Hangers Cleaners president Joe Runyan knows that he doesn’t work in a “sexy” industry. Many dry cleaners have the reputation — deserved or not — of being dirty and hot, while providing poor customer service. For Runyan, this impression was reinforced each time he patronized a dry cleaner.

“I had some horrible experiences when I went to get my clothes cleaned,” said Runyan, a former marketing executive. “It was almost like [they were] doing me a favor taking my money. I hated it so much I decided to start my own.”

When Runyan founded his Kansas City, Missouri-based company in 2004, he saw an opportunity to take on local stalwarts. His approach focused on a three-pronged strategy of perfecting and promoting the basics: product, service and branding. Today, Hangers Cleaners is a success, with the largest pick-up and delivery service in Kansas City and 2009 revenue scaling $1.6 million.
Here’s how Hangers Cleaners changed the game against the competition.

Product: ‘A different mousetrap’
For a dry cleaner, Runyan doesn’t use the words “dry cleaning” very often. “We consider ourselves ‘garment care specialists,’” Runyan said of Hangers’ market positioning.
After researching the dry cleaning industry, Runyan became alarmed at the cleaning process. “The chemicals they were using really scared me,” said Runyan. “It’s like cleaning your clothes in lighter fluid.”

Taking a cue from the green movement, Runyan went the eco-friendly route and obtained a license to clean clothes with environmentally safe liquid carbon dioxide. This cleaning process differentiated Hangers from competitors and provided “a different mousetrap” to draw new customers, said Runyan. (See how the Hangers Cleaners process works.)

“Being eco-friendly is great,” said Runyan, “but I’m not a tree hugger by any stretch. To be green has to be market-driven.”

Being green also allowed Hangers to obtain a waiver from the state of Missouri exempting the company from having to collect or pay environmental taxes.

Convenience: ‘The profitable part of my business’
Entering a crowded Kansas City marketplace, Runyan knew that competition would be tough: “Any new customer we get, we’re stealing from another cleaner.” So he focused on making the customer experience as simple as possible. To do so, Hangers offers free pick-up and delivery service with no added surcharges.

“By far, the No. 1 reason people use us is convenience,” Runyan said. “We were able to provide a service to them that cut one more errand out of [customers’] daily routine.”

Beyond providing convenience to its customers, free delivery and pick-up is a boon to Hangers’ balance sheet. The combined overhead of the driver, vehicle, maintenance, insurance and fuel requires far less capital than operating a storefront 75 hours a week.

“Our vans on average do about two times the revenue of one of our stores,” said Runyan. “This is the profitable part of my business.”

The pick-up and delivery service also keeps Hangers’ cash flow positive. Instead of waiting for a customer to pay for items at a storefront, Hangers is immediately paid with the customer’s credit card on file once clothes are delivered.

Branding: ‘Let the business reflect you as the owner’
In the early days, Hangers marketed itself as being green, locally owned and providing free pick-up and delivery. Today, the company still emphasizes these points, but it also has fun with its messaging via e-mail campaigns, social media, T-shirts and more. Always the joker, Runyan said one of his best lessons learned is to “let the business reflect you as an owner.”

“Customers like to get stuff from us because it makes them laugh,” Runyan said. “We have adopted and embraced that we are kind of quirky.”

Some examples of that include T-shirts that say “Sniff Me,” hangers that read “In the closet and proud,” and perhaps their most famous T-shirt, featuring a drawing of former President Bill Clinton saying, “I wish Monica and I knew about Hangers.”

This messaging comes with risks — some customers have called to complain. “You have the tendency to make some people mad,” said Runyan. “That’s a risk I’m willing to live with.”

Antonio Neves is an award-winning journalist, host of Business on Main’s Web series, “Cool Runnings,” and a correspondent for NBC NextMedia. Check him out at www.antonioneves.net.

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