Fine garment care: It's not solely about the dry cleaning machine or solvent

The notion is absurd

Every few weeks, I receive a call from someone who's considering opening a dry cleaner.

Typically, they begin the conversation by asking if dry cleaning is a "good" business.

In most cases, the conversation abruptly ends after I briefly explain the harsh realities of ordinary dry cleaning -- significant capital investment; competition at every major intersection; customers who have no clue about quality garment care but who, nonetheless, demand "quality" work at a competitive price on short turnaround; customers who will defect to the competition at the first sight of a coupon or special; a dearth of skilled labor; long hours; etc.

I could go on and on.

For those who are more persistent, they quickly zero in on one issue:

That's like a Food Network fan -- who has always fantasized about opening a restaurant but has no training beyond some rudimentary home cooking -- asking about the "best" restaurant equipment and the "best" supplier of meat, seafood and produce.

Whenever I'm asked about dry cleaning machines or solvents and fluids, I typically short circuit the conversation by first asking the inquirer a few simple questions:

  • Who are his target clients?
  • Where do his target customers buy their garments?
  • What level of investment do his target clients have in their wardrobes?
  • What are their turnaround demands?
  • How sensitive are they to price?
  • What level of skills will be necessary to deliver the quality of product those clients demand?

I always explain that the answers to these questions will dictate the "best" dry cleaning machine and the "best" solvent or fluid to use.

Unfortunately, the typical response is that they'll be targeting the broadest possible customer base by offering a "quality product, competitive prices, fast turnaround and friendly service" -- the same "me-too" strategy followed by the overwhelming majority of dry cleaners. And the fastest route to operating a mediocre dry cleaning establishment.

It's never - solely - about machines and solvents

Just like true quality food is never solely about equipment or supplies, true quality garment care is never solely about the dry cleaning machine or the dry cleaning solvent or fluid.

Rather, true quality garment care is about the entire chain of tasks -- dozens of very specific tasks -- that collectively constitutes the "garment care process."

Broadly speaking, these tasks include the following:

  • initial inspection
  • preparation prior to pre-spotting and cleaning
  • pre-spotting
  • cleaning in a dry cleaning machine
  • hand ironing
  • inspection
  • repairing
  • packaging.

You'll notice that the dry cleaning machine (and how it's programmed and operated) and the dry cleaning solvent or fluid is just a small part of the entire process.

By way of analogy, think about a bicycle wheel with many spokes. All the spokes in the wheel must be present and perfectly calibrated for the wheel to turn in optimum fashion.

True quality garment care is no different.

So the next time you hear a dry cleaner tell you that they only use ABC dry cleaning machines and that they only use XYZ solvents or fluids, please remember that the "very best" dry cleaning machine coupled with "very best" dry cleaning solvent or fluid will never -- by itself --  produce true quality cleaning.

That's why it's critical that the dry cleaning machine and the dry cleaning solvent or fluid be carefully integrated into the entire chain of tasks.

We know how to integrate machines and solvents into the garment care process

Over 35 years ago, I made a decision to serve -- and only serve -- what is generally referred to as the "high-end market."

That decision dictated who our target clients are. That decision dictated our turnaround time. That decision dictated our pricing structure. That decision dictated the level of technical skills required to serve that clientele and their garment care needs. That decision dictated the size and layout of our facility. And that decision dictated the dry cleaning machines we needed and the dry cleaning fluid we use.

In other words, every decision -- including our choice of dry cleaning machines and solvents or fluids -- is dictated by the clientele we serve and their garment care needs.

It's just that simple. And that complicated.

So here's my advise to those individuals who are considering opening a dry cleaner: Before you select a dry cleaning machine or a solvent/fluid, decide what you want to be when you grow up -- a value (discount) cleaner, an ordinary (middle market) cleaner, a wannabe (illusion) cleaner or an extraordinary (true quality) cleaner.

There's an old proverb that goes like this: When you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there.