With fewer customers dressing up or in need of business attire in the sweats-and-T-shirts isolation of the pandemic, dry cleaners took a hit.
Many reported an initial 80 percent drop in business. Some mom-and-pops shuttered.
“Cleaners closed down that just couldn’t make it to the other side,” said Nora Nealis, executive director of the National Cleaners Association, a New York-based trade association. “It’s a tough time to be a dry cleaner.”
Now, with business bouncing back as more people return to work and venture out in the world, dry cleaners face a fresh headache:
Hangers on which to deliver those slacks and blouses — or more precisely, a lack thereof.
“We all got busier, and then there are no hangers,” said Elena Langley, manager of Riverheights Cleaners on Florida Avenue in Tampa.
Industries that deal in everything from exercise equipment to cars are coming up against pandemic-related supply chain problems, including a shortage of shipping containers to bring in goods from overseas. And according to Nealis, more than half the hangers used by dry cleaners had been coming from Asia.
Also, costs have skyrocketed, businesses report.
Rick Bhula, owner of several Majik Touch Cleaners in Pasco County —there were eight, but one closed in the pandemic — said they used to pay $20 to $25 for a box of 500 hangers. Now the price is “more than double,” he said. Bhula was lucky to find a three-month supply out of Houston, even though the price was high.
“The local suppliers weren’t sure when their containers would get here,” he said.
Some problems are hyper-specific. Take those “strut” hangers that have a white cardboard tube as their bottom rung, often used for trousers.
“Those tubes are in short supply worldwide,” said David Pilger, a trustee with Industrial Equipment & Supplies, a Miami distributor with a warehouse in Tampa. “You can’t get tubes. And here we are.”
Some businesses across Tampa Bay are turning to their customers for help.
“We posted a sign close to a month ago at each and every store,” said Bhula. “It said ‘We will be more than happy to recycle hangers.’”
Customers responded in a big way.
”I had a guy come bring me two garbage bags full,” Langley said.
“That really helps,” Bhula said. “We have a dedicated person — they have no other job than they will just go through all the hangers and sort them out” to weed out the bent, torn and broken.
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Customers may also see their sweaters returned in bags instead of on hangers, Nealis said. Another fix: Through suppliers, some dry cleaners have been buying hangers that bear the names of other stores.
“We’ve got some right now that say Dolphin cleaners. We had one that said Tropical something or other,” said Langley. “Whatever we can get.”
Nealis called dry cleaners “by and large, the quintessential small business.”
“They’re mom-and-pops, they’ve got a few employees, they’re part of the neighborhood,” she said. “People have invested 20, 30 years in the business and it’s their livelihood.”
In the hardest months, “really most of our business was essential workers — police, firemen, hospital workers,” Langley said. “That kind of kept us going.”
“We got through it,” she said. “Some people didn’t.”
The good news: Even with the current supply issue, business appears to be bouncing back.
Bhula, whose stores saw an 80 percent drop in March of 2020, said now, “out of seven locations, I’ve got two almost back to normal sales.”
“This year, things have changed around so far,” said Bob Tellone, whose family has run Ninth Avenue Dry Cleaners in St. Petersburg for more than 40 years. They too have a sign asking to recycle hangers and are dealing with those supply and cost issues.
But, Tellone said, “we’re extremely busy.”