gucci purse breaks, the customer has to be told that it will look just a little bit repaired when they get it back. We have the best technicians in the world, but we have to manage expectations. It’s underpromise, overdeliver all day long.”
All a drycleaner needs to get started is an electrical outlet and reliable Wi-Fi service. Cobblers Direct will provide mailers, marketing materials and online advertising to push people to partner locations. Once set up, the drycleaner will receive a check at the end of each month for their help.
“Al the drycleaner needs to do is be the drop-off location,” Stephen Kelly said. “The cleaner gets foot traffic, plus a monthly royalty — mailbox money — for hosting a kiosk. It’s a great opportunity to cross-sell. It’s the fries to the hamburger.”
Visit CobblersDirect.com to learn more.
On a smaller scale, Lakeland, Florida-based Garment Care Pros offers shoe cleaning and repair in partnership with a local cobbler. About half of the company’s business is pickup and delivery, so customers appreciate the convenience of throwing their shoes and leather goods into a bag with soiled garments and getting them cleaned and returned together.
“It’s another one of those things that requires two trips,” said CEO and former DLI president Greg Myers. “We can offer a better service model. [The cobbler] is happy to pay us a percentage because his services are more accessible. In fact, some of his regular customers use our delivery service rather than go to his store because it is more convenient.”
The Road More Traveled
Pickup and delivery has grown substantially over the last couple of decades as drycleaners sought to bring added conveniences to the customer. One could argue that cleaners were the original disruptors, bringing new convenience to consumers long before the likes of Amazon, DoorDash or InstaCart. And since the emergence of COVID, route service’s importance to the business has been firmly cemented.
“The bottom line is that the whole world has gone to pick up and delivery,” said James Peuster, aka The Route Pro. “Why? Because convenience is king. No matter how you slice it, consumers will always prefer more time to themselves than going to a drycleaner twice. Add the COVID factor, and you can easily build a route.”
Route service is a relatively expensive diversification option to launch, though, since it requires at least one vehicle and a knowledgeable, reliable driver. That said, the cost is often much less than building, maintaining and staffing a dry store, and routes can keep the machines in the back of the plant full.
“You need to get a van, marketing pieces and bags,” Peuster said. “The sales and marketing is where you decide how aggressive you want to be. We recommend starting with a smaller van at first. Go with nice marketing pieces that explain the service simply. Bags need to have your name and contact info on them.”
The competitive advantage comes when door-to-door service outstrips the available walk-in options. Operators can make inroads in new developments and areas where competitors don’t have convenient routes or stores. Depending upon a plant’s capacity and capabilities, the drycleaner can service commercial accounts such as hotels and restaurants simultaneously.
Route services are now well-established in many markets, however. “If you are late to the party, you need to get going now to increase your chances,” Peuster said. “What you look for is the amount of stores that are still in your market and divide that number by three. That’s how many vans you can get. If each van averages $6,000 per week … you do the math.”
Visit www.theroutepro.com for more information on Peuster’s consulting service.
Coming Out in the Wash
COVID accelerated the country’s long slide into everyday casual. “How many people are really dressing up? I used to dress up to go to the doctor or travel. These days, you wear the slouchiest thing you can,” said Rita Foley, operator of Regency and White Star Cleaners in Durham, North Carolina. “We need to access that market.”
So what can a drycleaner do? Laundry. Wash/dry/fold is providing proactive operators with a largely untapped market that’s another logical yin to drycleaning’s yang. “We do it because at the end of the day, we are in the textile business,” said Lou D’Autorio, COO of Sage Cleaners in Tampa Bay, Florida.
Sage added wash/dry/fold just ahead of the COVID crisis last year and took a 75% hit to total piececounts as soon as the country went on lockdown. Total piececounts are now only down about 20% from a year ago, D’Autorio said, “and a lot of that is wash/dry/fold.”
To get started, an operation needs a washer, a dryer and a pair of hands. “It is very doable, either with additional equipment or used equipment,” Foley said. “You might have to bring in one or two stack dryers or partner with a local laundromat. Wash/dry/fold is a simple process, and if you bring in five bags a week, that’s five bags you aren’t doing now.”
Brand and promote the service to let people know why they should use it. Sage uses Facebook advertising, emphasizing its professional washers’ complete disinfection capabilities as well as convenience. In-store displays show a branded tote with neatly packaged laundry to give customers a visual of the end product.
“The demand is there,” D’Autorio said. “I look at [Florida’s] Hillsborough County: There are probably 1 million homes here, and maybe 10% are regular drycleaning customers. But with wash/dry/fold, there are a million homes I could go after. The pot is so much bigger.”
Commercial accounts can be lucrative, too. Sage services the local outlets of a massage and wellness chain, while Regency and White Star maintain contracts with local universities and hospitals. Regency and White Star offer retail customers the option of a laundry subscription service, and the is seeing wash/dry/fold grow 3% to 5% per year.
Wash-and-and fold doesn’t add a lot to labor costs, and offers good profitability if the operator allows it. “Don’t be afraid to price it as a premium product,” D’Autorio said. “You want to stay away from the 99-cent shirt mentality. This is a luxury, and you should price it that way. If you don’t add this to your repertoire, you’re going to be one of the ones who don’t survive.”
The Preservation Society
What if you had a wedding and nobody came? You’d still get all dressed up and take pictures, even if you had to scale back the number of guests to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. And perhaps as a result, wedding gown preservation has proven to be surprisingly salable in spite of the pandemic.
“One of our members told us his gross before the pandemic was about $24,000 per week,” said Sally Lorensen Conant, operator of the Association of Wedding Gown Specialists (AWGS) and Orange Restoration Labs in Orange, Connecticut. “His average dropped to about $12,000 per week, and then he had a $16,000 week. The increase was totally due to wedding gowns.”
“Wedding gowns require more expertise then shirts, suits, skirts and blouses,” notes Michael Schapiro, operator of Wedding Gown Preservation Co. in Endicott, New York. But most drycleaners already have the space, equipment, and products to process wedding gowns, he said, so the pandemic slowdown presents the perfect opportunity to learn and add the service. “Cleaning and preserving wedding gowns takes a lot of time. When cleaners are slow, they have the time to work on gowns.”
Whether you process gowns and other keepsake garments as one of AWGS’ Certified Wedding Gown Specialists or outsource the work, gown restoration is a prestige service that can lend your operation legitimacy as well as bring in revenues you might not otherwise enjoy. People are still getting married, and the average ticket on a single gown preservation is $400 and up.
“The value of a wedding gown can range between $1,000 and $ 20,000,” Shapiro said. “Knowing the value of the gown and charging appropriately is very important. The higher the risk, the higher your retail cost should be.”
Offering gown service means you are in the “perfect” business, Lorensen Conant said, but that doesn’t mean easy. Instead, it means getting everything right, cleaning and preserving the gown for posterity, and becoming an integral part of a bride’s memories.
Shapiro suggests flyering outgoing orders to promote gown service, and appearing at local bridal shows once social distancing strictures are relaxed. AWGS adds that an online presence is important to putting its members in front of brides and their wedding planners. “Marketing today is almost all digital, and for many cleaners, that is the hard part,” Lorensen Conant said. “They know how to clean and run a good operation, but they lack an effective website and waste money advertising in venues that do not target wedding couples.”
“[Husband and partner] Rogers and I can relate to drycleaners whose business has taken a pandemic nosedive,” she adds. “Thirty years ago when he was a banker and I was an art historian, we suddenly found ourselves jobless. Long story short, we bought a laundromat with an 18-lb. drycleaning machine. Wedding gowns were the most interesting and profitable service it offered, so we decided to focus on gowns.”
For more information, visit weddinggownspecialists.com.
Ian P. Murphy is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago.