Today, tomorrow and the future?

15 October 2020

Feedback from the industry shows that despite the lifting of the lockdown, the majority of High Street cleaners is struggling with falls in turnover down to 5-25% of pre-lockdown levels. Some businesses have reported a surge when hotels opened up but this welcome increase some say has fallen back, probably because hotels were sending in work held back at the start of the lockdown. Others are opening with limited hours two or three days a week while some have opened and decided to close again. Cleaners who are seeing turnovers exceeding the norm are mainly those who have a diverse range of additional services such as replacement watch batteries, shoe repairs, key cutting, alterations/repairs, a shirt service and, or laundry. For those who are looking to start expanding their range without additional capital cost, consider offering press only and spot cleaning services for customers who are looking to save money or who are reluctant to have their clothes actually cleaned during the pandemic. The outlook I think is particularly bleak for the stand alone dry cleaner or wet cleaner.

As business has started to open up across the country there has now developed the additional uncertainty of localised lockdowns being imposed as the virus reasserts itself in some communities. This is a worrying, though not unexpected development which makes the future, particularly in the short to medium term, very uncertain for us all. While I think some small gradual overall improvement can be expected as more of the middle aged and older sections of the population become more relaxed about venturing out into retail environments, I do not believe there is any real prospect of a return to anything approaching the old normal until such time as an effective vaccine is developed and a large proportion of the population has been immunised.

Even this may turn out to be unduly optimistic as almost one million jobs have been lost since the start of the pandemic while others have returned to work on reduced hours to say nothing of those who have unfortunately fallen into debt during the lockdown. This is a pretty bleak outlook for High Street retail in general and it has now become obvious that many outlets will not survive.

Going forward, I believe the downward trend in the market for drycleaning which has continued since the end of the second world war, will increase, partly driven by the increasing availability of washable personal wear items and the aggressive marketing of wetcleaning systems.

However, I do not believe that water based processing will become the new norm for the High Street, until such time as a safe level of hygiene can be guaranteed for all low temperature water based processing across the High Street sector. The public would not find it acceptable to have their underwear washed at low temperature with the undergarments of strangers and it cannot be assumed that in the absence of any anti bacterial/viral control that, if they were aware of this, they would be comfortable with having their personal wear wet cleaned.

One could argue that this may always have been the case with drycleaning. However, recent independent research by Northumbria University established that cleaning in perchloroethylene does in fact result in good control of a range of pathogens but unfortunately this only applies to perc as the other alternative solvents were not covered by the research.

At this stage in the pandemic it is difficult to see a clear way ahead for the High Street cleaner, but looking on the bright side, I believe that there will be a good and possibly increasing demand, for highly skilled cleaning services capable of dealing with very high value clothing such as wedding gowns, designer garments, curtains and furnishings. These services already located around the UK, generally in large conurbations, are likely in my view to see a gradually increasing demand particularly with regard to postal services as it becomes increasingly difficult to find, within a reasonable commute, a good reliable cleaning service.

NORM BUSTERS: Cleaners seeing turnovers exceeding the norm are mainly those with a diverse range of additional services

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