Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Starbucks of Dry Cleaning... Tide.

December 8, 2010

Smelling an Opportunity

MASON, Ohio — For more than a decade, some of the nation’s shrewdest marketers have tried to muscle in on the neighborhood dry cleaner, only to give up after years of labor and millions of dollars in investments.

Undeterred, Procter & Gamble is taking a shot at it, again. Having persuaded Americans to buy synthetic laundry detergent, fluorinated toothpaste and disposable diapers, P.& G. believes it has finally cracked the code on the dry cleaning business, too.

Where other dry cleaning entrepreneurs have tried to come up with clever business models for dry cleaning, P.& G.’s primary innovation is in the brand name itself:Tide Dry Cleaners, named after its best-selling laundry detergent.

With more than 800,000 Facebook fans and legions of loyal customers, Tide will draw people into the franchise stores, and superior service — which includes drive-through service, 24-hour pickup and environmentally benign cleaning methods — will keep them coming back, company officials predict.

“The power of our brands represents disruptive innovation in these industries,” said Nathan Estruth, vice president for FutureWorks, P.& G.’s entrepreneurial arm. “Imagine getting to start my new business with the power of Tide.”

And the lure of its fragrance. P.& G. plans to infuse the stores and its dry cleaning fluids with the scent of the brand that’s been cozily familiar to generations of households.

Among the Tide believers is Rick DeAngelis, a 40-year-old who is planning to open a franchise in suburban Cincinnati next year.

“It’s been a trusted name in laundry for 60 years,” he said. “It’s almost synonymous with laundry.”

Already, some local dry cleaners are complaining about the new gorilla on the block, backed by a corporation with roughly $80 billion in annual net sales.

Robert Tran, who owns Monroe Dry Cleaning here in Mason, said his business was off more than 50 percent since a new Tide store opened down the street at the end of October. Customers are being drawn to the Tide store by discounts and giveaways, like P.& G. products and gift cards, he said.

“There is no way I can afford that,” he said. “All my customers just left without giving me a chance to say, ‘Hey, check the quality.’ ”

But for Tide to become synonymous with dry cleaning too, P.& G. will have to overcome problems that have undone other upstarts. The dry cleaning industry has been roiled by unemployment and economic woes, and hurt by a continuing trend toward more casual work clothes.

Competition is fierce, and customers can be prickly: woe to the dry cleaner that ruins a favorite dress, even if it was cheaply made and bought decades ago.

Sanjiv Mehra, who oversaw a short-lived effort by Unilever to break into the dry cleaning business about a decade ago, said the key to success was figuring out a way to do it cheaper or significantly better than the mom-and-pop stores that dominate the industry. At the end of the day, Unilever decided that it couldn’t do either.

“It comes back to, are you fundamentally changing the economics of the business?” he said, adding that P.& G.’s marketing muscle could be the difference. “That’s where they will make a lot of money if they do this right.”

Payam Zamani, co-founder of, a site for car buyers, who later founded PurpleTie dry cleaners, said he tried to do for dry cleaning what Blockbuster did for video stores, offering efficient and better quality than neighborhood dry cleaners. He said it was hard for his stores to compete with owner-operated stores with little overhead and low-wage employees.

“People were more interested in cheaper service, not better service,” Mr. Zamani said.

P.& G. has dabbled in dry cleaning before. In the late 1990s it introduced Dryel, an at-home dry cleaning product that rattled local dry cleaners, who feared they would lose business. But Dryel was considered a disappointment, and P.& G. sold it in 2008.

In 2000, it opened several stores in suburban Atlanta, called Juvian, that offered at-home pickup and delivery of laundry and dry cleaning. The stores were eventually closed.

The idea for Tide Dry Cleaners came from P.& G.’s FutureWorks, a unit that comes up with ways to expand famous brands like Pampers, Oil of Olay and Crest.

Many of those brands are experiencing robust growth in developing markets, but finding new ways to increase revenue in saturated markets like the United States is more challenging.

Four years ago, FutureWorks began considering franchise opportunities, looking for industries where ownership was fragmented and consumers weren’t satisfied. It came up with a three-inch binder of ideas.

The first one to get a green light? Car washes festooned with Mr. Clean, P.& G.’s popular cleaning product. There are now 16 Mr. Clean Car Washes, including one here in Mason that includes Wi-Fi, televisions and spray guns that children can aim at cars passing through the wash. Of course, Mr. Clean products are for sale too.

Dry cleaning, a roughly $8 billion-a-year industry, was second. Research showed that consumers thought the quality of dry cleaners was inconsistent, hours were inconvenient and prices rarely displayed. Plus, many dry cleaner stores were dingy, stifling hot and smelled of chemicals, not unlike a sweatshop, officials said.

Mr. Estruth said his team studied the failed efforts of others as it devised a business plan for Tide Dry Cleaners. The early results are promising: a pilot store in Kansas, outside Kansas City, generated more than $1 million in annual sales, roughly four times the industry average. There are now four Tide Dry Cleaners outlets with plans to expand in a dozen or so more markets.

“If we don’t have compelling unit-level economics, it doesn’t matter how strong the brand is,” said William M. Van Epps, a former Papa John’s Pizza executive who was hired to run P.& G.’s franchises. In a tour of a newly opened store in Mason, P.& G. officials explained why they believed they had resolved the dry cleaning issues that make consumers so unhappy.

At 3,000 square feet, the store is larger than most dry cleaners, and it is painted in Tide’s distinctive orange hue. Cleaning is done on the premises, with Tide being used on garments that are laundered. Silicon-based detergents are used to dry-clean garments, though Tide’s fragrance is added in the process.

Huge vents suck out heat and odors, keeping the store cool and smelling like — what else? — Tide.

The store is staffed with 15 to 18 employees, wearing Tide golf shirts. Lockers near the entrance allow customers to pick up and drop off clothes around the clock. Prices are displayed above the counter (a laundered shirt is $2.25; a dry-cleaned suit is $13, about average in the industry).

During a recent weekday, a steady stream of customers seemed willing to give the Tide store a try. In a positive omen for P.& G., several swooned over Tide.

“It smelled really good in there,” said Harlan Smith, 42, who was on a business trip and dropped off some pants. “When I think of Tide, I have so many good feelings. I’m surprised they didn’t think of it sooner.”

Elena Hickman, 69, said she was lured to the store by a coupon.

“I wanted to see how and why they are doing it and compare it to my local store, which I have been visiting for 10, 11 years,” she said. “I like the drive-in and I like the service. It’s very convenient if it’s raining. The girls were very friendly. And I like the coupons, to be honest.”

Todd Krasnow, a former Staples executive, remembers the heady days when he opened his own dry cleaning chain in 1998. Called Zoots, it offered 24-hour pickup, drive-through service and environmentally friendly detergents, and it eventually grew to 70 stores.

But, as the economy soured, so did demand for dry cleaning, putting downward pressure on prices, he said. Consumers would take their business elsewhere or demand a refund if something was damaged, even if Zoots wasn’t to blame.

“We underestimated what made it a truly challenging business,” Mr. Krasnow said. “Even if you did a really good job, there are plenty of problems.” Zoots was eventually sold in 2008.

Mr. Krasnow, now a venture capitalist, said he still got a few calls a month from investors or recent business school graduates who believed they had found a way to make a killing in dry cleaning. He wishes them luck.

“People think it is easier to do it better,” he said. “And it’s very, very difficult."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Intimate Friends

The Bedfellows’ Reunion

Chicago, Nov. 26, 1860

When the president-elect left Chicago at the end of his six-day political visit, he was also leaving behind an old friend – indeed, a longtime bedmate. In his late 20s and early 30s, Abraham Lincoln had been emotionally closer to Joshua Speed than to anyone else he ever knew, probably including his wife. As young bachelors in Springfield, Ill., they shared a bed for four years; the president and first lady, on the other hand, would keep separate bedrooms in the White House.

Joshua Speed as a young man.
Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Ky.
Joshua Speed as a young man.

“No two men were ever more intimate,” Speed would recall. Lincoln himself wrote to Speed in 1842: “You know my desire to befriend you is everlasting – that I will never cease, while I know how to do any thing.”

Yet the pair had quickly drifted apart after each man married. By 1860, they probably had not seen each other in well over a decade, and even their letters had grown infrequent. Speed had moved to Kentucky and become a slaveholder. Lincoln wrote that a “philosophical cause” – probably involving their differences over slavery – had caused their friendship to “die by degrees.”

Then, a week after Lincoln’s election to the presidency, Speed wrote to congratulate him on attaining “the highest position in the world” – and, although confessing himself “a political opponent,” offered to share information on the climate in his crucial border slave state. (As if atoning for their years of separation, he signed the letter, “I am as ever your friend, J.F. Speed.”) Lincoln almost immediately invited Speed and his wife to meet him and Mary in Chicago the following week. Lincoln was eager to take the political temperature of Kentucky; Speed was a slaveholder – and a Democrat – he could trust. But no doubt he was also moved by Speed’s gesture of friendship, and eager to see his old companion at that moment of personal triumph and national crisis.

Chicago’s Tremont House hotel, scene of the 1860 rendezvous.Library of CongressChicago’s Tremont House hotel, scene of the 1860 rendezvous.

Speed and his wife, Fanny, arrived at the Tremont House hotel to find Lincoln worn and exhausted, his suite besieged by admirers and office-seekers. But the president-elect perked up at the sight of his friend. “Speed, have you got a room?” Lincoln asked. “Name the hour, Speed, and I will come and see you, and will bring my wife.” But then he thought better of including the women. “Mary and Fanny can stay here,” he said. “Let’s you and I go to your room.”

As soon as the two men were alone together, Lincoln seemed to resume their old intimacy, flopping down onto the bed. “Speed, what are your pecuniary conditions?” the president-elect asked. “Are you rich or poor?” Apparently he meant to offer the Kentuckian a post in his administration, perhaps as secretary of the treasury.

Speed, grasping where the conversation was going, quickly headed Lincoln off: “I do not think you have any office within your gift that I can take.”

An unfolding history of the Civil War with photos and articles from the Times archive and ongoing commentary from Disunion contributors.

But their old friendship rekindled that day in Chicago. Throughout Lincoln’s presidency, Speed would serve as a valued adviser and operative; in the spring of 1861 he helped arm Kentucky’s Unionist forces. He visited the White House often. There is no evidence, however, that Lincoln and Speed ever again shared a bed.

In the 19th century, the boundary between comradeship and sexuality – never a perfectly sharp one – was especially blurry. (Trivia question: which famous Civil War general wrote to a male friend: “I would that we might lie awake in each others arms for one long wakeful night”?) The true nature of Lincoln and Speed’s youthful relationship in Springfield will no doubt be debated for a long time to come. Certainly it is hard to imagine two people sleeping together for four years – especially two large men in a small 19th-century bed – without a great deal of physical intimacy. We do know that they were sexually frank with one another; Speed admitted that the two shared the favors of the same prostitute. (He introduced her to his friend after young Abe asked, “Speed, do you know where I can get some?”) But exactly what they did, or didn’t do, under the covers during more than a thousand nights together is probably unknowable.

Even Speed admitted that there were parts of his friend’s inner self that remained a mystery to him. “Now for me to have lived to see such a man rise from point to point … until he reached the presidency, filling the presidential chair in the most trying times that any ruler ever had, seems to me more like fiction than fact,” he wrote after Lincoln’s death. “Mr. Lincoln was so unlike all the men I had ever known before or see or known since that there is no one to whom I can Compare him.”