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Laundry's worst cycle: The coronavirus' impact on dry cleaners and tailors - COVID chronicles

Consumer spending shifts during pandemic
Consumer spending shifts during pandemic 08:19

CBS News is chronicling what has changed for the lives of Americans in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

First came the coronavirus. Then came the cancellations: weddings, business trips, anniversary celebrations, athletic tournaments, religious holidays, proms, graduations and funerals were all nixed as states clamped down on large gatherings amid the surge of infections. Brides and 2020 graduates watched the pandemic crush their big days. Dry cleaners and tailors nationwide saw their livelihoods decimated.

"It almost killed off the whole business," Richard Incollingo, sighed over the phone. His tailoring shop in Salem, New Hampshire — a studio he jokingly compares to "living in my parents' basement" — took its biggest hit to date in 35 years of business. "There were no proms this year. No bridesmaids. No men in tuxedos. All that, gone. You know what I mean?" He paused. "These little shops like mine depend on that."

All of the reasons to dress up evaporated with the mass cancellation of fancy parties and professional occasions. But 65-year-old Incollingo still considers himself lucky. The semi-retired tailor with a lifetime of savings and no employees to account for is in good health. "Thank God, you know?" he paused. "We've been through every economic downturn. But this?" His voice trails off.

It is difficult to make meaningful comparisons that measure the coronavirus' economic toll. For these businesses, other downturns don't really compare. "2008 was a blip. This is a whole different world," Arthur Anton, Jr., chief operating officer of Anton Cleaners told CBS News. As coronavirus cases surged, Anton scoured for masks, sanitizing wipes and gloves, dropping off supplies at all 40 locations of his family's 107-year-old dry cleaning business.

"I filled my truck up and brought PPE to every employee," Anton remarked. "I talked to each employee to ask them, 'Do you feel safe?' At first, people were very scared. They thought, 'I don't want to die.'"

Stores reduced hours, converted to cashless payment, staged laundry drop-boxes and slashed same day service. "We didn't have enough pieces to operate our equipment every day. It cost too much to turn our equipment on," Anton explained.

Though he was forced to furlough just over half of his 300+ employees, Anton is more gratified by this statistic: none of his employees have contracted COVID-19 since its outbreak. "Gloves on, mask on, distancing yourself, sanitizing the counters, wiping down everything — we're doing the best we can."

At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, most dry cleaners were down 83 – 92% in sales, according to Peter Blake, executive vice president of the Northeast Fabricare Association. "You're looking at an industry that was decimated," Blake told CBS News. "In the Northeast, businesses shut down during the busy season."

The dry cleaning industry generated $9.2 billion in revenue across roughly 32,380 businesses in 2020, according to an IBIS World's industry report published in February 2020.

Spot Business Systems – a cloud software provider for the dry cleaning industry – notes retail sales for dry cleaning storefronts took a nose-dive in mid-March. Nationwide, dry cleaners subscribing to the service hit rock bottom in mid-April, with an average retail sales drop of 80%, compared to 2019 rates. Since then, the industry has begun to claw its way back, generating 50% of average sales revenue.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are also 21,150 tailors nationwide, with roughly 12% operating out of dry cleaners.

"It's picked up a little bit, but it's hard," self-employed tailor Diane Usle of "Sew What" told CBS News. "I'm kind of a touchy-feely business. I have to be able to touch people." That close contact means Usle, a senior citizen, must remind customers to wear a mask in a "nice way."

"For awhile, I couldn't even get any masks or hand sanitizers," Usle said. The Hanover, New Hampshire, store owner is also waiting for Dartmouth College students and professors to return to college, which will generate some business.

"Professors are worried. There's no sports, no dresses for sororities. If there are no social activities, I won't do that," Usle said, recalling all of the letters she's sewn on hockey uniforms.

She's now behind on rent and phone bills and waiting for federal unemployment checks, after applying on June 1. "Without help from the federal government, it makes you feel alone," she continued.

Dry cleaners and launderers have been deemed as "essential businesses" in 32 states, including Massachusetts, where Anton Cleaners has been churning out clean first responder uniforms for weeks.

"We have a South Boston location that's right next to the police department. I don't think we could have closed if we wanted to," Anton told CBS News.

CBS News is chronicling what has changed for the lives of Americans in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"Hospital cubicle curtains, gowns, uniforms" executive director of the National Cleaners Association, Nora Nealis said, listing essential worker dry cleaning needs. "But when 90% of people are not essential workers and 100% of people are social distancing, it becomes a tough time for small businesses to survive. There's only so many police uniforms."

For a new labor force of "work from home" professionals, uniforms have evolved from suits to sweatpants, obliterating demand for dry cleaners and tailors as offices suspend operations and dress codes.

And while cleaners across the country have found some success in applying for Paycheck Protection Program loans, that well has also begun to run dry.

Martin's Cleaners, a 35-year-old, 5-person janitorial and carpet-cleaning service in rural Littleton, New Hampshire has just enough PPP money for one more week of payroll. "That was a huge help," co-owner Edward Martin said. "But this isn't going away. In seven days, we're really going to find out just how hard this pandemic will hit the business." Martin may need to tap into personal savings in the coming weeks.

"As that PPP money runs out, you're going to start to see the real effects of this," Blake noted. "I don't think we've seen the true effects of this yet, in terms of closings." The industry professional criticized the PPP program, which he said saw "a lot of money wasted" after forcing business owners to maintain full time equivalents — 100% of full-time payroll – to qualify for loan forgiveness. "We're down 80% of sales while trying to keep 100% of staff. It can't be done."

But Blake has identified a handful of optimistic signs for small businesses pursuing new services and opportunities, like offering free delivery for wash, dry and fold services. "People are resetting back to the family unit, and they're realizing time with family is valuable. And they don't want to do laundry or chores."

Attempts to reset the way we do business has encouraged creative zoom gatherings and new excuses to dress up. Usle hemmed a bridesmaid gown for a zoom wedding this month. "I'm starting to see backyard weddings. Virtual weddings," she laughed. "Another one of my customers is having a zoom wedding. They had so many people planning to come from across the United States. They're still going to do their first dance. And everyone can watch it on zoom in the comfort of your home."

For cleaners who count their businesses in the decades, shuttering is not an option. "I don't want the public to think we're failing," said Edward Martin. "We'll see it through."

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