Only The Strong Survive! The Decline Of Dry Cleaning
I was picking up an altered pair of pants from Seams to Fit seamstress Laurette Giroux one day in late February, when she told me that a 94-year old Windsor business, IXL Cleaners Ltd., was shutting its doors for good just down the street.
I ambled down to 1409 Tecumseh Road East at the corner of Moy Avenue, to find an upbeat man sporting a bowler.
Owner Allan Kidd was handing out cleansed clothes to his last sprinkling of customers. He stayed until 6 p.m. The next day he and his family took off for a three week vacation in southern climes.
He left a recorded phone number for forgetful customers to arrange to pick up items from what was left in a stripped down storage area, including a dozen wedding gowns.
For a man who was leaving behind a four-generation business, Kidd was in a surprisingly jovial mood. Although he has not found another job, his grasp for freedom was palpable.
“Closing a business like this is a lot of work,” he muses, noting he had already shut down two other South Windsor IXL outlets. One was a huge coin laundry on Howard Avenue. Seventeen employees were laid off all told.
Kidd started helping out in his parents’ business when he was 13. They bought it from his grandfather in 1969.
“This business was lucrative at one time, but it has been bleak for a long time now,” he mentions. “The industry is going away worldwide.”
The City of Windsor, which had as many as 16 dry cleaning businesses in the 1960s, is now host to only three — Master Cleaners, Blondie Cleaners and Mena’s Cleaners & Alterations — not counting ma and pa shops.
“There’s a lot of market forces, a lot of culture trends,” Kidd says that have conspired to hallow out the industry. The reasons are many, starting with the new casual business code that recently spread as far as Wall Street’s Goldman Sachs.
Even weddings and funerals have relaxed stiff-collar expectations.
“I go to my Rotary meetings and only two people are wearing ties,” comments Kidd.
Along came “Dress Down Friday” to go with a market driven economy where you can buy discount textiles made in Third World countries, playing into the hands of the disposable society. Wear a garment three times and throw it away.
Even the ban on smoking in bars has emerged as a factor, whereby once bartenders and wait staff would need their stinky apparel dry cleaned weekly. This is no longer the case.
Kidd also pinpoints the emergence of stiffer environmental standards on the solvents used by modern dry cleaners and government requirements for safe storage and disposal of chemical waste.
In this respect, “You’re always looking over your shoulder,” laments Kidd. “It’s impossible to sell a dry cleaning business without an environmental assessment.”
The rise in the minimum wage imposed by the provincial government has added to the stressors. Kidd calculates prices have been hiked 20%.
“Everything keeps going up and a great deal of it comes from Toronto,” he indicates.In communication with Sam Abouzeeni, Owner of Master Cleaners, headquartered at 1081 Ottawa Street, it is clear the industry is not dead. The survivors are the ones who have the resources, energy and ingenuity to continually upgrade their technology and equipment.
“When you need new equipment you might as well do it with new solvent,” says Abouzeeni, who started investing in new green technology five years ago.
One eco-friendly dry cleaning machine can cost up to $100,000, and Abouzeeni travels to the other side of the world to attend industry fairs that showcase the latest inventions.
By purchasing high end equipment and the latest solvents for his five stores located on Ottawa Street, South Windsor, LaSalle, Amherstburg, and St. Clair Beach — Abouzeeni points out Master’s business is growing and thriving.
He acknowledges the industry has changed dramatically since he bought the company 28 years ago.
“It’s a very, very tough business . . . it’s life changing,” Abouzeeni believes.
But he insists: “There will always be a demand. Professionals still wear suits and ties and 72% of textiles in the world have to be dry cleaned.”
Of paramount importance is prompt, quality service.
“You have to take care of the customer,” he stresses.
In Windsor, if you win their loyalty they will take care of you.
Abouzeeni is hands on, works seven days a week and skips vacations.
“I’m in the plant on Sunday preparing for Monday,” he states. “I maintain the equipment myself. When you retool and the equipment doesn’t break down you save a lot of money.”
I put in a call to Dick Rivard, patriarch of the dry cleaning business in Windsor Essex who sold Blondie Cleaners Ltd. six years ago after 52 years in the business.
“I’m very good friends with the Kidd family,” he reveals. “I hate to see Allan closing down, but I don’t agree that the industry is collapsing.
Blondie, headquartered on Riverside Drive at Parent Avenue, had four outlets when Rivard sold. It went up to six, and is now back at three.
These days Rivard is a consultant to a network of dry cleaners around the continent.
“Many of them are doing just fine,” he remarks. “A lot depends on how you run your business. If you stay on top of things there is no reason to be closing down. You have to be very dedicated to your craft.”
I should mention that Kidd does not envision the industry disappearing.
“Today’s consumers don’t want chemicals, so manufacturers of the technology will find a way to use water to clean everything,” Kidd predicts.
What a game changer that would be since dry cleaning is defined as “a cleaning process for clothes and textiles with chemical solvents other than water!”
In my small body of research, triggered by IXL closing, I came to realize how little I know about this entire industry. If you want to learn more Google, “Most asked questions about dry cleaning.”
I will wrap up now with this bit of trivia. Who invented dry cleaning? Jean Baptiste Jolly of France.