Maximize your drycleaning buck

By Zak Stambor
January 25, 2009
The simple process of getting your clothes dry-cleaned can be simply overwhelming.

Should you take your clothes to a giant chain dry cleaner that sends clothes to a "new state-of-the-art, centrally located plant"? Maybe drop them off at a discount outlet that offers limited services but charges only $2.29 a garment (and $1.19 for a laundered shirt)? Or should you frequent the mom and pop dry cleaner just around the corner or in your high-rise?

It seems almost impossible to make sense of all the options.

And the question for many families feeling the pinch of recession: Should you be spending money on dry cleaning at all?

We asked a few experts for smart tips on using the various dry cleaning options.

Find a reputable cleaner

"If you want your clothes to last a long time, you want to go to a dry cleaner that is knowledgeable and has experience," said Tom Barnett, vice president of the Illinois State Fabricare Association, a professional association of dry cleaners affiliated with the international Drycleaning & Laundry Institute.

Cleaners that are members of the Illinois State Fabricare Association are kept abreast of the industry's ever-evolving technologies and garment-care advancements. But the association only represents about 10 percent of all cleaners, and you can verify if yours is a member by looking for an association sticker on-site, simply asking your cleaner or searching on the association's Web site,

If you don't have a member cleaner nearby—or those in the neighborhood are too expensive—ask friends and neighbors where they take their clothes. Or, turn to user-review sites such as Yelp that allow people to post their experiences.

Evaluate your needs

Cleaning a men's button-down shirt is more straightforward than cleaning a leather jacket, said Barnett. Many discount cleaners offer limited services that cater to more common cleaning needs.

Most men's shirts don't need to be professionally laundered; most men simply don't want to press their own shirts.

When men's shirts are taken in, they're simple to clean and routine to press. Cleaning leather, however, requires a specialized method of wet cleaning, which is not a "dry" clean, but a technique using water and biodegradable soap

Think about what you need your cleaner to do, said Barnett. Discount cleaners often don't have a tailor on-site so they can't hem jeans or repair buttons, and some don't hand-spot garments for difficult stains. Before dropping off your clothes, ask what services the cleaner does and doesn't offer.

Divide and conquer

Most garments that end up at the dry cleaner are simple to clean—they're not stained, and they're not a difficult material to clean like suede or leather, said Yale Gordon, chief executive of DryClean Direct. His local chain of stores, like many cleaners that offer discounted prices, are able to handle most garments, such as slacks, button-down shirts and dresses.

To cut costs, divide your garments into those that require special care and those that don't, said Barnett. Discount cleaners such as DryClean Direct clean most garments for around $2.49 an item, sometimes significantly less than mom and pop cleaners. For the clothes that you don't take to the discount place, a smaller shop can provide more customized service or refer you to a couture cleaner.

Wear things twice

If a garment isn't soiled or smelly, you can probably wear it another time without hurting its longevity, said Darrell New, vice president of Michigan-based 1-800-DryClean, a national chain that picks up and delivers dry cleaning twice a week to customers' homes or offices.

"If you wear a pair of pants, and salt didn't splatter on it, and it's otherwise clean, there's no reason you can't wear the pants twice or three times," he said. "Just don't push it too much."

Be informative

The best way to rid your clothes of stains and get back clean clothes is to give your cleaner as much information as possible, said New. Where is the stain? What caused the stain? How old is it?

"The more information you give them, the better service you'll get," he said.

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