The Big Discount
... and the Dirty Laundry behind it
by Mike Sterling
It's fun to contact an old friend after not seeing him for some years. I called one recently. His name is Tony. We were both Depression kids and grew up in the shadow of WWII.
We went to the same private high school. It was a prep school. We had two jobs together. I'll describe one of them.
We somehow got a job at a local cleaner. They were not just local but had their corporate offices 280 miles away. They had a lot of branches too.
My friend Tony and I were glad to get the job at 75 cents/hour. We worked very early in the morning and then some after school and on Saturday.
I had an old Pontiac straight 8. I would go over to Tony's house at about 5 AM to roust him for our job.
It was a job out of a Seinfeld episode or maybe Woody Allen. Here's how it went.
We were issued fancy, brand new, uniforms. They were always fresh and clean. We had a silly hat too. We avoided contact with our classmates who were still in bed anyway.
Our job had us sprinting out the front door of the Cleaner and not letting the customer get out of their car. It was the keystone of a marketing plan dreamed up by a little man from the home office.
We were to take our customers' orders, give them a ticket, put their clothes in a bag and toss it in a pile inside the Laundry.
If they were looking for their clean clothes, we would take their ticket and race inside to find their laundry and dry cleaning and bring it to them. Making change in a rain storm was awkward and puzzling to the customer. In summary, it made no sense. It was less efficient and took much longer.
The customers were not at all amused by the gangly teens. Sometimes we had to wrestle with the door of their car to contain them while we politely explained our purpose in life through a closed window. We had to be careful. Customers thought we were going to rob them. The silly suit and hat saved us. What decent crook would wear such an outfit, anyway?
Some customers were afraid to roll down their window to face a uniform-clad teen with that dumb hat. It was difficult because it was foreign to them and the laundry business in general. They wanted to talk to somebody else inside about starch and stains and normal laundry talk. We looked unreliable for these tasks. We were Landry clowns.
If we could not contain them in their cars, we would receive a dour look from whatever boss was lurking around. We had to free the customers eventually, dour look or not.
We started in the morning, way before sunrise. I usually would get an old, even then, 1930's panel truck with no muffler and then chug up and down the main 8 lane highway which was the home of dirty laundry.
All the overnight and short time Motels were there. I would pick up the motel laundry from the prior day, motor to another town nearby, open their branch laudry there and hand it over to a woman clerk who came in about 7 am.
I would then go back to the main laundry with my uniform and hat and accost the poor customers trying to get out of their cars. Tony was better at customer relations and he held them at bay.
We then somehow got to school in my old Pontiac. Tony had to work alone until I, the other clown arrived to save him. He was very charming and could mollify the more annoyed early birds.
The big boss from the main plant hung around checking out his ideas of marketing with uniformed teens.
He thought he had found the secret of drive-up laundry. We were part of his grand marketing design and his 'well thought out plan'. In fact we were his plan!
We heard him comment about a small mom and pop laundry down the street. He said to his subordinate (branch manager of a single location) "We're going to bury them. Out they go!
The cigar smoke continued to wisp out of his mouth and nostrils as he told his underling the fate of those who opposed him.
"They can't compete with my new plan." He seemed to be able to hide away smoke inside his not insignificant belly and bring it forth a minute or so after his last big inhale. He should have joined us in a Clown act.
He had an idea for getting the entire laundry and dry cleaning of the area in one master marketing blitzkrieg! He would offer all laundry and dry cleaning at an unheard of 30% of its present price or 70% off. People rushed to their piggy banks. Rumor of the Great Dirty Sale spread quickly. Our signs on the windows championed the 'Down and Dirty Day'
What an idea! Knock out the competition in one gigantic marketing salvo. What a clever gambit.
Even to our young brains, it seemed a bit risky. After all, we were veterans of the Laundry Corp and its uniformed troops. We above all knew the timing and skill it took to book and return the laundry.
The great man said: "One giant sale and we'll have all the customers and bring aboard more uniformed young men to serve them. Ah, he was suggesting imposing some structure on the Silly Hat Brigade. He seemed to dangle a Clown promotion in our eyes.
The great sales day came on a Saturday and Tony and I were poised to take on the customers. It was going to be busy weekend duty.
As luck would have it, we were well into the fall going on winter now. Not a good time for lingering outside or missing winter coats..
To say the sale was a resounding 'success' was discounting the great man's idea. It was magnificent at 30% of the regular cost. The great man was about 5'5", rotund and with an ever present cigar jammed in his yellowing teeth. He loved laundry. He loved marketing.
The people came and came and came on the dsignated day.. Old attics were emptied. Basement storage was cleaned out mold and all.
Neighbors were notified. Cedar chests were examined for anything that could be laundered or dry cleaned. Wedding dresses and those awkward looking bridesmaid dresses made their first appearance since the wedding.
Small rugs from the porch were scheduled to be cleaned for the first time. The horizon was obscured by cars lined up to get our uniformed attention. But we were just a valiant duo, not a whole regiment that was really needed.
Soon the curbside service became impossible and we moved inside. The slow pace of plan 1 showed its weakness. The Big Boss had never timed our sprints per hour. Tony and I had to execute a retreat. We could not contain the hordes pulling up and honking for attention. Plan 1 people had to adapt to plan 2.
We went inside, shielded somewhat by the 70% Off signs. We finally took a place behind a sturdy counter. It was our last line of defense.
We would grab the customers laundry and dry cleaning, jam it into a bag, write a ticket, rip it in half and give the small part with the crucial number on it to the customer.
With the stub firmly in the customers hand, we would move to the next. But first, our part of the ticket would be attached to a bag with string and the bag would be tossed into a heap behind us.
The inside laundry pile became a mini-Everest and we had to make another mountain nearby. The overhead fling of bags was getting harder to execute.
Tony looked at me and whispered in my ear. "Mike, we'll soon be out of bags!" I nodded knowingly.
Our goal was to affix a unique tag to a bundle of laundry and secure it with some string.
The deluge of customers was sweeping the Great Man's Plan into a mass of bags and rags and unraveled knots.
We were out of bags now and our last line of defense, sting was all we had. All the customers dry cleaning and laundry was now at the mercy of string.
We got a bit carless with our impromptu nautical knots with the none too sturdy string.
Soon it became apparent that the string was not sufficient as garments popped free and got mixed up with other customers garments.
But, still more customers penetrated our faltering defenses. We were slinging the lumps over our shoulders, landing some place in the rear. It was like a scene from a Marx Brothers' Film, forget Seinfeld. We had graduated from Seinfeld and Woody to the Zany Brothers.
Now there was not one pile, but many giant piles. The piles were merging into a mountain range. The laundry and dry cleaning of the customers resided some place behind us. Customers could only see the peaks of the range we had created.
When we looked closely, we saw that many of the bundles and even the early bags had broken loose.
The day ended with the giant piles teetering and creating runaway bags and lumps tumbling down. The boss ordered a semi-truck to come and take our customers' clothes 200 miles away to be sorted and cleaned. It was a grand case of passing the bag.
Ok.... Tony and I saw what was going to happen. For a few days, all was well, but after 10 days, people were upset. "My top coat, where the hell is it?"
Snow flakes were starting to fall. The customers became more demanding. Our promises were dashed. The customers became more strident. "Where the hell are my starched shirts?"
This was the land of starched shirts. We got extensive instructions about them. We had heavy, regular and light starch. In truth we only had two....starch or no starch. Sadly we had only one type of garment .... lost.
Finally after 3 weeks and the attendant uproar, we were given instructions about the mystery load of laundry loafing 280 miles away.
We were to tell the customers to go to the next town, a few miles away, to find an old and abandoned car dealership. It was once a Cadillac, Buick, Pontiac and LaSalle dealership before the war with plenty of room in the service garage. It was cavernous.
When asked for a garment, we had to direct customers with mini-maps to get to their clothes.
The customer visit to the dealership, found wire clothes lines spanning the old dealership garage like a spiders web, with line after line containing clothes, rugs, winter coats ... and box after box with wrinkled garments that were to be found a few miles away when last seen some 3 weeks ago..
The customers were bewildered. It was now cold and the customers needed, no demanded, their winter coats and hats. Where are they? A full month had passed!
They wandered aimlessly in the big garage. They had to open laundry boxes to look inside leaving them snarled and unboxed. The customers were furious. Even the motels dropped their support.
Well, it was a good lessen for Tony and I. 'The Big 70% Discount' was a great learning experience. The little fat guy and his chain of laundries went out of business and Tony and I were not disturbed by it. We moved on to other work adventures. This time it was a Police Station ... more on that later. Groucho tagged along for laughs.
The Laundry Business was a total failure as a business, but whenever Tony and I talk, the GREAT Discount is discussed. Could we have saved it? Why didn't we speak up?
If you find the Laundry hard to believe, I must tell you that it is as true and as unexaggerated as I could make it. Tony and I are probably the only survivors of this experiment in Capitalism and the Free Market.
Footnote: Even though the Great Man's laundry dynasty collapsed, the little Mom and Pop laundry and dry cleaner down the street prospered.