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Dry cleaners struggle to recover business lost in pandemic

The business world transitioned from tailored suits to yoga pants during the pandemic, which hurt an iconic industry designed to make employees look sharp: dry cleaners.

Some Spokane-area dry cleaners said their businesses have battled – at least one closed – after they faced the reality of the coronavirus shutdown in March of last year.

Those that survived have struggled to regain business as clients shifted from in-office meetings to virtual Zoom conferences at home during the shutdown.

“On March 23, boom, we were shut down,” said Marcie Walling, the manager at Scollard’s Dry Cleaning in Spokane. “The owner and his wife … kept two businesses open. They did what they could to make rent.”

While business picked up after Gov. Jay Inslee allowed more in-office capacity, the demand has not recovered, she said.

“We are getting more casual,” Walling said. “A lot of our industry are teachers. During COVID, more and more people were working at home.”

The same struggle has played out across the nation as dry cleaners emerge from the pandemic with fewer customers, said Dawn Avery, spokeswoman for the National Cleaners Association, based in New York.

“On March 15 last year we went from 100%, many people having the best year of their life, to losing 80% of their business,” Avery said. “I fear 1 in 6 we are going to lose when this all washes through.”

Sher Childs, general manager for Beacon Cleaners which has several Spokane-area locations, said her company lost about 40% of its business during the pandemic and remains down about 25%.

Beacon’s struggles continue even with contracts with Fairchild Air Force Base, local police and firefighters, she said.

“Those contracts have helped us,” Childs said. “We do have a lot of doctors, lawyers and business shirts. So, obviously that was down.”

Like Walling, Childs attributed some of the drop in demand to changing dress patterns.

“My grandfather was a doctor at UCLA. He wore a suit and tie six days a week,” she said. “We don’t wear a lot of the fabrics that our grandparents wore. I think our perceptions of how we dress have changed and the way we need to clean them has changed.”

Avery, whose organization represents about 2,200 dry cleaning businesses nationwide, agreed. She has been reminding clients to emphasize the services that dry cleaners provide that many customers have either forgotten or didn’t know.

“A lot of people don’t know we do outdoor cushions or shoes or alterations. These are things that we have always done, but they may not know that we do them,” she said. “Are we reinventing ourselves again? Yes. As an association, that’s our role to help them.”

Despite the loss of business, one area that had picked up was for shirts and blouses, while orders to clean pants took a nosedive, Avery said.

“Because when you are on Zoom, you dress from the waist up,” she said. “People were wearing nicer blouses with sweat pants because you are not going to know unless you stand up.”

As part of her role as cheerleader, Avery said her organization is pushing social media posts that try to convince customers to return to formal dress.

“Are we more casual? Yes,” she said. “Some people say, ‘I’ve been sitting in yoga pants and T-shirts for a year. I really want to get dressed up.’ We are preaching: ‘It’s kind of fun to get dress up.’”

Covid crush

Walling said Scollard’s was forced to close one of its locations and hours have been cut at others.

“One of our competitors closed down for good. They were M Press (Dry Cleaning),” she said. “We bought their inventory from them.”

In addition to businesspeople changing their patterns of dress, the local market lost other specialty markets, Walling said.

“I didn’t see a lot of graduation gowns,” she said. “Another thing that hits us, we lost all the schools that had choir and band or anything like that this year.”

During the pandemic, some dry cleaners had drivers who branched off to help out in other ways, Avery said.

“It took a minute for people to catch their breath. They realized they could offer hands-free, touchless pick-up and delivery,” Avery said. “We would send drivers to help get groceries, because people needed help. We just jumped in where we were needed.”

But for many dry cleaner owners who already were considering getting out of the business, the pandemic pushed many out of the door, she said.

Avery said the true impact of the pandemic on the industry won’t be known until the moratorium on evictions is lifted. And, some dry cleaners faired better based on local pandemic rules.

“We were deemed essential workers all over the country because we do medical uniforms, doctors coats and police uniforms,” Avery said. “Yet, we didn’t receive the relief dollars that other industries received.”

Despite the losses and changing dress habits, Avery believes the industry will find a way to adapt.

“People are going to start getting married again. We will have proms and homecomings,” she said. “People say we are never going to recover. But, we will.

“People are going to start dressing up more,” Avery continued, “and we will get a different kind of client.”

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