Feb 162009

What makes one drycleaner different from another? In some neighborhoods, there is an environmentally friendly option (a big plus in my opinion), and sure some are a bit more “upscale” and pricier than others. Turnaround time and hours of operation are sometimes important too. And a select few will pick up and deliver to your office or home. Other than that, in my experience most are equally equipped to perform their intended function – clean and get the stains out of your clothes. So when you live in an area with competitively priced cleaners on every corner, what keeps you loyal?

I’m going to pause for a moment, because on the off-chance people read this post, they may ask, “So what’s unique about drycleaning? The same logic applies for many other everyday local services where the service or product is fairly commoditized (gas stations, pharmacies, banks, etc.). I would argue the difference is that, at least in the Boston area, the drycleaning industry is greatly fragmented; most stores are independently owned and operated with the exception of a few “larger” regional chains. As such, very few drycleaners invest in their brand. I feel cheap when I buy unbranded gasoline and honestly expect something bad to happen to my car. And banks do plenty of advertising. But let’s face it, it’s tough to get too attached to your drycleaner.

Now back to my main point. Even if you bring your clothes to a quality outfit, eventually there will be some sort of mishap…a shirt that shrinks, a hole in a sweater, a scarf that gets lost. Mistakes happen, especially when you are turning around high volumes of clothing (often cleaned offsite) within 24 hours.

That is why the most effective way for a drycleaner to maintain loyalty is to have a customer-friendly policy when they screw up. Last year, my cleaners, Lapels, ripped a nice pair of pants and the next day mailed me a check for $150 to buy a replacement. From my perspective, this is the right thing to do, but as it is so incredibly rare for a drycleaner to take responsibility for so much of a cracked button, Lapels has now won my business until I leave town (even if they don’t have the longest hours or the absolute cheapest prices). Compare that to Zoots (a “boutique” chain), which lost my brand new $100 Hugo Boss button down shirt, then reimbursed me for the cost of laundering it eight times ($16). Yeah thanks a lot – and could you find a more arbitrary policy please? Supposedly, 8 cleanings is the lifespan of the average shirt. Maybe when you launder them with Zoots it is, by mine seem to make it much longer. I took the $16 and bought a new t-shirt.

But again, I digress. Anyway, Lapels keeping my business isn’t where it ends. I have told this story of “polar opposites” to many people living in my town. So, the takeaway is that in the drycleaning industry, investing a little in customer satisfaction will inevitably fuel positive word of mouth in the community, resulting in both valuable customer retention and acquisition. Too bad so many (including Zoots) primarily rely on uncreative copycat tactics, such as costly mailer and in-store coupons in an attempt to get people coming back. 9 times out of 10, I don’t have time to open those mailers and simply toss them in the trash. Lapels made a mistake once, spent $100 to make it right, and now I and at least 5 of my friends (and probably some of their friends as well) don’t even think of going anywhere else.