Dry cleaners face tough road as remote working, business casual concepts become the norm

David Leid, general manager of restoration at Bobby Page’s Dry Cleaners, stands inside the company’s flagship facility located at 1090 Sandhill Road in South Reno on June 18, 2021.

David Leid, general manager of restoration at Bobby Page’s Dry Cleaners, stands inside the company’s flagship facility located at 1090 Sandhill Road in South Reno on June 18, 2021.
Photo by Kaleb Roedel.


The drumbeat of tumbling dryers and intermittent hiss of steam press machines fills the thick indoor air. Clothing of every material, size and color — purple silk shirts, blue wool suits, red satin dresses — is shaped and draped on hangers. Some are sliding across the space on automated conveyors; others are sleeved in plastic, primed for pickup or delivery.

It’s a Friday in late June inside the Bobby Page’s Dry Cleaners in South Reno and the company’s flagship operation is humming like a well-oiled machine.


“We do about 4,500 pieces of clothing a day,” says David Leid, general manager of restoration at Bobby Page’s, standing on the main floor of the company’s 12,000-square-foot facility. “Mondays are a little bit more, Fridays are a little bit less … but, on average, it’s 4,500 pieces.”


That wasn’t the case a year ago, when the number of clothing items cycling through Bobby Page’s was drastically cut. So much so that the longtime dry cleaner shut down 10 of its Northern Nevada locations, including four in Reno-Sparks, as it watched its revenue dramatically shrink because of the coronavirus pandemic.


“We were down about 70% at one point, at the peak of it,” said Leid, a fourth generation member of the family-owned dry cleaner. “I grew up in dry cleaners, and I’ve never in my entire life seen anything quite like this.”


With virtually no business coming from its regular corporate customers who were now working from home, in addition to cancelations of formal events (from conventions to weddings to funerals), Leid said the company was forced to lay off more than half of its 118 employees for two months last spring.


“You don’t wear a suit and tie when you’re doing a Zoom call, right?” Leid said with a shrug. “I have a friend who works at the (Grand Sierra Resort). They mailed him a laptop and said work from home. He used to bring in five suits a week.”


Businesspeople — many who saw dry-cleaning needs either dwindle or disappear overnight — make up the biggest slice of Bobby Page’s revenue.


Bobby Page’s employee Daria Leid puts the finishing touches on a dress during her shift on June 18, 2021. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel / NNBW

 

Sure, all the weddings, proms and black-tie events scrubbed from 2020 calendars hurt, too, but Leid said corporate customers make up “the majority” of business.

“A concern from our standpoint is, what happens now that Zoom has become such a common thing?” he added.

A LUXURY OR NECESSITY?

Bobby Page’s is among thousands of dry cleaners across the country asking themselves that question while fighting to keep the lights on.


Dry cleaning operations in the U.S. lost about 80% of their revenue immediately after pandemic closures began, according to the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute, a trade association that represents over 10,000 retail dry cleaners in the U.S.


In the aftermath, one in six dry cleaners have either closed for good or filed for bankruptcy protection, according to the National Cleaners Association.


In Northern Nevada, with many offices reopening, Leid said the company is seeing business suits and work attire slowly return. Still, the volume is nothing compared to pre-pandemic levels, which makes him worried about a post-COVID economy in which more people work in their sweatpants instead of freshly pressed dress slacks.


Thousands of clothing items needing to be cleaned hang on racks at Bobby Page’s Dry Cleaners’ 12,000-square-foot facility in South Reno on June 18, 2021. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel / NNBW

 

“There’s still a good group of people that realized, ‘I don’t have to leave my couch,’” Leid said. “My biggest concern moving forward … is this going to be more of a luxury as opposed to a necessity? How do we maintain relevance when it’s not a necessity?”

Leid said a few things have buoyed Bobby Page’s over the past 15 months. It does dry cleaning for law enforcement and first responder agencies in Northern Nevada, and that business hasn’t slowed.


Meanwhile, the influx of people migrating to Reno-Sparks from California and other neighboring states has brought in a surge of new customers. Plus, the 54-year-old company’s name recognition helps, he noted.


OTHER REVENUE THREATS


While Bobby Page’s has seen a gradual uptick over the past few months as the economy fully reopens in Nevada, meeting the demand has been a challenge.


Leid said the company is hiring and its staff size is about 20% smaller than it would like to have. Consequently, Bobby Page’s has struggled to maintain its standard one-day turnaround time.


Bobby Page’s employee Eric Jacobsen scans the tags of clothing items that have yet to be cleaned at Bobby Page’s on June 18, 2021. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel / NNBW

 

“We’re four days out because we don’t have anybody to do it,” said Leid, noting that 90% of Bobby Page’s positions are skilled jobs. “Because it’s such a niche industry, it’s a lot of skilled labor. You can’t take anybody off the street and say, ‘here’s a $2,000 Armani jacket, let’s just let you put a hot iron it.’”

Aside from the WFH shift impacting business, Leid said another concern facing the dry-cleaning industry is the fact the modern worker and workplace have become increasingly more casual, which already was a challenge before the pandemic.


Now, demand for dress clothes is hanging by a thread. In 2020, national companies like Brooks Brothers and Tailored Brands, owner of Men’s Warehouse and Jos A. Bank, filed for bankruptcy and closed hundreds of locations.


In turn, the number of dry-clean customers that fall into the millennial and Gen Z demographics are fewer and far between.


“The majority of our customer base is probably 55,” Leid said. “They have disposable income … I don’t know what millennials are going to be like as a customer base. We’ll see what happens. For now, our doors are open and we’re here to provide a service.”

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