Signs of the Covid-19 times28 September 2020
Things aren’t going too well for the retail drycleaning/wetcleaning sector in the UK as lockdown rules gradually relax. There may well be a gleam of light but it’s a long way away. Kathy Bowry reports
It is encouraging to see that the UK national mainstream press has finally picked up on the trials and tribulations facing the textile care industry – in this particular instance, those of drycleaners. On Sunday, 19 July, The Sunday Times published a feature by Liam Kelly, its enterprise consultant, which chronicled the experiences of three leading drycleaning businesses since the pandemic hit.
In the article, Julian Stone, founder of American Dry Cleaning Company which has 42 outlets in London, likened the sight of empty streets as he drove around the capital visiting his shops to “a ghost town” and said it conjured up scenes from Danny Boyles apocalyptic horror film ‘28 Days Later’.
He told Kelly:“Drycleaning is driven by socialising, going to eat out, international travel, parties — all of that has come to a halt.” He finds it “difficult to be optimistic”.
He explained that drycleaners are particularly hard hit as City workers travailing at home don’t have the need for five shirts to be washed and ironed professionally every week and how “couples and families are no longer going out to restaurants, big family birthday parties, weddings, Ascot, Wimbledon or other social summer events – all valuable sources of income for Britain’s more than 4,000 drycleaning firms - has also hit the trade”.
Although drycleaners were classed as an essential service, and allowed to stay open during lockdown many, including Stone shut and took furlough money under the Job Retention Scheme, reported Kelly.
However, as Stone told LCNi: “We have been closed from mid-March and reopened 1 June. We are currently open just 25 hours per week compared with 70 last year. With no going to work, parties, restaurants or international travel the service that we provide has fallen off a cliff. The difficulty currently is, with such low turnover versus this time last year, juggling how many colleagues to bring back from furlough.
“The biggest challenge was to bring our landlords back down to earth with their expectations of rent. It was as if they had been on a trip to Mars and just landed back on Earth and demanding full rent. Most of our landlords, say 70%, have now started to wake up and smell the coffee, entering into accommodative agreements as set out by the Government Code of Practice for Commercial Property by providing rent waivers, and reductions of rents for a six -to nine-month period. Interestingly, the larger landlords such as pension funds have no interest in engaging in any discussions on rent reductions, or deferments what so ever. We will just have to wait and see how this pans out.
“Another challenge is to convince your bank that you have no business, and you require a large CBIL to allow you to trade through the economic tsunami. This required a lot of convincing, too.” Nevertheless, he said: “We are holding up. The best thing is to soldier on, provide excellent quality and service to your customers, and stick to your principles of business.”
Meanwhile, in Nottingham, Adrian Redgate kept National Dry Cleaners open throughout lockdown to help the elderly customers who use his laundry services. He told The Sunday Times that with a trickle of people bringing in winter coats and duvets to be cleaned, sales were down 90% between April and June. “Even if you ran a business badly, you wouldn’t lose all your customers that quickly,” he says. “Until people start getting back to work on a regular basis, it will be hard for us to pick up again,” he said.
And it’s not much cheerier for national high street chain Johnson Cleaners*, where owner James Timpson told The Sunday Times that drycleaning sales had halved and that “there is nothing we can do but offer a really good service - and hold our nerve”.
LCNi subsequently caught up with James Timpson for further comment and he says: “Sales are terrible. Terrible. Down 50% and that hurts in a business with high costs and low margins. However, we are hopeful that over time things will improve.” As for whether customer dependency on drycleaning itself will change in the future due to learned behaviours during lockdown and the move to home working he said demand is driven by a mix of work and social interaction and much may depend on whether office people go back to work full time or maybe just two or three days a week. “But social events should go back to normal and there will be plenty of weddings next year, even if not immediately.”
Shaf Govind, who owns CRDN which specialises in textile resoration in the UK and globally, has some words of encouragement. “The advance of wetleaning makes it a great add on service for existing operators, with the correct training these systems work very well. Diversification, such as adding additional services – pickup and delivery, commercial work, lockers, restoration, wash and fold, and laundry/linen services are some suggestions to consider.”
He adds: “The proven systems of CRDN have turned out to be resilient over these difficult times and have shown a marginal difference in sales helping our franchises maintain their business models when others have struggled. Visit email@example.com to find out about becoming a franchisee.”
Feedback from independent retail shops indicates just 10-15% of business is being done compared with this period last year although there may be regional variations. Some reported a small surge as lockdown lifted but turnover has fallen back again. However, some cleaners do have some hotel work. Concern has also been expressed about new learned behaviour in lockdown as clients find ways of cleaning clothestthemselves. And to top it all, cleaners are having to contend with uncollected stock on the rails as customers prioritise other payments.