Dry Cleaners Were Disappearing Even Before the Pandemic

Starched shirts just don’t have the same appeal they once did. But there are forces greater than the virus at work here.

Illustration: George Wylesol for Bloomberg Businessweek
[Bloomberg.com – 2022.09.12] The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent wholesale move to working from home have been tough on dry cleaners and professional laundries in the US. So has the 21st century.

The number of business establishments offering “dry-cleaning and laundry services, except coin-operated” fell to 16,497 in the first quarter of 2022 from 18,756 in the last quarter of 2019, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, an annualized decline of nearly 6%. But it had already been falling at a 2% annual pace since 2001.

US Dry-cleaning and Laundry Establishments

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (Excluding coin-operated laundry)

These numbers are from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, a tabulation of state and federal unemployment insurance data that serves as the benchmark for the BLS’s higher-profile monthly nonfarm payrolls report. Some mom and pop businesses aren’t covered by unemployment insurance, so these numbers likely understate the true number of dry cleaners, though the trend is clear.

More-casual office fashions were a big part of the pre-pandemic decline, as fewer white-collar workers needed suits cleaned and shirts pressed. An Environmental Protection Agency crackdown on dry-cleaning emissions surely played a role. And so have changing immigration patterns. Immigrants from South Korea own many small dry cleaners in the US, but that immigration wave subsided long ago—and has now turned into a retirement wave as their offspring have pursued careers other than the family business.

People are still going to need things dry-cleaned and professionally laundered, so the industry won’t go away. But as it consolidates the prices it charges keep going up, with increases outpacing overall inflation in 8 of the last 10 years.


New York County, aka Manhattan, has the highest concentration of laundry and dry-cleaning establishments of any large (more than 1 million people) US county, with 29 per 100,000 residents. Pima County, Ariz., has the lowest, with 1.6.


The number of coin-operated shops in the US has held steady for years and even rose a bit over the pandemic, to 9,710 in the 2022 first quarter.


Payroll employment in non-coin-op dry-cleaning and laundry services was at 86,800 in August, a drop of 28,400 since February 2020 and 125,000 since 2000.


Laundry and dry-cleaning services accounted for 0.5% of all US consumer spending in 1959 and just 0.07% so far this year, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

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