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Dry cleaners look for new wrinkle to stay alive

Industry pressed to offset changes to keep from folding

CHICAGO — Rafiq Karimi, Jr., isn’t about to let anything or anyone get in the way of cleaning clothes.

Not consumers wearing lower-maintenance casual clothes to work. Not retailers selling inexpensive “disposable” fashions. Not smoking bans lessening the need for trips to the cleaners. Certainly not garment-makers replacing silk, wool, and other delicates with cotton and polyester blends that hold up to laundering in standard washing machines. 

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Imelda Abeja uses a hot press on a shirt at the CD One Price Cleaners in Countryside, Ill. As workplaces become more casual and fabrics change to material that can withstand regular washing, the dry cleaning industry is adding services and marketing ploys to stay relevant.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE Enlarge

Hundreds of dry cleaners have closed in the past two decades in Illinois alone, but Mr. Karimi’s CD One Price Cleaners is among those trying to adapt in an industry that, despite a rebounding economy, is shrinking.

Dry-cleaning businesses, from small operators to the 36-store CD One Price Cleaners, are trying several strategies.

They’re marketing other services, such as laundry for a wider array of clothing beyond the usual dress shirts, as well as cleaning rugs and other home goods, and they’re looking for ways to make drop-off and pickup more convenient and faster for consumers. Some are touting environmental credentials, trying to run more efficiently to pass savings onto customers and finding inspiration from strategies used in the restaurant and retail industries.

Dry-cleaning revenues nationwide are expected to drop from $9.1 billion this year to $8.7 billion in 2022, according to a recently published IBISWorld report titled “Machine Wash Only.” Revenues exceeded $10 billion as recently as 2008 and through most of the financial crisis were well over $9 billion.

“Dry cleaning has taken a hit over the last 20 years,” said Sue Kratz, executive director of Illinois Professional Drycleaners & Launderers.

Among the causes for the decline: Stringent environmental regulations have prompted some to leave the industry, and a solvent used by some operators has been considered a possible carcinogen. Immigrants who started dry-cleaning businesses are finding their children want to go into other professions, said Myong Kang, director of Korean operations for St. Louis-based NIE Insurance, which provides coverage to the dry-cleaning industry. New Korean immigrants aren’t generally interested in getting into the dry cleaning business, either, she said.

Gus Bahr, a Chicago-area banker and father of three children ages 16, 15 and 12, said his wife has started working again, which has meant more trips to the dry cleaners with her clothes. Mr. Bahr also takes his dress shirts and his teenage son’s button-down shirts to the cleaners after each wear.

But at his job, he no longer wears a suit for normal working meetings, instead going with a blazer with dark gray dress pants. “That’s a change I’ve made over the past 10 years or so,” Mr. Bahr said.

To make up for lost revenues, at the upcoming Clean Show, an industry conference in Las Vegas, one topic on the agenda is potential partnerships between dry cleaners and laundromats.

The number of dry cleaners offering laundry services has risen in recent years and is expected to grow, said Mary Scalco, chief executive of the Maryland-based Drycleaning & Laundry Institute.

Last year, CD One Price began offering clean-and-fold laundry services at nearly all its Chicago-area stores after piloting it in Minnesota. The company is also offering alterations and is testing a pickup and delivery service.

“We could look at it as a negative that dry cleaning is going down, but the laundry business, which is far greater than dry cleaning ever was or ever will be, is what we’re getting ready for,” Mr. Karimi said.

On a recent morning at a 25-employee CD One Price store in suburban Chicago, the cash register rang up 281 sales between 7 and 10 a.m. for 967 pieces for dry cleaning, and 192 invoices for 796 pieces for laundry — all for same-day services.

Three ironing machines in the store can handle 200 shirts an hour. But to continue to meet the 5 p.m. deadline for same-day pickup, the firm must make an investment that will get that process up to 240 shirts an hour at some of its busier stores.

CD One Price’s stores, most of which are franchised, have average annual revenues of $1.2 million a store. 

Revenues at stores open at least a year have been flat to up slightly, which is one reason why the chain is trying several innovations to stay relevant.

The company also keeps profiles on its customers and, when they visit a store, the register shows the cashier a range of stars from one to five, assigned to that customer, depending on how regular that customer is.

Each customer receives an email after each transaction and is asked to rate the service on a scale of zero to 10.

“CD One Price has grown rapidly using the concept of one low price and high volume,” said Hal Horning, editor of trade publication National Clothesline. 

“CEO Rafiq Karimi thinks cleaners are shooting themselves in the foot by charging too much,” Mr. Horning said.

CD One Price typically charges $3.29 a garment for dry cleaning and $1.79 for laundered shirts. Clean-and-fold laundry typically costs $1.29 a pound.

Smaller dry-cleaning businesses are adapting too, trying to react to changes in the marketplace and to CD One Price’s growing footprint, which, since the start of the year, includes a St. Louis suburb. But some are folding.

Forrest Cleaners in the Chicago neighborhood closed after about 50 years in business, and earlier this year the company filed for bankruptcy.

“People pretty much have wash and wear these days, and don’t get those types of garments anymore” that need dry cleaning, said James Forrest, the son of founder James Forrest, Sr.

Places like CD One Price have changed customers’ perceptions of how much they should be charged for dry cleaning, Mr. Forrest said.

“Everybody has reacted to it,” said Ken Davis, owner of Kenny the Kleener, which has four stores in the Chicago area.

Drop-off laundry, a service he has provided from the start, is a “growing need” for customers, Mr. Davis said.

Mike Bleier, who owns and runs DriveCleaning, a pickup and delivery service, and a two-store chain called Greener Cleaner, has been promoting a mail-order service so environmentally conscious consumers can send him their laundry from as far away as Minnesota, Louisiana, New York, Florida, and Colorado. 

Short-lived was a third store as well as an effort in which he put lockers in buildings. Mr. Bleier said he has been trying services to appeal to building owners, including by setting up discount programs.

“A lot of cleaners are hanging on by a thread,” Mr. Bleier said.

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