First, it’s the smell.
Walk into any Mulberrys Garment Care and the air is filled with subtle notes of ginger and rosewater, not the ether-like odor of dry-cleaning fluid.
Mulberrys, with six locations in the Twin Cities and a North Loop location opening next month, represents a new direction for an industry that’s shrinking like cashmere in hot water.
In Minnesota, the number of dry cleaners has fallen even though sales rose modestly from 2015 to 2017, the Minnesota Dry Cleaners Association says. Nationally, what is now a $9 billion industry is expected to decline to $7.8 billion by 2022, says IBISWorld, a market researcher in Los Angeles.
To survive, says Dan Miller, founder of Mulberrys, “You have to re-imagine the whole experience. Every single touch point has to be different and better.”
At Mulberrys, that means an app for pickup and delivery, an appealing store with free coffee, dog treats, candy for kids, wood hangers instead of wire and environmentally friendly operations. “No perc, chlorine, phosphates, perfumes or dyes,” Miller said. He also plans to install a closed-loop water reclamation system in two locations, including Roseville.
The main reason for the makeover of the dry-cleaning industry is that people simply don’t dress as formally as they used to for work and social functions. “Sometimes, I’m the only one in church wearing a suit,” said Dart Poach, president of Don’s Leather Cleaning in Minneapolis.
Americans are buying easy-care clothes made of cotton and synthetic fibers instead of wool, silk and linen. And clothes made from delicate fabrics can sometimes be cleaned at home with dry-cleaning substitutes such as Dryel.
In 1995, there were 350 operating plants in Minnesota. Now there are 130. One plant might be doing the cleaning of 20 stores, Poach said. In the metro area, some dry-cleaning businesses that were nearly a century old have recently closed, including Cambridge Laundry & Cleaners in Cambridge, Peter Pan Dry Cleaners in Minneapolis and Sweeney’s Cleaners and Stoltz Dry Cleaners in St. Paul.
“People aren’t bringing in as much dry cleaning as they used to,” said Joel Tracy, who closed Stoltz Dry Cleaners at the beginning of the year. “It’s like there used to be 10 customers bringing in 10 items four times a month. Now there are seven customers bringing in six pieces coming in three times a month.”
It’s the mom-and-pop cleaners who are most affected by the changes, said Polly Nemec, president of the Minnesota Dry Cleaners Association and owner of St. Croix Cleaners, which has 17 locations.
“It’s increasingly difficult for single operators to compete on the volumes and pay the bills,” she said. “The cost of labor, equipment, fuel and rent are increasing. It becomes difficult to support without increasing volume.”
One of the hardest challenges for single operators is the cost of updating equipment. Many of small stores still use perc — short for perchloroethylene, source of the strong smell in many shops — as their primary solvent.
Newer cleaners have gone to more eco-friendly methods such as wet cleaning, liquid silicone, low-volatility hydrocarbons and liquid carbon dioxide.
But the transition to new equipment can be cost prohibitive to a small business. Tracy said it would have cost him $100,000 to buy and install new equipment.
So when a developer offered to purchase the property, he sold his business.
Dry cleaners with multiple locations can spread the cost more easily, which has resulted in more consolidation. Nemec expects to see fewer mom-and-pop dry cleaners and multiple-location operators in the future, especially in the metro area. More of the industry is becoming a hub-and-spoke model with central plants serving multiple stores and drop-off lockers.
Smaller towns away from metro areas may be seeing the worst of it, said David Weinberg, president of Weinberg Supply in Minneapolis, a dry-cleaning supplier.
“Some towns like Willmar had two or three dry cleaners and now they have one,” Weinberg said. “If they have to replace equipment that’s going to cost $50,000 or $75,000, they think twice or close altogether.”
Staying in business demands ingenuity. Instead of adding another location, a dry cleaner may partner with a flower shop or grocery store that takes in cleaning. Tom’s Market in Glenwood, Minn., takes in clothes for American Cleaners in Alexandria. Hy-Vee locations in the Twin Cities use a variety of local or national dry cleaners.
Miller, who owns Mulberrys, recently added a 10,000-square-foot production plant to accommodate his company’s growth in the Twin Cities.
He also has nine locations in San Francisco and plans to expand to Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Atlanta. Within a few months, he will have 20 stores in the Twin Cities, San Francisco and Dallas.
Miller believes a total refresh of the dry-cleaning business is required.
On Mulberryscleaners.com, he outlines 10 ways he is changing the industry. It includes not only store aesthetics but also home pickup and delivery, an app, service extensions such as cleaning wedding gowns and household items, shoe shining, alterations, and laundry service.
“Don’t feel like spending all Sunday in the laundry room? We’ll take care of it for you,” he said.
Chicago-based CD One Price dry cleaners, which opened a location in Hopkins in 2013, is trying to change consumer perceptions about the costs of laundry. CD, which charges $1.29 per pound, goes into detail at CDonepricecleaners.com, asking, “How valuable is your time?”
It figures if your time is worth more than $5.50 an hour, you’re a good candidate for wash-and-fold service. It estimates the cost of doing a load of laundry at home is $3.09 after figuring in the cost of detergent, bleach, dryer sheets or softener, cost of water and heating it, energy, appliance depreciation and repairs. At the laundromat, it’s $3.59 before the cost of time is factored in.
“Where we’re really seeing returns is in wash-and-fold, the everyday laundry, so you don’t have to do it at home,” Jonathon Reckles, director of marketing at CD One Price, said.
Pilgrim and Mulberrys offer free home or office dry-cleaning pickup and delivery. Although usage has been initially slow in the Twin Cities, Miller expects it to grow. Bonnie Engler, president of Pilgrim Cleaners, is in a wait-and-see mode. “We’re looking to the new generation of customers to see how they want to use our business,” she said.
Cleaners are also striving for all-hours availability though the use of self-service lockers and kiosks that allow orders to be dropped off and picked up at locations that don’t require human interaction.
Pilgrim just opened a kiosk in Uptown. Tide Dry Cleaners, which has a national presence with locations in Apple Valley and Edina, also has an automated drop-off and pickup spot similar to Redbox.