Zips enters Philly with $2 dry-cleaning, free for unemployed

A Maryland-based dry-cleaning chain is expanding in suburban Philadelphia, offering cheap prices and state-of-the-art automation and hoping to make it up on volume.

Zips Dry Cleaning, based in Greenbelt, Md., and owned by a group of its early franchisees, opened in Warminster last year and plans a second store in Bensalem in October. Local franchisee John Casiello, whose brother Bart owns three Zips in Maryland, advertises all garments at $1.99 ("get it to us by 9 a.m., we can get it done by 5.")

 That's cheaper than the $4 to $6 per sports coat I was quoted at places I called in Northeast and South Philly, Center City and Bucks County. (This Saturday, the Warminster store is running a 99 cent promotion, no commercial customers allowed. Casiello says he serves unemployed people for free, up to three garments a week.)

 "To make any bottom line" at $1.99 per garment, "he'll have to make a lot of work," and it becomes a challenge for cleaners to take the time that "quality" shops put in to fix garments that need repair, said Mark Pollock, owner of Signature Cleaners over in Doylestown.

How's Zips work for less? 1) Cash up front. "In a lot of drycleaners the receivables are up on the conveyors," in the form of clean but unpaid-for garments, Casiello told me. 2) "The system this franchise has developed has streamlined the process. Everything's computerized. It doesn't eliminate labor, we have about eight people here, we do a lot of training. But the system does lower the number of people and, so, the cost." 3) High volume. "We do in a day what most drycleaners do in a week," 1,800 to 2,500 garments.

At that level Casiello's covering his costs. His goal is to boost volume above 700,000 garments a year; at that level Casiello expects a gross profit margin of 20-25%. 

At Zips, shirts, skirts and jackets are bar-coded, tagged, identified, and moved from station to station. It's open-air and under glass, so customers can watch. There's a pre-treatment area to pull off stains. Then through the chemicals, then "on to the pressing station," back to the center of the store and to the customers. "The whole store is our plant. Nothing's sent to third parties." The goal is "an open floor plan and a nice lobby, like down the Shore where you can see them make the fudge," not the more familiar "mom and pop operation" behind the counter.

Casiello used to run video production stores in Yardley and Feasterville. The Warminster store is in a former Washington Mutual home loan office on the busy corner of York and Street Roads.