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Dry Cleaning Industry Overview

Businesses that are primarily engaged in dry-cleaning or dyeing apparel and household
fabrics other than rugs are classified in Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code 7216. The drycleaning industry is very fragmented. The International Fabricare Institute reports that approximately
30,000 dry-cleaning businesses currently operate in the U.S. today, employing 200,000 people.The
size of dry-cleaning operations varies, but 85 percent are small, single-family, independent “mom
and pop”- type operations. According to Dun & Bradstreet data, the average firm employs 5 people
and generates annual sales of .20 million. Dry cleaning occupations consist of dry cleaners, spotters, pressers, and counter attendants, and most dry cleaning establishments require workers to perform at least two of these jobs. The industry is mature, and is not considered a highly profitable business. An article in Inc. magazine describes the industry: “The hours are long and margins are slim, the cleaning process is fraught with difficulty.”

The most common and most profitable form of dry-cleaning business is the “full plant” companies that perform all of the processing on the premises. These firms often include additional pick-up and drop-off points that provide the main plant with goods to dry-clean. However, some plants may do the dry-cleaning on the premises and send the dry-cleaning of particular goods, such as shirts, out to other firms. According to business broker Tom West, the most profitable and desirable dry-cleaners are the ones with retail, walk-in sales that do the processing of the work in-house where the owner has control of costs and quality.”

Over the years, the dry-cleaning industry has been pressured by:

- intensified competition
- higher minimum wages,
- changes by the Federal Trade Commission's changes in care labeling rules due to fashion's fabric trends.
- home-care dry cleaning kits,
- recent costly environmental regulations,
- nonrenewal of leases by building owners where cleaners operate,
- increasing public concern about cancer from the cleaning solvents, and3
- lifestyle changes and the growing acceptance of casual clothing in the workplace.

Since the 1950s perchloroethylene, referred to as ''perc,'' has been the main cleaning agent in
garment care. This synthesized solvent has been identified as a hazardous air pollutant under the
federal Clean Air Act. It is toxic and may cause dizziness, nausea, drowsiness, and headaches. Some
groups suspect that perc can cause cancer. Historically, dry-cleaners represented 60 percent of all
perc sales, and close to 90 percent of dry cleaners in the U.S. still use perc, alone or in combination
with other solvents. However, the past decade has seen a 73 percent decline in perc demand. Many dry cleaners are trying to change their business practices involving perc. Depending upon their
volume, dry-cleaners have paid anywhere between $400 and $1,850 a year since 1985 for hazardous
waste removal. In addition, there are growing health concerns about employees in dry cleaning
establishments, and new workplace regulations have prompted dry-cleaners to change their
equipment. In the past, a worker transferred by hand the solvent-soaked clothes from machine to
machine releasing hazardous fumes into the air. New machines, now required by law, complete the
cleaning process without removing the clothes. Although this new equipment costs $30,000 to
$60,000, they are easier to use and require less solvent.  However, dry-cleaners in some areas are forced to change equipment and procedures. For example, in late 2002 air quality officials in Southern California approved a gradual phase out of perc by 2020. Martin Schlageter, spokesman for the Coalition for Clean Air stated “It’s the death knell for perc dry cleaning in this area.” Under the new rule, which went into affect January 1, 2003, any new dry cleaning business or facility that adds a machine must add a non-perc machine. While existing dry cleaners can continue to operate one perc machine until 2020, by November 2007 all dry cleaners using perc must utilize state-of-the-art pollution controls to reduce perc emissions. Most dry cleaning industry analysts believe that the relatively-new ''wet cleaning'' process is the future for the industry because it uses water and detergents instead of perc.

There are two general categories of wet cleaning. Multi-process wet cleaning refers to a process of cleaning techniques: hand washing, steam cleaning, and application of soap and water. Machine wet cleaning occurs in computer-controlled washing and drying machines. Most delicate garments that are
labeled ''dry-clean only'' can be cleaned in this manner. The machines reduce agitation during
washing, increase water extraction, use specially formulated soaps and spotting agents, and closely
monitor heat during the drying process. Besides the inherent dangers of using carcinogenic solvents in the process, wet-cleaning systems over a viable alternative if ''perc'' is prohibited by a store-front building or mall owner and a lower-cost machine when a new cleaning unit is needed. A new wet-cleaning machine ranges from $22,000 to $37,000 depending on size, but cost less than a conventional perc machine. While percuse reduction ranged from 25 percent to 100 percent, electricity costs may be higher and labor time increases with wet cleaning because more pressing and finishing is required. The new regulations and dry-cleaning processes have prompted a new crop of dry-cleaning start-ups that provide a more environmentally-friendly approach to dry-cleaning. In fact, none of the major retail start-ups use perc. Not only do these new dry-cleaning business have better luck attracting and keeping employees, they also limit their cleanup costs and liability. One example is
the Hangers chain, which promotes an its own “ patented, environmentally safe CO2 cleaning

However, some industry insiders remain doubtful that the chain will continue to
increase in size and revenues because the costs for environmentally friendly machines are
significantly higher than the regular dry-cleaning machines.


The trend for U.S. consumers to spend less on dry-cleaning because of environmental
concerns and changes in workplace dress will continue to impact the dry-cleaning industry.
However, the industry will still benefit from the baby-boomer generation as its grows older and
continues to have less time, and looks for time-saving conveniences.


1- “Profile of the Fabricare Industry.” International Fabricare Institute. Internet: www.ifi.org/industry/industryprofile.html.
2- Whittelsey, Frances Cerra and Linda Mohr. “Dry Cleaning Gender Bias.” Internet:
3- “Industry: Drycleaning Plants, Except Rugs (7216).” Dun & Bradstreet Sales & Marketing Solutions. Internet:
www.zapdata.com. Accessed January 15, 2004.
4- Hofman, Mike, “An Opportunity to Clean Up.” Inc. January 2002.
5- West, Tom. “Dry Cleaners.” 2001 Business Reference Guide.
6- “Industry Growth Outlook Report: SIC 7216 – Dry-cleaning Plants.” Integra Information. January 15, 2004.
Internet: www.integrainfo.com.
7- Hofman, Mike, “An Opportunity to Clean Up.” Inc. January 2002.
8-“Perchloroethylene Hurt by Falling Demand in Dry Cleaning.” Chemical Market Reporter, May 20, 2002.
9- Hess, Glenn. “Perc Phaseout in California Could Have a Nationwide Effect.” Chemical Market Reporter.
December 16, 2002.
10- McComas, Cindy. “Alternative Aqueous Cleaning Systems for Dry Cleaners.” MnTap Sources, Summer 1996.
Vol. 11, #3. Internet: www.umn.edu/mntap/P2/DRYCL/aque-d1.htm.
11-“The Hangers Difference.” Internet: www.hangersdrycleaners.com/about/whyhangers.html
12- “Industry Growth Outlook Report: SIC 7216 – Dry-cleaning Plants.” Integra Information. July 24, 2002.
Internet: www.integrainfo.com.


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