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Can micro laundromats and macro machines go hand in hand?

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Gunjan Taneja, Co-Founder, Director and Head of Marketing & Product, UClean

Lifting the veil over the future of the laundry business, Gunjan Taneja, Co-Founder, Director and Head of Marketing & Product, UClean plots out how her company has reached its present position, where it plans to reach and what it will need to get there.

Favoured fabrics

India is a very diverse country; the climate, culture and traditions vary every 200 kilometres. The kind of fabric that needs to be processed depends so much on the cultural fabric of the region. The fabric we process in metros and non-metros is very different.

When we started the company, we predicted that the demand for laundry services would go up compared to that for dry cleaning. We saw a change happening, where people were opting for more comfortable clothing, with a preference for western clothing, that doesn’t need as much dry cleaning as traditional Indian clothing. Even in Tier II/III cities, a lot of youngsters are wearing only western designs. That’s why we opened in a laundromat format rather than dry cleaning collection centres.

There is a great push for sustainability right now. I am expecting a lot more sustainable fabrics to come in.

Laundry vs dry cleaning

We are a laundry-first company. We always promote ourselves as ‘laundry and dry cleaning’, and not the other way around. The plan was to make professional laundry services accessible and affordable for each neighbourhood.

All our stores are capable of processing the most complicated fabrics like pashminas. We can deal with region-specific garments, and provide specialised services like polishing, which is very specific to South India. If it is designwear, our customer can tell us the name of the designer and we will find that we have laundered some of their creations at one of our stores or at the factory before.

Know your customer

The gender breakup of our customers is 60/40, where 60% of the orders come from men. Many men stay alone, and are more likely to opt for our services. Even if they live with their family, they’d like to spare them the burden of doing laundry. The predominant age group among our customers is between 24 to 45.

Why laundromats?

India is a very cost-conscious market, but real estate is not cheap. Labour is affordable, but especially in metro cities, real estate is not. That’s why we focussed on the micro laundromat format; by optimising store size, we could open a store in a 200 square feet space. In places like Shimla, we’ve been able to manage within 100s square feet or less.

Choice of machines

With this format in mind, we started off with 10 kg machines. As we started developing customer relationships, we moved onto 10 or 15 kg stackers with 15 or 20 kg washer-dryers. In the beginning, we were not sure if such machines would suit our format; now, we are confident.

Most ‘accessory’ machines like packing machines or trolleys are designed for bigger processing units. We have consciously started making these for the laundromat model – an indigenous solution to our problems.

Beyond clothes

Shoe laundry has been one of our biggest success stories. Until 5-6 years ago, there was no one to service shoes; people could clean leather shoes or mend them, at most. There was nothing for sneakers and other premium shoes. People across the country are into ‘sneaker mania’ investing in expensive, trendy shoes.

People in Tier III cities are also buying high-end bags; then, they are left to their own devices for cleaning, with specific solutions other than home remedies.

Cleaning shoes and bags is a manually tedious job. We want to introduce an automated shoe cleaning machine which we can integrate with our new stores setups, and maybe also set up a standalone shoe cleaning unit which can be dedicated to a cluster of stores. We want to increase our capacity for this segment because we see a huge demand for it.

Direct-to-home

We have also built capacity without our stores to clean blankets, carpets, curtains and other large cloth items. We have also ventured into direct-to-home services like carpet cleaning, sofa cleaning and others. We are enabling our stores to fulfill these requirements, along with traditional services. Because of the spread of our stores, we are able to reach out to people in 90+ stores across the country.

Future segments

Another focus area is building a larger leather portfolio. I want to create a complete platform for leather cleaning, repair and restoration.

We are working with a group of experts to develop solutions for waterproofing shoes, carpets and clothes. We are also developing antimicrobial solutions which, once used to coat clothes, will not allow microorganisms to grow on them for 50 to 70 washes. This will be especially useful for shirts, socks and shoes.

Geographical growth

We definitely want to go international. We’ve already launched in April, and are very keen on expansion in the Middle East and North Africa, apart from South Asia and Southeast Asia.

The biggest growth numbers are going to come from Tier II and Tier III centres. These cities are seeing a proliferation of aspirational entrepreneurs and lack professional laundry facilities. Many such people come to Tier I cities to buy branded or luxury garments, but are left high and dry back home, when the used garment needs to be laundered.

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