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Habit forming

Awnings & Canopies, Business, Feature | January 1, 2015 | By:

The secret to a sideline in cleaning and repair is convincing customers to do it regularly.

Cleaning and repair of fabric products is a bit like pie-making: It’s an extremely useful skill, and there’s a sizable market for it, but it’s not everyone’s strong suit.

Today’s high-performance fabrics are an investment. They have a longer warranty and a longer useful life than their predecessors, and they’re too costly to regard as disposable. They also boast an ever-evolving array of treatments and coatings that are meant to protect them and improve their performance. That means these fabrics are simultaneously more in need of cleaning during their lifespan, and potentially more challenging to clean properly when the time comes.

“Today’s consumer is more conscious as far as where their boating dollars are going to,” says Diana LeClair, owner of Carriage House Canvas LLC, Betterton, Md. “Where five years ago we would have seen customers who would go, ‘Meh, I’m going to be replacing that bimini in a year or two,’ now they’re asking what they can do to prolong the life of that bimini. They’re realizing that if they take care of it, it’s going to last longer.”

A tricky proposition

Most shops are happy to do repairs; they make good sense from a customer loyalty point of view, and the skill set required is nearly the same as the skill set for manufacturing the products in the first place. But cleaning fabric products is a different matter. It requires a significant amount of equipment and space, and a company with a thriving manufacturing business simply may not have time.

“We do not clean awnings,” says Kevin Yonce, MFC, IFM, CPP, CEO of TCT&A Industries in Urbana, Ill. “We just clean our tent inventory and other inventory products like tables and chairs. We’ll repair awnings during the wintertime for our residential storage customers, and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s the actual cleaning of the awnings that’s a hassle. We don’t have enough room to clean them and then dry them, and frankly, we have enough to do in the manufacturing and rental of our products.”

Cleaning also requires a separate type of expertise and experience than fabricating, and a shop may or may not be motivated to go that route. It would be one thing if canvas really was canvas; but today, new fabrics and coatings come out all the time, and they may present different cleaning challenges.

“You have to be aware of what coatings each manufacturer is putting on fabrics, so you’re not causing harm and you’re not making your life harder than it needs to be,” says Scott Massey, owner of Awning Cleaning Industries, New Haven, Conn. “That knowledge sometimes comes from the school of hard knocks, and sometimes it comes from relationships with companies who, when they change things, they talk to you. There’s not that many of us out here doing this, so sometimes I get calls [from fabric manufacturers] ahead of time to let me know, ‘Hey, we’re coming out with something new, so we’re going to send you out a sample. This is what’s on it. Tell me what you think.’ Sometimes it’s proprietary and they don’t want to share with you exactly what it is, but they will tell you what it isn’t. But you absolutely need to know, because you can cause an awful lot of problems if you’re not aware.”

LeClair says as long as you know what the fabric is and what the stain is, you can usually do a good job. That’s where she has an advantage: as a fabricator, she’s often cleaning products she made in the first place. That’s half the battle.

“Once you know those two things, it’s a matter of doing a little bit of research and you’re good,” she says. “Because we like to make a product and then be able to follow up on it through the years, we know what it is that we’re handling. And if it was an OEM or if it was custom-made someplace else, we’re usually able to find out what the fabric is. So far, we’ve not had any issues where we’ve had a totally unknown fabric come into the shop that’s really perplexed us.”

Most fabrics are actually cleanable, gently, with soapy water; but that presupposes that the customer is having the fabric cleaned regularly and there aren’t any set-in stains. The reality is different—many fabrics need a good scrub, and that’s where an inexperienced cleaner can cause irreversible damage. The best bet is to get advice from the fabric manufacturer and a cleaning products manufacturer, and to use the least force that will get the job done.

Jeff Andersen, president of Vacu-Wash® USA, Greenland, N.H., is trying to take scrubbing out of the equation altogether. He’s the inventor of Vacu-Wash® machines, which clean laminated sails by creating a vacuum, making the normally impervious sails more able to absorb cleaners. The machine won Honorable Mention in the Industrial Fabric Foundation’s 2014 Innovation Award competition.

“In laminated sails, the water doesn’t penetrate,” he explains. “They have supporting fibers between layers of Mylar®, and when water gets in there and you get mildew, you can’t get to it from the surface. There’s no way you can scrub it off. It’s like a piece of paper that’s been laminated. So we remove the air from the fibers, and all of the sudden, the fibers will actually absorb the cleaning liquid in between the layers of Mylar.”

So far, the technology is mainly used by sail lofts, who ship their customers’ sails to Vacu-Wash offices for cleaning. But Andersen suspects the machines may also catch on as a way to keep large tent panels from losing their waterproofing, and for cleaning solution-dyed acrylic fabric products.

“That fabric is very susceptible to chafing and abrasion,” he says. “You really shouldn’t scrub them very hard with a hard brush.”

A happiness thing

The key to a successful cleaning and repairing business is making it automatic for customers. Just as they preserve the finish on their cars by taking them to the car wash, customers should bring in their fabric for cleaning on an annual basis. In seasonal climates, this may be an easier attitude to foster: when boaters take their boats out of the water at the beginning of winter, for example, it’s a no-brainer to bring the covers in. The same goes for residential awnings.

“We repair awnings during our winter storage period,” says Yonce. “We send out a letter at the time of service for them to request it. We also inspect all awnings when they come into the shop and send a notice that it is in need of repair, or is fine, or whatever. And they reply back, and we do it.”

Commercial awnings present more difficulty because they’re usually left up year-round. Yonce says some business owners are good about keeping up with cleaning and repair, and some are terrible.

“If they notice a tear starting, or some other problem on the awning, and they contact us right away, we can get that repaired much quicker than if a panel has completely failed in some way,” he says. “Then we have to spend a lot more time, and they have to spend a lot more money. We have people that we drive by and that we contact, saying ‘Your awning needs repair,’ and they won’t do anything with it until it’s basically beyond the point of repair. At that point, hopefully we’ll get a re-cover out of it.”

LeClair says cleaning and repairing can be complementary; a customer who learns a positive attitude toward long-term fabric care will become a better consumer of both.

“Cleaning is a segue for us to be able to be lifetime providers for that customer’s canvas needs,” she says. “They come in here for canvas cleaning and then they say, ‘Oh, you do repairs!’ And then we’ll go ahead and do some repairs for them. Then it evolves into ‘Do you think you could make this for me?’ It’s just a nice way to be able to provide a service to the customers and to be able to establish that long-term relationship.”

If taken care of properly, modern fabrics with longer warranties translate into less-frequent re-covers. But they also signal a cultural shift away from a culture of disposability, and that works in the favor of shops that do high-quality cleaning and repair work.

“We charge extra for stitching in Tenara®, which is warrantied to last the lifetime of the fabric,” says LeClair. “The customer feels like they’re getting added value in the final product, and they’re going to be more likely to take care of it and to return to us to have it cleaned.”

Massey says an annual cleaning presents an opportunity to examine a cover for issues that may become headaches later—for example, zippers or Velcro® that may need to be replaced. If customers are given a heads-up, they are often grateful and will give the go-ahead for the repair. In addition, good cleaning jobs can serve as a billboard for a cleaner-repairer or end product manufacturer.

“Sometimes the best vehicle to take that message out there is in the spring, when people start putting their boats back in the water,” he says. “The guy whose cover looks really good, the guy next door wants to know what he did. ‘Did you get a new cover?’ ‘Nope, had it cleaned.’ That encourages the next guy to do it. And that adds to the longevity of the covers, so they are getting a longer useful life. It’s a happiness thing. As people see the next guy in the next slip being happier about his boat cover, that sells.”

The economics of clean

For cleaning specialists, cleaning is a revenue generator. It’s what they do for a living. But for most shops, the economics have less to do with direct profit and more to do with long-term customer loyalty.

“I’ll be perfectly honest,” says LeClair. “With some of the smaller canvas jobs, it’s kind of a customer relations thing. With the bigger jobs, where we’re charging by the square foot, if I can have some of our lower-paid employees do it, we turn out just fine. Where it kills me is if we have large canvas jobs where I have to have some of our higher paid employees pitch into it. You’re not going to be having that large of a profit margin, but so be it.”

That narrow profit margin, combined with the hassle, is why many shops opt out. They may send their customers’ canvas products to Massey or other specialists for cleaning, or they may offer a range of cleaning products (Iosso products, in particular, are popular for the DIY market). Repair alone is often enough to form a strong customer relationship.

“Repair is a customer service that we provide,” says Yonce. “If we’re willing to work with a customer that has stored their awnings, the likelihood of them coming back to us when they need new ones is greater.”

Massey says it’s a good time to be in the business if you can do it well. When customers look at the cost of a replacement cover, it sometimes makes them reconsider the merits of taking better care of their existing one.

“I won’t hide the fact that an awful lot of business begins to come our way from customers who get a price from Joe’s Boat Service or Al’s Awning Service, and they see a price tag that makes them go ‘Ugh!’ because they don’t want to spend that,” he says. “It’s been eight years since they bought the cover, but they’re not ready to spend $1000. So they bring it to me, I look at it, and in some cases, we can do a phenomenal job. I can bring that back to looking pretty good, making you feel nice about sitting under it again, for 25 to 30 percent of the cost of replacement.”

For shops that do take the plunge, the key is managing expectations. A really filthy piece of canvas won’t necessarily come 100 percent clean, and if customers don’t understand that up front, they may balk when presented with the bill. The same is true of a really shredded awning or boat cover. It can be made serviceable, but it might be less glamorous than the customer would like.

“If they don’t tell the customer what the end result might be, they’re allowing the customer’s imagination to assume that it will be looking brand new,” Massey points out. “Setting expectations is extremely important.”

LeClair makes a concerted effort to do exactly that. She also works with customers to give them options.

“We would possibly treat a repair differently if they want just a real quick-and-dirty job [of repair], versus if they’re a long-term cruiser, headed down to the Bahamas, who needs the repair to be structurally as strong as can be,” she says. “So we really try to talk to the customer and gauge what their intent is as far as for the repair job, and then we price it out accordingly.”

Massey says the economics are only favorable if shops realize they can’t “beat the snuff” out of fabrics to get them clean. “They may get the stain out, but the customer is basically left with a tablecloth,” he laughs. “So the challenge is to control yourself, knowing that you’re not going to make every piece look like brand new. Our claim to fame is to have some amazing people who have been doing this for years and years and years, and know how far you can push a piece of fabric … even after it’s been left to Mother Nature for a long time.”

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer based in Woodville, Ga.

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