Economy

The Uberization Of Dry Cleaning, New Apps Deliver As Old Model Shrinks

Startups are shaking up the dry cleaning industry by offering more convenient options for customers. The industry, which has shrunk by half in the last few decades, is also coping with gradual limits placed on using a common cleaning substance.

Dry cleaning 2.0: soyezBCBG founders in Paris
Dry cleaning 2.0: soyezBCBG founders in Paris
Marion Kindermans

PARIS — Imagine dry cleaners with no physical location, tickets or visible irons. After taxis and banks, this sector is the latest to be Uberized.

Cleanio, a fledgling Parisian startup with five employees, was launched in March 2014 with the idea of ending the endless queues in local dry cleaners. With one click, on its website or via the app, it's possible to schedule the pick-up of clothes, which are returned, cleaned and ironed, 24 to 48 hours later. It operates seven days a week until 11 p.m. To do that, the company is creating partnerships with dry cleaners all over the capital. Rapidity and flexibility are the goals to match the modern habits of customers.

Locally launched mobile app services in Europe follow those like Washio, which has expanded to six U.S. cities. Several French companies are stepping into this realm of dry cleaning 2.0: soyezBCBG, La Cleanbox, Decompressing. The historic leader in the field, 5àSec, understood that it too, had to get up to speed, offering more convenient options for customers. The company will release an app for smartphones in early 2016.

"There are needs in the cleaning field," says Nicolas Boucault, the new head of 5àSec. "But we have to create new types of dry cleaning, like Uber did with taxis. This type of structure will allow the industry to bounce back."

The heavyweight even swallowed Groom Box, which specialized in concierge services for companies, another cleaning niche that is expanding. Dry cleaners must change because the industry has been tumbling for a good 50 years. The network shrunk from about 12,000 shops in the 1970s to 5,000 today. It's a question of survival.

The regulatory constraints, made in March 2013 and reinforced in September 2014, have worsened the difficulties for the industry, whose profit margins were already weak. To eradicate the use of Tetrachloroethylene, the carcinogenic chemical also known as "perc," machines working with this solvent are set to gradually and definitively disappear by 2022.

There's still work to do. According to the French federation for dry cleaners and laundries, 50% of the machines will have been replaced by the end of this year, and a good half by wet cleaning products (and another part by alternative solvents). And this transformation is anything but benign. A number of small artisans, often independent, have closed down because they were unable to adapt.

"The "perc" ban accelerated the closing down of shops," says Olivier Risse, president of the federation. He says that 10% of dry cleaners have disappeared every year because of the change in technology. "The investments needed are big, even though there are state grants," he says, adding that the grants cover 40% to 70% of the purchase of a new wet cleaning machine, depending on the region. In the case of alternative solvents, this figure drops to 15-30%.

The Ministry of Ecology says that, as of June 30, 2015, the government had spent 13.2 million euros in subsidies to help dry cleaners to replace their machines.

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