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Editor’s note: This is a weekly series focusing on the importance of buying local.

The past 10 months have been a most difficult cycle for laundry.

Just ask dry cleaners.

Two area long-time, dry cleaning business’ have seen significant drops in the past year, and both continue to fight for survival.

“We’re down about 40% compared with the previous year,” said Sam Veltri, owner of Veltri Cleaners on Jefferson Avenue in Washington. “I’m fine, I feel for some of our customers. Some have lost jobs. Some have never slowed down. Others who brought many shirts and pants at a time, now bring maybe one shirt and one pair of pants.”

While dry cleaners are not alone in struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic, the future appears a little better for the airlines and restaurants as eventually business should rebound as vaccines make traveling and going out to lunch or dinner less worrisome or troublesome for customers.

Dry cleaners are clearly facing a shift as working from home becomes more popular even as the COVID-19 pandemic becomes less of a factor in the months ahead.

It would appear that working from home is going to be more common, especially for white-collar employees.

The need for less clothes or wardrobe drops as working from home remains popular. In some cases, companies can conduct meetings and business just as easily via remote options, which will slash cost for office space.

“People aren’t going in to work,” said Nick Vitakis, co-owner of Union Cleaners in Belle Vernon. Obviously, they don’t need as many dress clothes. We’re down between 35 and 40%. We’ve compensated by cutting hours. We closed our front desk in Monessen, shifting dry cleaning services there to our existing store in Belle Vernon. We went from six positions to three. Our drivers are keeping steady.”

Other factors have been fewer people going out to eat, attending parties and going to church.

“We’re holding our own,” Vitakis said. “We turn our boiler on everyday (of operation) but not as long as we used to. Without cleaning, there won’t be many of us left. Right now, we’re not going anywhere. But it is scary.”

According to national data, one in six dry cleaners have closed or gone bankrupt in the United States already, and many won’t survive without more economic stimulus, according to the National Cleaners Association.

Nationwide, the industry is booking only half the $7 billion in revenue it did before COVID-19, according to the NCA. More than 90% of owners aren’t taking a paycheck, and about half are paying employees out of their savings.

In late September, about 32% of working days in the United States were spent at home — down from 42% in May, according to Stanford University surveys. The new work-from-home economy is likely to outlast the coronavirus that spawned it, said Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford. The share of working days spent at home is anticipated to rise a quarter of a percent from before the pandemic, he said.

Prior to the pandemic, the dry-cleaning industry, which employs more than 120,000, was struggling in the face of declining demand for professional services and the growing adoption of business-casual attire in the office, according to research firm IBISWorld.

To survive, many dry cleaners have begun to offer pickup and delivery, alterations or wash-and-fold services. Others diversified into commercial laundry for hospitals or are now willing to launder comforters and curtains for consumers, according to Drycleaning and Laundry Institute, another trade association.

Data from Yelp Inc., which tracks searches of business pages and review postings, shows that consumer interest for dry cleaners has improved since April — although it remains way below levels before the pandemic took hold in almost all states.

“I grew up doing this with my dad, said Veltri. “It was fascinating to just understand our customers.”

Veltri, who emerged from the background, to start working the front desk, said his wife, Janis, used to work the front desk for many years.

The Veltris are keeping an open mind moving forward.

“We have always dealt pretty much with middle America,” Veltri said. “Those are the people getting beat up. I’m older, I’m fine. We just plug away. We were doing a lot of drilling stuff, and heavy starch, which we developed a few years ago.

“We have a great seamstress, who does a lot of prom and wedding gowns and we do tuxedo rental. We’re down from nine employees to three. But we’re hanging in there.”

Those interested in joining the Be Local Network can contact Chris Slota at 724-225-1326 or by email at Discount cards are available at the Observer-Reporter and Almanac office, 122 S. Main St., Washington.

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