I was once at a drycleaner’s store who had a sign in the window:
WE SPECIALIZE IN
Wash & Fold
I chuckled to myself and thought, “I guess this guy has no idea what the word ‘specialize’ means.” It should have read, “We are pleased to offer you all of these services,” or something. Back then, I wasn’t too much of a fan of the “one stop shop.” I know this is not the majority opinion, but I wanted to go to a bakery for baked goods, a florist for flowers, a cobbler for shoe repair, a tailor shop for tailoring, and a haberdasher for clothing. I didn’t always do it because convenience sometimes (read: often) won out over better judgement, but I truly believed that if I wanted the best, I had to deal with someone who specialized in what I wanted to buy. For real.
For the past decade or two, we have been struggling to keep gross revenues up, one way or another. For most of us, our customer lists haven’t shrunk so much as the number of pieces they bring to us, and the amount they spend, has. If only we can get them to spend more!
Enter the other services. It is really hard to be against the idea. Forget about what I used to think. Even if you agree with the concept of “dealing with someone who specializes in what I want to buy,” there is a really smart workaround.
I wear Johnston & Murphy shoes. They offer shoe repair. I think they call it restoration. It is inexpensive, and I liked the idea of sending shoes back to them and getting them back in “like new” condition. I think it cost like $150, but the shoes come back looking great. I later found out that J&M doesn’t recondition the shoes themselves, they use an outside vendor. Oh. Well, I guess that’s okay. I got what I wanted. Let’s get back to this a little later.
Back in my plant days, I had a wholesale shirt facility that processed 18 tons of shirts per week. Nothing else. Almost nothing else. I also refurbished feather pillows with one of those pillow machines that you can buy from Harris Pillow. A few years ago, I bumped into Mike Harris at the Clean Show and told him this story:
“Mike, I have a story to share with you that you can feel free to share with anyone. Many years ago, back in my plant days, the Massachusetts Dept of Worker’s Compensation contacted me for some reason and my rate per $100 came up (maybe that was the reason they called). The rate was high, probably a little under $40. The agent said to me ‘Do you have a laundry, cleaning articles using only water and nothing else’? I responded, ‘Yes.’ [Remember, I was a wholesale shirt launderer, nothing else]. In response to my affirmative answer, he said (remarkably), ‘That’s not the answer I want to hear.’ (It’s still hard for me to believe he said that – state employees are not known for being helpful in my area). I paused for a minute and said, ‘I clean feather using ultra-violet light.’ He said, ‘That’s what I want to hear! Your new rate is $8.14 per $100.”
Wow! Yep, that really happened. That was the best reason ever to diversify! Now don’t quote me on the rates, they differ from state to state; your mileage may differ, but who could have seen that coming? And pillows were a big money-maker for us. Thirty years ago, we wholesaled the pillows for $10, the ticks cost $2 and we paid a clocked-out employee who was good with a sewing machine one dollar each. She did 10-15 pillows per hour which paid her nearly triple her hourly wage. We wrapped them in regular poly.
Wash Dry Fold
I was always a big fan of wash dry fold services, probably because my roots in this business are in the coin laundry business. My gut told me it made sense for your home delivery driver to include that in his realm. I never analyzed it on a P&L. I always left that to the Rex Carrigans and James Peusters. I am particularly fond of the one-price concept where a customer pays, a monthly fee. You launder whatever they can fit into a bag you supply. In theory, you make some extra cash because the bag isn’t always full. Sometimes they send 40 pounds (or whatever size bag you decide is right for you), but sometimes the bag only contains 30 pounds of clothing. To use the simplest possible numbers, let’s say a customer sends you 200 pounds in a month for which they pay you $300; $1.50 per pound. I have seen more than one drycleaner turn that into a much more expensive fiasco than need be. Often, they tend to keep every customer’s laundry separate. This is wasteful and unnecessary.
Let’s say you have five laundry orders; five customers. You have an understandable fear; if these clothes get mixed up, you will lose a customer (probably two customers for every mistake). Fair enough. The counterpoint is: if you take precautions that are so costly the venture doesn’t make any money, why bother in the first place? Frankly if you lose a customer due to a Wash Dry Fold error, and that leads to bad press that ultimately leads to losing drycleaning customers, this has been a bad experience.
Here are some ways to avoid such situations:
Start with brand new laundry nets. No draw-strings, no zippers. Open top, old-school, sturdy laundry nets. You will be replacing them regularly and they should be considered a consumable. They will not last for years. Notice the one pictured is GREEN. You will have five colors; GREEN, blue, red, yellow, white. Notice there is a laundry pin on this net bag. You hate them and are sure they don’t hold. You probably don’t know how to use one unless you bought a gallon of gasoline for less than 40 cents. I could tell you to put on two pins, but that probably won’t help if neither is used properly. Here is what to do: After you have attached the pin as shown, use a RT-200 rope tie (notice the GREEN toggle on the end) below the tie to double-secure the net. Never use a net with holes or one that has been mended. Again, you will be replacing nets regularly. They are consumables. They will not last years. So perhaps you already see a pattern here. GREEN net bag, GREEN Rope Tie. Let’s expand even more…
Take the invoice or work order or whatever you might call it and attach a blank instruction flag to it as shown here. Now, all of the clothes in the GREEN order go into GREEN laundry nets and are secured properly with laundry pins and Rope-Ties. Of course, you will be separating lights and darks and the laundry nets must not be more than half full, which is nowhere near as much clothing as you see in the picture. That picture was taken so you can see the pin. Do not stuff the bags. You’ll see why later. So you can see where I’m going here. Everything about this customer is GREEN. Do the exact same thing with all of the other four customers. Work on one customer at a time. Once the net bags are locked and loaded, feel free to toss them into laundry carts, one cart for lights, one cart for darks.
Tools for the Job
Where you can start making a difference in this business is by utilizing two or three large-capacity washing machines and two or three large-capacity dryers. I have seen these orders go to a drop store that has a coin laundry where the attendant commandeers more than half of the machines in the laundry. I am not exaggerating even a little bit. She will take 12, 13, 15 top-loaders to wash all of these clothes and then 8-10 dryers. If this is done in a drycleaning plant, there may not be that number of machines, so the employee turns this into an 8-10 hour job making it into a cashflow negative proposition.
Here’s how to do it:
The capacity of your washing will determine how much will fit into your machine but don’t let employees determine this. Chances are high they will underload it to pad the timeclock or overload to get that last bag in. Use a scale. When loading the washers, make sure you get all of the nets of one color into the washer before introducing the next order. Got that? If you have three red nets, three blue nets, and three white nets and the washer only holds six nets, be careful not to wash two nets of each color or three nets of one color, two of another and one net of a third. Your only choice is to wash three nets of two colors and run the other afterwards. Sorry if that sounds complicated, it’s just a productivity thing. Meanwhile you will do the same thing with the same color nets for the dark colored clothes, assuming you did the lights first.
For many of you, there is nothing new there – aside from the concept of colors – you know how to wash, it’s the drying that makes you nuts. That’s what I’m here for. A 50-100 pound dryer is good to have here. Your knee-jerk impulse may be to open the nets and tumble the clothes in the dryer. Hold on. Put several bags in the dryer. Remember that you didn’t stuff the bags. There should be about five pounds of dry weight in the bags, so 8-9 bags in a 50 pound dryer would not be unrealistic. Tumble these – lets call it eight bags, for a few minutes while you prepare to complete the GREENorder. The customer’s name really doesn’t mean anything at this point. Everything about this order is GREEN. Get the customer’s delivery bag ready. Remember to only work on one order at a time. Go back to the dryer, open the door and open each GREEN net and let the clothes loose in the dryer along with the other nets of different colors that are par-drying. (That’s a term I borrowed from the kitchen. It means partially drying). Let’s say there are three GREEN nets. Now the garments from those three GREEN nets are free and will dry quickly. Attach the three empty GREEN nets to the door handle of the dryer. This will remind you of the pending order. Do the exact same thing to the dryer with the dark colored clothing, assuming you did the lights first. In the folding area the wash and fold bag awaits with the invoice and the color indicator. Soon the light-colored clothes will be done.
Here is the specific procedure: Open the dryer door and check a couple of thick pieces for moisture. If they are dry, TOSS THEM BACK INTO THE DRYER. Remove the remaining five net bags and place them into a small laundry cart for a moment, making sure that no dry pieces have clung to the net. Now remove the loose pieces from the dryer. Be certain to get everything. These pieces go to the folding area for final processing and packaging. Remove the GREEN nets and rope ties from the dryer door and return them to storage. Return the five net bags you set aside to the dryer, but select another color to remove from the nets and tumble loosely. If you have additional net colors that have been washed but have not yet been par-dried, put them in the dryer now. The light-colored clothes from the GREEN order are now folded and packaged, then the dark-colored clothes follow in the same manner. The secret is to stay organized and stay efficient.
I said I would get back to shoe repair. Johnston & Murphy is a retailer I trust and they advertised shoe restoration for their brand only. Since I trust them, I also trust them to make good decisions with my goods. They didn’t tell me they specialized in shoe repair, they told me they offer this as a service to their customers. They had a path to a service I wasn’t privy to. So, if you “do shoes,” you need a reason why your customer should go to you. J&M has a great reason. The resulting work looks like it came from the factory and the cost, although expensive by one view, is 30% less than new shoes. Most people who “do shoes” in this industry look for a cobbler who will give them a good discount and then the deal is done. This is entirely different than “Thank you for asking about our shoe restoration service. While our service is priced slightly higher than some street corner cobblers, the quality of work is second to none. Please take a moment to look at these before and after photographs. I’m sure you will agree the company we contract with is one of the best shoe restorers in the world. We guarantee our work 100%!” Sure beats the heck out of “Yeah lady, we do shoes. Drop ‘em off today and they’ll be back in about two weeks.”
I got to know a couple of cobblers in town and they would start conversations with me because of the types of shoes I would bring them. More than once, I’ve been told, “It’s a real pleasure to work on shoes that are actually well-constructed rather than what usually comes in here.” What will someone pay to repair $40 shoes from WalMart? Nothing. You can’t replace soles on sneakers. Shoe repair is a dying business. The cobblers I knew are long gone.
Don’t try to do wedding gowns yourself. Make it a fixed cost. You could say, “We have contracted with a firm that does nothing but wedding gowns, thereby assuring quality and expertise, first time, every time.”
If 2020 didn’t teach you to change, nothing will. You do need to diversify, but do it right. Don’t pretend to be a specialist at everything, but remind customers you are the person who is to be trusted in this industry.
Because you are the one to trust, you are smart enough to know you aren’t the best at everything. The most important things are to improve upon the things that you do, make sure you can be profitable at the services that you offer and for the services you use and outside vendor, have a script that every employee memorizes and uses religiously, so ultimately the customer learns it is the smartest decision to patronize you, in spite of the outside vendor.
Don Desrosiers has been in the drycleaning and shirt laundering business since 1978. He is a workflow engineer and a management consultant who provides serves to shirt launderers and drycleaners in the United States, Mexico, and western Europe through Tailwind Systems. He is a member of the Society of Professional Consultants and the 2001 recipient of DLI’s Commitment to Professionalism Award. He can be reached at 186 Narrow Avenue, Westport, MA 02790 or at his office by fax (508) 636-8839; by cell (508) 965-3163; or e-mail at email@example.com. He has a website at www.tailwindsystems.com. The author’s views are his own and do not represent official Drycleaning & Laundry Institute positions.