Crumpled clothes foretell financial woes

Clothes hang at a dry cleaning store in San Francisco, Calif.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: It's important to be presentable. To be nicely dressed in a professional environment. But it turns out not only do your clothes say a lot about you, they say a lot about the economy as well. From Boston, Beth Teitell reports.


BETH TEITELL: Months ago, the head of a big, dry cleaner outside of Boston noticed a change in the condition of the clothes coming into his stores. The rings around the collar were darker, the wrinkles more pronounced.

ARTHUR ANTON: I've been noticing more on certain areas of the clothes, like behind the knees and behind the elbows.

That's Arthur Anton, Jr., chief operating officer of Anton's Cleaners.

ANTON: It's obvious to me that they are different stains from different wearings. Sometimes you'll see one type of stain on one part of the garment, and another kind of stain somewhere else.

As a struggling nation tries to eke extra wearings out of garments before they're dry cleaned, a new economic indicator has emerged: the Crumple Index. It's the cleaning version of that new flu-tracking tool by Google, which can detect flu activity before the Centers for Disease Control.

Indeed, last July -- months before the National Bureau of Economic Research declared a recession -- the head of another big dry cleaner predicted the economy was headed for trouble. And with almost one third of households using dry cleaners, Christa Heagerty should know.

CHRISTA HEAGERTY: We started noticing that the customers were taking longer to pick up their clothes.

Christa Heagerty is president of Dependable Cleaners in the Boston area. She says the average pick-up time jumped from five days to almost 10. That's bad for the wardrobe, and bad for dry cleaners. They don't get paid until the clothing's retrieved. So...

HEAGERTY: We worked with our managers, and they called all of their customers and gave friendly reminder calls.

Well, the calls started out "friendly."

HEAGERTY: If they don't come within 45 days, the chance of them coming in to pick it up is slimmer.

But the economy is no laughing matter for dry cleaners. Mary Scalco is senior vice president of the Dry Cleaning and Laundry Institute. The group's members report a drop in business by as much as 30 percent, as people trade work suits for sweat suits, and delay bringing in clothing. But here's the rub.

MARY SCALCO: You think that you're saving money by stretching out your visits, but what happens is if you can't get the stains out, or if you are actually doing detriment to the garment, that you've overstretched it, that you can't get it back in shape, it's not going to look the same after you wear it -- you wind up needing to buy a new piece of clothing, which actually costs you more money than if you paid for the dry cleaning in between.

In other words, you get taken to the cleaners either way.

In Boston, this is Beth Teitell for Marketplace.

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