Commoditisation, Cat Hair and a Rude Dry Cleaner From Stockholm


Commoditisation, Cat Hair and a Rude Dry Cleaner From Stockholm

This year in Smallville I’ve been writing about commoditisation and the need for modern Small Businesses to aggressively, deliberately and proactively respond in ways that move them from commodity status to necessity status.

There are two other articles in this series, Embrace Your Inner Commodity – You Know You Have To, where I wrote how we can structure internal processes to better compete on value not price and Your Customer Will Only Remember How You Made Them Feel, where I discussed how we can structure external processes to help customers better recognise the value we provide.

Both of these strategies have profound importance to a modern Small Business because commoditisation is usually inevitable, pushing us all to surrender our unique offering and to compete on price alone.

Commoditisation and Christmas.

As we approach the Christmas season, the spectre of the commoditisation C curve will continue to pursue many businesses – some of whom will not reopen their doors next Christmas because of it.

Now might be the perfect time to pause and consider if commoditisation is stalking your Small Business too. Below is a tale of one such business that didn’t successfully deal with commoditisation and by the time you’re reading this, will have ceased trading unable to compete on price alone.

Grumpy dry cleaners and cat hair.

Working with Small Businesses and professional people means I usually wear long sleeves shirts. At the end of a busy week, I can have 5 to 7 shirts that all require laundering and precision ironing. Now, if you’re like me, the threat of ironing is a weaponisable state of affairs.

You see if I’m without a laundered shirt, I can’t see a customer, and if I had to launder and iron them myself, I’d go mad. If I attempt a local forced outsourcing to a family member, the prospect of having to iron 26 of dad’s shirts, in my house, is akin to turning off the WiFi and other cruel and unusual punishment of a teenager (or legal grounds for marital discord with significant financial and physical ramifications).

So, like any good business owner, I outsource relational bliss (and starched collars) to the local Dry Cleaner (all the while, secretly despising the forced expenditure of my hard earned money, on an otherwise commodisable task my teenager could surely accomplish – but I digress).

A tale of woe from Christmas past.

For a long time, I had an aggressively grumpy dry cleaner who would put Seinfeld’s famous Soup Nazi (from the 116th episode of the sitcom Seinfeld), to shame. Every Monday morning, she would adopt a scold and shame approach to the customer journey experience, for those of us waiting in line proffering items to clean. In her loudest broken English, the cost of the cleaning was discounted by her scolding of customers for a variety of their soiled wardrobe failures.

The shame-inducing process of going to my dry cleaner.

Her public dressing-down would range from, “You messy eater, how you silly stain this dress lady?” to “Why you want so soon? Why? Why so many you can’t wear all at once?” through to my personal favourite, “This shirt old. You throw away, don’t waste me cleaning.”

Of course, the perennial favourite to watch for (usually reserved for delivery in amplified tones) was,

“Cat hair! You cat hair! You clean first before you bring me filthy cat hair. I no clean for you!”

Stockholm syndrome and my dry cleaner.

Upon reflection, I wondered why I’d allowed this caustic customer experience to continue in my life for so long? Had I slipped into Stockholm syndrome with my dry cleaning captor? The thought of her holding all 26 of my precious business shirts at once, potentially leaving me bereft, admittedly caused me angst.

Perhaps I was overcome by lack of time, preyed upon by the convenience of easy parking or did her low price captivate my inner Scrooge?

Either way, I now asked myself, why was I willing, at this financially stable time in my life, to continue to put up with a rude Monday routine, simply because of convenient parking?

One morning while standing in line, it all came to a head when I noticed a loose button on my best suit jacket. Maybe she would offer to sew it back on, I wondered? Maybe she would do it complimentary, I wondered? But then I also wondered, was this an appropriate conversation to have with my dry cleaner?

That morning, the louder her pre-purchase scolding, the more I revised down my earlier estimates of success. As I nervously inched towards the front of the line searching for words to ask, I steeled myself for her steely stare and disapproving commentary at this week’s fresh shirt stains. I was ready.

But then, horror upon horror, the loose button I had been fingering, fell off in my hand. I was left holding an armful of shirts on one side and clutching a single button in the fingers of my free hand on the other (like one would clutch a precious coin as if your future depended upon its very safety).  Before I even had the chance to ask, the last crisp command I remember coming from my dry cleaning captor was,

“I no sew, you no ask me.”

In that moment of pristine clarity, I saw I’d developed what experts describe as, Stockholm syndrome, an unhealthy psychological alliance with my captor as a survival strategy during captivity.

As I stood there clutching the now detached button, I saw I needed to break free from this weekly anticipation of gloom and find another kinder dry cleaner.

I decided, I hated my grumpy dry cleaner.

And so began my mission to find a dry cleaner with a smile and a ‘thank you for your business, we appreciate you,’ approach to their customers and perhaps a more evolved commercial attitude, (howbeit hidden behind the smile of gritted teeth) to the occasional cat hair and loose button.

Upon my escape, like all who escape from the paradoxical familiarity of such long time captives, I asked myself, “How long have I allowed this in my life?” The only commercial advantage to me was it was closest to the door at the local shopping centre, where parking was relatively easy. Dry cleaning had long ago become a commodity left to compete only upon price.

Without a positive customer experience, I was not emotionally tethered to that particular store.

So I walked away, with 26 shirts, a loose button in a suit jacket pocket and a happy commitment to willingly pay more or drive more or, well, whatever the more was needed, to buy a better customer experience.

In the footsteps of the Seinfeld Soup Nazi, famed for punishing non-compliant customers by issuing individual bans on their soup purchase rights for a week (or a month), perhaps that business too was unknowingly just one loose button away from reaching commodity status.

In January 2018, I’m so happy to report, that I found a new dry cleaner who smiles at me and says, “Thank you, we appreciate your business.” I’m happy to pay more for the smile, even if I have to park a little further away too. They also sew loose buttons for free and don’t mention the cat hair.

I love my new dry cleaner.


So what was the annual revenue loss to that business of a loose button?

  • Laundering 7 shirts @ $28 x 50 weeks = $1,400.
  • Dry cleaning 5 suits @ $23 x 4 quarters = $460.
  • Combined: $1,400 + $460 = $1,860 each year for 10 years of custom.
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