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Published in Small Business
Afendoulis Cleaners & Tuxedos’ flagship store in Grand Rapids. Afendoulis Cleaners & Tuxedos’ flagship store in Grand Rapids. PHOTO BY KATE CARLSON

Dry cleaners fear primary business stream will never fully return

BY Sunday, August 15, 2021 05:00pm

The widespread shift to remote working has caused many small dry cleaning businesses to shut down or adapt to stay afloat.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Afendoulis Cleaners & Tuxedos dropped to about 20 percent of its typical work volume and had to lay off employees. The 75-year-old company’s flagship store in Grand Rapids stayed open while two others temporarily closed. Afendoulis’ location on Northland Drive in Plainfield Township has permanently closed.

“We have seen an uptick in business, but at this point our numbers are still 50 percent of what (they were) before the pandemic, maybe a little less,” said co-owner Stathi Afendoulis. “Right now, it’s ebbing and flowing because some people are going back to work now.”

Afendoulis has seen at least six local dry cleaning businesses around Grand Rapids shut down permanently in the past year and a half after the pandemic led to a major decline in the need for the service. 

National forecasts predict 30 percent of dry cleaning businesses could close completely because of the pandemic, said Michelle Batora, executive director of the Michigan Institute of Laundering & Drycleaning

The industry will have a “more lagging” effect from the pandemic than some other service-based businesses because of the uncertainty of when and to what extent people will return to in-person work, Batora said.

“For our industry, this isn’t over yet,” Batora said. “People are still kind of staying open just because of (Paycheck Protection Program loans) or other COVID-19 assistance. When some of those resources run out, I don’t know what will happen. People are still trying to ride it out and hoping things turn around.”

Summer is typically the slowest season for dry cleaning businesses even before the pandemic, said Ric Ferwerda, owner of Grand Rapids Township-based 616 Dry Cleaning Inc. Ferwerda is hoping business will pick up as schools return to session and workers come back to the office after Labor Day.

Ferwerda is now making deliveries to customers himself after having to lay off an employee, and business is now about 55 to 60 percent of typical volume, he said. However, he has managed to add some new customers from other shops that have closed.

“I see an improvement every week, but you do have some people who are not going into work yet, so they’re not putting their dry cleaning out anymore, which is a big killer for us,” Ferwerda said.

Paradigm shift

Batora said some companies are adapting by adding new services such as washing and folding as well as delivery, but she remains concerned about returning to pre-pandemic levels of activity.

“We don’t know if our volume is ever going to return to pre-COVID levels because there is a new paradigm of working,” Afendoulis said. “We don’t know if we’re ever going to go back to doing the same volume of when people were working five days a week in the office. We are still hopeful, but we know there is going to be a shift, so we’re trying to be proactive.”

Indeed, workplaces are increasingly embracing hybrid models that involve in-person and remote working. A May survey of 1,000 U.S. adults showed 39 percent would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work, according to the poll by Morning Consult. 

Batora is also seeing workplaces that previously had dress codes no longer strictly monitoring what employees wear to work when they call them back to the office, she said.

“We keep waiting for the change to come and people to return to the office, but I don’t know we’re ever going to get people back to the business atmosphere that they had been in,” Batora said.

‘Change or die’

Amid the pandemic-induced slowdown, Ferwerda still made several technological improvements to attract and retain customers. 

“We developed an app, a new point of sale system, a QR code, and (made) a lot of investment overall during the pandemic,” Ferwerda said. “We’ve implemented a lot of new technology which is now all in place.” 

As well, Afendoulis Cleaners quickly grew its pick-up and delivery services in the early stages of the pandemic, Afendoulis said. The company also encouraged customers to consider other home items to clean, such as bedding, curtains or other textile housewares. The dry cleaning company is also continuing to develop wash and fold services that include pick-up or delivery. 

“Those are the three areas we’ve been really pushing and trying to look for ways to get business,” Afendoulis said. “The goal and the mantra is to change or die. Diversify or expand. If you’re not doing things now like wash and fold, or pickup and delivery, you are in trouble.”

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