Murphy's Law: Dry Cleaning Catastrophe


May 20,2008: Dry cleaning shops on or near U.S. Air Force bases are getting a taste of what their peers around army bases went through three years ago. In both cases, a new work uniform was introduced that could not be dry cleaned or starched. Strictly wash and wear. Troops have been asking for this since the late 1940s. Now they have it, and hundreds of dry cleaners are out of business, or operating on a lot less revenue.

This year, the air force introduced ABU (Airman Battle Uniform). Three years earlier, the army introduced the new ACU (Army Combat Uniform). Most of the cleaning shops on base lost 30-50 percent of their business when their military customers switched to the new uniforms. Shops near bases lost less, depending on how many of their customers were military. Between the army and air force, you have over 800,000 people wearing uniforms. Most wear the ACU or BDU to work, at least some of the time. While the "Class A" (jacket, shirt and tie) uniforms still get dry cleaned, the cleaners around army and air force bases have now lost over $5 million a week in revenue. That's over a quarter billion bucks a year.

But it gets worse. Since 2003, with the invasion of Iraq, and increased operations in Afghanistan, the army and air force have seen about twenty percent of their troops away from their home bases. This leaves all the retail establishments back home hurting. Most tighten their belts and hang on until the troops return. But the cleaning and starching of combat uniforms has been around for over sixty years. Generations of dry cleaning shop owners have made a living from it. Suddenly, most of it is gone, even with the troops still in residence.

Some cleaners are scrambling to develop new cleaning services that will enhance the uniforms, and not rely on starch or dry cleaning (both of which mess up the stealthiness coating and permanent press features), and bring back some of the lost revenue. They might succeed, but for the moment, the troops are enjoying the reduction in workload, and living expenses.


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