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Drycleaners (From CHECKBOOK, Spring/Summer 2014)
 
Go to Ratings of 120 Delaware Valley Area Drycleaners

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Drycleaners

Of the 120 area drycleaning shops we evaluated in our last full, published article, 44 were rated “superior” for “doing service properly” by at least 90 percent of their surveyed customers, but 19 were rated “superior” by fewer than 60 percent of their surveyed customers. 

In many cases, we found that some shops charged prices 50 percent higher than nearby competitors. In fact, a few had prices twice as high as some competitors. 

But many cleaners provide high-quality service at reasonable prices. Among the shops that got our top rating for quality, 43 percent had below-average prices. 

Our Ratings Tables will help you select a good shop. But keep your own eyes on quality: Clerks should ask about any stains when you drop off garments; the shop should have a good system to track your clothes; and, of course, the clothes should be ready on time, look great, and smell good when you pick them up. 

To get the best results, remove everything from pockets, check for any stains, and give the clerk all the information you can about stains and spills—including spills that have not left a visible mark. Before leaving your clothes, ask about prices and make sure every item is listed on the ticket. Don’t lose the ticket. When you pick up your clothes, take a few minutes to make sure they are fully cleaned, undamaged, and properly pressed. 

You may be able to avoid the cleaner—or at least reduce the difficulty of the cleaner’s task—by taking a few steps to deal with stains on your own. But if you aren’t careful you can do more harm than good. We offer a few tips below. One key is to act on stains fast. 

Another wedding. Time to break out the ol’ favorite wedding suit. That’s when the big blotch on the sleeve reminds you of the last wedding you attended, where you set your elbow in some very red sauce. Now you need a drycleaner who’s up to the challenge. 

Fortunately, our ratings reveal many area drycleaners can be trusted with your favorite threads. At these shops, you get back clothes you feel good putting on, with no hassle and no delay. But problems do happen, and some shops often aren’t up to the task. 

Which Outfits Can You Trust? 

Most drycleaning shops get the job done right almost every time. But some shops don’t seem to provide consistent results, as evidenced by the ratings we receive from their customers. Our Ratings Tables show our evaluation of area shops. The table reports ratings we received from area consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) when we asked them to rate drycleaning shops they had recently used “inferior,” “adequate,” or “superior” for “doing service properly on the first try,” “starting and completing service promptly,” “letting you know cost early,” “pleasantness of staff,” and “overall quality.” For shops that received 10 or more ratings in our surveys, our Ratings Tables report the percent of surveyed customers who rated each shop “superior” (as opposed to “inferior” or “adequate”) on each of these questions. Our Ratings Tables also report the percent who rated each shop “adequate” or “superior” (as opposed to “inferior”) for “overall quality.” (Click here for more information on our customer survey and other research methods.) 

If you want to consider shops we haven’t evaluated, ask friends for recommendations. Fortunately, almost everyone you know will have at least some experience with a drycleaner. The obvious advantage of our survey ratings is that they reflect thousands of customer experiences; since all shops seem to do the job right at least some of the time, it is important to get a lot of feedback to find the ones that fail most often. 

You will also get some insight on your own. Key points to check— 

  • When you drop off garments, do clerks thoroughly inquire about stains and carefully note information you provide? 
  • Do clerks provide coherent answers to your questions about the feasibility of removing difficult stains? 
  • Are your clothes ready when promised? 
  • Do the clothes look and smell clean? 
  • Were the clothes pressed properly? One of the most common complaints we receive from drycleaning customers is that shops improperly press garments, leaving “double creases” and crushing or losing buttons. 
  • Does the drycleaner have an efficient system for finding your garments when you pick them up? 

Which Shops Charge Low Prices? 

Quality is only part of the picture. You’ll also want to pay reasonable prices. 

For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our Ratings Tables show our price comparison score, which will help you find shops where you won’t lose your shirt. To prepare our price comparison score, our mystery shoppers checked prices on 12 items. The price comparison scores show how each shop’s prices compared to the average prices of all shops’ prices for the items. We adjusted the scores so that the average of all shops equals $100. A score of $125, for example, means a shop’s prices were 25 percent above the all-shop average; a score of $75 means a shop’s prices were 25 percent below average. 

The price comparison scores are a good predictor. For the most part, shops that charge low prices for some jobs charge low prices for all. 

As you can see, most shops were within 20 percent above or below the all-shop average. But there were a few at the extremes. Cleaning that costs $30 at a lower priced shop could cost $60 or more at higher priced shops. 

Fortunately, you don’t have to pay a high price to get high-quality work. We found no correlation between price and customer satisfaction with service quality. 

You can also get a feel for price levels at cleaners that were not evaluated. Table 1 shows the average prices for the 12 cleaning jobs we priced; call other shops to see how their prices compare on the same items. When comparing prices, provide the same information to each shop. Keep in mind that garments with pleats or other special features could cost extra to clean and press, and that the price for cleaning certain fabrics, colors, and sizes could be more than for others. 

Table 1—Price Variation for Some Common Drycleaning Jobs

Table 1
Price Variation for Some Common Dry-Cleaning Jobs
Description Lowest price 10th percentile Average price 90th percentile Highest price
Men’s two-piece wool suit (dryclean)
100-percent wool gabardine, navy blue, pleated pants with cuffs, no stains
3.90 7.00 11.04 14.50 23.00
Men’s tie (dryclean)
Polyester/rayon, all dark colors, no stains but has creases from repeated wear
1.95 2.23 4.08 5.64 12.50
Men’s dress shirt (launder)
100-percent cotton, on hanger, no stains
0.99 1.45 1.95 2.58 3.50
Women’s two-piece suit (dryclean)
Polyester/rayon, black, plain skirt, no stains
3.90 7.25 11.08 14.50 24.50
Women’s silk blouse (dryclean)
100-percent silk, pink, no gathers, no detailing, no collar, short-sleeve
1.95 3.35 5.76 7.21 14.50
Women’s wool overcoat (dryclean)
100-percent wool, black, mid-shin length, plain, no stains
1.95 6.10 14.77 21.65 32.50
Men’s tie (dryclean)
100-percent silk, all dark colors, plain, no stains but has creases from repeated wear
1.95 3.45 5.47 7.09 10.00
Men’s overcoat (dryclean)
100-percent cashmere, knee length, lined, no stains
1.95 9.45 15.42 20.00 36.50
Men’s khaki slacks (launder)
100-percent cotton, pleated, no stains
1.95 3.97 5.53 7.06 12.50
Women’s skirt (dryclean)
Polyester/rayon blend, dark color, lined, knee-length, no stains
1.95 3.95 5.56 7.04 12.75
Women’s Oxford blouse (launder)
100-percent cotton, white, no pleats, no gathers, on hanger, no stains
1.35 1.70 3.78 5.95 13.50
Women’s dress (dryclean)
Wool blend, knee length, no pleats, no gathers, lined, sleeveless, no stains
1.95 7.11 10.49 13.86 24.50

Don’t assume that all shops in a chain charge the same prices. Although some chains do have consistent prices from shop to shop, we found several chains with shop-to-shop differences in price comparison scores of 10 percent or more. 

What Should You Do? 

Regardless of which drycleaner you choose, your satisfaction will depend in part on you. 

Before taking your clothes to be cleaned, remove everything from all pockets and examine the garments carefully for stains. 

If there are stains to be removed, point them out to the clerk and provide as much information about them as you can. The more the spotter knows about the substance that caused a stain, how long it has been in the fabric, and what, if anything, you have used to try to treat the stain, the better the chances of removing it. Tell the clerk about any area of fabric on which there may be hidden spots—particularly where there has been a spill of a sugar-containing substance, such as a soft drink, white wine, or fruit juice. The best approach is to pin a tag on each stain to ensure that the spotter gets all the needed information. 

When you drop off your clothes, ask about prices. Find out if the price includes special services like waterproofing that you don’t want. If you don’t need a service, ask them not to do it and to adjust your bill accordingly. Finally, hang onto your ticket; in case something goes wrong, the ticket will indicate the items you brought in and the treatment you agreed to pay for. 

When you pick up your cleaned clothes, bring your ticket with you. Take a moment to look over your clothes, checking to see that they are pressed properly and aren’t missing any buttons. 

What If Things Go Wrong? 

What do you do if an item you pick up from the cleaners is still stained? Or there’s a stain that wasn’t there before—a white dress comes back yellowed or the fabric in your favorite jacket is so puckered it looks like seersucker? Sometimes clothes are damaged in the drycleaning process, and occasionally they are lost. 

The remedy depends on who is responsible. Drycleaning problems may derive from any of three sources—the drycleaner, the manufacturer of the garment, or you. If a garment is damaged through proper cleaning by a process authorized on the care label, it is the manufacturer’s fault. If a stain or other damage you’ve caused can’t reasonably be expected to be fixed, then it’s your fault. If a garment is damaged because a drycleaner uses a cleaning process not authorized by the care label, or fails to take reasonable care (for instance, damages a garment in the pressing process), it’s the drycleaner’s fault. 

If you believe your drycleaner is responsible for a problem such as an overlooked or new stain, ask to have the work redone. A reputable shop will be happy to redo it for free. If the shop admits an error that resulted in permanent damage to your garment, the shop should compensate you for the price of the garment and waive cleaning charges. 

Unfortunately, you can’t count on receiving the replacement cost of the item. According to the “Fair Claims Guide,” published by the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute (DLI) and widely used by drycleaners, consumers, and mediators, a drycleaner is obliged to cover the replacement cost of the garment only after adjustment for its condition and based on the unused portion of its life expectancy. The guide includes life expectancy tables—two years for a tie, for example, and three years for a women’s blouse. 

If the drycleaner denies responsibility for a permanently damaged item, you can ask the shop to send the garment to DLI’s Textile Analysis Laboratory for a determination of responsibility. You can’t submit the garment yourself, but a drycleaner that belongs to DLI can submit it for a fee. 

DLI is able to determine the cause of damage in many cases. If DLI determines that the garment is defective, or its care label is incorrect, then you will be advised to take the garment, along with the laboratory report, to the store where you purchased the garment and ask for a refund, and the store should reimburse you. The store can often, but not always, return the defective or mislabeled item to its manufacturer. If DLI determines that the drycleaner is at fault, then DLI will notify the drycleaner. Drycleaners that belong to DLI, and even those that don’t, usually cooperate with a DLI laboratory judgment and compensate customers according to the “Fair Claims Guide.” 

Although the DLI process is often helpful, keep in mind that the cleaner won’t always be blamed even for doing substandard work. For example, if your garment comes back with a stain that the shop caused to be permanently set, DLI probably won’t know whether the shop could have successfully used a better sequence of stain removal steps. Furthermore, even if the stain could have been removed by the optimum procedure, DLI may not be able or inclined to say that your shop’s failed procedure was unreasonable (negligent). 

If you can’t reach agreement with a shop, complain to a local government consumer agency or the Better Business Bureau. If a shop refuses even to send a garment for analysis by the DLI, these offices will help you submit the garment. 

What Are the Best Ways to Treat Stains Yourself? 

There are considerable risks to do-it-yourself stain removal. You might set a stain, cause dyes to migrate and stain otherwise undamaged areas, create a light spot by removing dye, damage fabric by abrasion, leave a ring around the area of treatment, or damage a garment in other ways. It is always safer to use a professional cleaner, who has both the supplies and the skills to do the job properly, or recognize that a stain can’t be removed without damaging a fabric’s fiber or dyes. Using a professional makes particular sense if your garment is very expensive, has great sentimental value, or is especially delicate. 

Nonetheless, it is possible to remove many stains yourself, and you may wish to remove simple stains from basic garments that are not especially valuable to you. 

Be Quick 

Even if you will be sending your garment to a professional cleaner, you’ll help matters by quickly removing as much staining matter as possible. One step that is always safe is to blot up any liquid immediately. Don’t rub. Rubbing can change a fabric’s surface texture so that even when the stain is removed, the garment won’t look right. Use an absorbent white cloth, tissue, or paper towel. First touch it to the edge of any standing liquid so that you can draw off the liquid without forcing more of it into the fabric. Then blot the fabric by pressing absorbent pads from both sides. 

If the staining matter is pasty, rather than liquid, use a butter knife or spatula to remove as much of it as possible. 

Move on to the next steps as soon as possible, since many stains set with time. 

Be Prepared 

Before proceeding, check your garment’s care label. Your methods will differ depending on whether the label calls for washing or drycleaning or permits both options. You’ll also need to heed warnings about such factors as colorfastness, temperature tolerance, and tolerance for bleach. If a label says “professionally dryclean only,” don’t try to remove a stain yourself. 

If you have any question about a fabric’s response to a cleaning agent you might use, pretest it. Try the agent on a hidden area, such as the tail of a blouse or shirt, hem, or inside seam. Check whether dye comes off, and look to see what the fabric looks like after the agent dries. 

Drycleaning solvents and some other chemicals you may work with are poisonous. Wear rubber gloves and avoid skin contact with these materials. Because the vapors are often harmful and some solvents are highly flammable, work either outdoors or in a well-ventilated area away from any flame, including pilot lights on a stove or water heater. Don’t smoke. 

Greasy or Waxy Stains 

Certain stains are greasy and must be removed by agents that can dissolve or break up the greasy material. These include salad oils and cooking oils, butter and margarine, road oils and tar, and waxes. 

If the garment is washable, you may be able to remove a greasy stain by working detergent or a laundry pretreatment product into the stain, then rinsing in warm water. Often, however, you’ll need to buy a grease solvent. For non-washable items, a grease solvent is your only option. 

Saturate the stain with the grease solvent and blot it, holding an absorbent white pad behind the stain so that the staining substance can pass through and be absorbed away. Repeat this process until the stain disappears. 

Ordinary Non-greasy Stains 

Many stains are not greasy and can be removed with water. These include soft drinks, many fruit juices, alcoholic beverages, candy (other than chocolate), ketchup, coffee, food coloring, and ink from felt-tip (not ballpoint) pens. Tea stains can be very difficult to treat because they can be set by many detergents and other products. 

If a garment is washable, many stains are removed by ordinary laundering. Let the stained garment soak in cool water for a half hour or more before washing. A more conservative approach for washable garments—and the only approach for non-washable items—is to sponge the stain with cool water. If that doesn’t succeed, work detergent or a laundry pretreatment product into the stain and then repeat the cool water process. 

Combination Stains 

Some stains contain both greasy and non-greasy substances. These include chocolate, cream, ice cream, gravy and meat juice, mayonnaise, and lipstick. 

Treat these stains first as you would treat a greasy stain and then, after drying, as you would treat a non-greasy stain. 

Other Stains 

Some stains require special treatments, for example: 

  • Blood—Use the non-greasy-stains method; if that doesn’t work, put a few drops of household ammonia (diluted half and half with water) on the stain, repeat treatment with detergent and water, and then rinse. 
  • Chewing gum—Scrape off the gum; this will be easier if you first rub it with ice to harden. If there is still a stain, sponge it with a grease solvent. 

Final Advice 

If you’re uncertain about the right treatment for a stain, or highly value a garment, take it to a drycleaner. If you have already tried to remove the stain, tell the cleaner exactly what you did. 

Unfortunately, removing a stain often leaves an equally unattractive discolored ring. This ring may result from the wicking of fabric sizing or dye material to the outside of your wetted area. To minimize this problem, lightly wipe the outer edge of the treated area with solvent or water, whichever you are using for the cleaning. Brush toward the center of the treated area. 

Extra Advice:
Cleanable Clothing, Proper Care 

You can reduce drycleaning bills and keep your clothing looking good by paying attention to these clothing selection and care tips— 

  • Before purchasing a garment, check the care label. You’ll save money if you can wash, rather than dryclean, an item and don’t mind ironing it, if necessary. 
  • Be wary of purchasing items such as suedes that are difficult to clean. Worse still are items that drycleaners consider unserviceable—for example, garments that require the body to be cleaned one way and the trim another way. 
  • Store your clothes carefully. Don’t cram them into your closet. To maintain their shape and freshness, clothes need room to “breathe.” Never hang sweaters like shirts over a hanger; their weight can stretch them out of shape. Store them folded instead. Let a damp or wet coat dry before hanging it in your closet. 
  • When your clothes come back from a drycleaner, don’t store them in their plastic bags. Let them air out. To protect them from dust, cut the bag just below the shoulders and leave the top part over the clothes, or store them in fabric garment bags. 
  • Hang clothes properly. Hang jackets unbuttoned on wooden or plastic “wishbone” hangers rather than on wire ones. Remove bulky or heavy items from the pockets; these can pull the garment out of shape. 
  • Brush your clothes frequently but gently with a soft bristle brush or light-colored sponge. This helps keep dirt from settling into the fabric. 
  • Never press clothes that are dirty or stained. The ironing can set some stains and further embed dirt in the fibers. 
  • When storing clothes for the season, put them in bags containing mothballs, but don’t allow mothballs to come into direct contact with clothes. Place the mothballs in a separate paper or cloth bag. 
  • Be careful about perspiration and deodorant. While perspiration can harm your clothes, so can deodorant. When applying deodorant, perfume, or body lotion, let it dry before dressing. Underarm shields are recommended for silk, which is readily stained by perspiration. 
  • Don’t leave your garments in sunlight or other direct light for long periods. Sunlight, and even artificial light, can cause fading. 
  • Although good home care can reduce trips to the cleaners, be sure to have your clothes cleaned when they are dirty. Stains set with age, and ground-in dirt causes fibers to wear. Also, fabric-damaging insects are attracted to dirty garments. 

Extra Advice:
Perc and Its Alternatives 

Perchloroethylene (or “perc”) remains by far the most common drycleaning solvent used nationwide. But because it can be a hazardous air pollutant and is a likely human carcinogen, the EPA has instituted rules governing perc emissions. As a result, drycleaners located in residential buildings or near sensitive populations (such as nursing homes or daycare centers) will have to stop using perc-based machines by 2020. And all drycleaners have had to reduce perc emissions by using newer equipment with lower perc emissions or employing different cleaning techniques. 

Some local and state governments have further curtailed, or even banned, the use of perc. In this area, Philadelphia has accelerated to 2014 the EPA’s ban on perc use in residential buildings and enacted tighter restrictions on emissions. In 2008, the New Jersey legislature considered a statewide ban on perc, but the measure failed. 

In regions where drycleaners have been forced to adopt alternatives to perc, many have chosen hydrocarbon-based solvents such as EcoSolv (ChevronPhillips), DF-2000 (ExxonMobil), and Hydroclene (Caled). Studies of these solvents’ effectiveness for the most part conclude that they clean as well as perc, but hydrocarbon-based solvents are not exactly green alternatives. They are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to smog and produce hazardous waste that needs to be carefully controlled and captured. 

Other more environmentally friendly methods are available to drycleaners: 

  • “Wet-cleaning,” a non-toxic, water-based cleaning method, has been used by many drycleaners for years. This process basically involves a high-tech washing machine that works in conjunction with stretching devices that help garments retain their size and shape. Results of tests comparing the effectiveness of wet-cleaning to the perc-based method have been mixed. In tests conducted by the EPA, participants rated wet-cleaned clothes as high as or higher than drycleaned clothes. But Consumer Reports’ tests found that the wet-cleaning method shrank several sample dryclean-only garments, and Consumer Reports suggests wet-cleaning be used only for clothes labeled “hand-wash only.” Wet-cleaning equipment is gaining in popularity among drycleaners; typically, shops use wet-cleaning equipment for some types of garments and a perc-based method for others. 
  • Drycleaners are increasingly using liquid silicone machines that employ a process and solvent marketed as GreenEarth. Liquid silicone is a clear and odorless liquid similar to the basic ingredients used in underarm deodorants, cosmetics, and shaving lotions. When introduced in 2000, this technique struggled to clean as well as perc, but several reformulations have greatly improved its performance. GreenEarth reports that about 1,400 locations in the U.S. currently use its method. 
  • The CO2 method uses liquid carbon dioxide combined with a detergent. Tests conducted by Consumer Reports and others have shown that this method can be as effective as traditional drycleaning, and the liquid carbon dioxide has little environmental impact—the carbon dioxide itself is recycled from other industrial uses. But due to the high cost of equipment, very few shops have adopted this method. 

Although some shops have for years positioned themselves as “green” cleaners, we are just now beginning to see real movement toward green alternative methods. At the time this issue went to print, a small but growing number of shops were using alternative methods, but since this field is changing so rapidly, we did not identify them. But ask drycleaners you’re considering about these options. The more customers who tell shops they’re interested in alternatives to perc and hydrocarbon solvents, the more likely they are to invest in new equipment. Check the following websites listing cleaners that use alternative methods to locate one in your area: 



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