ABU is taking businesses to the cleaners
May 19, 2008
MILDENHALL, England — For more than 40 years, Mildenhall Cleaners survived largely due to U.S. airmen stationed nearby who used its laundry and dry cleaning services to keep uniforms looking sharp.
But as the new wrinkle-free Airman Battle Uniform, or ABU, began hitting store shelves late last year, airmen began to stray away from the local shop.
"It made a big difference," owner John Williams said Friday of the low-maintenance ABU. Since December, Williams estimated that his shop saw 250 sets of uniforms a week plummet to just three each week.
"It wasn’t gradual," he said. "It happened all at once."
The lack of business coupled with the rising cost of his rent forced Williams to close the American-friendly shop for good on Saturday.
His shop isn’t the only one suffering financially with the uniform change. Laundry and dry cleaning shops across Europe who rely on airmen for their business have seen sales fall drastically as more and more ditch the outdated woodland-colored battle dress uniform, or BDU.
Cleaners returned them with a professional, crisp appearance. But according to Air Force policy, the new ABU — a blend of nylon and cotton — isn’t supposed to be starched or pressed. Every airman is required to wear the ABU by October 2011.
Eriswell Dry Cleaners, just outside of RAF Lakenheath, has seen a significant drop in customer flow once the base started to sell the uniform, manager Elaine Bryson said.
"Once they started coming in, about one-third of business went down," she said.
Bryson admitted she has fears for the shop’s future. She hopes to reel back airmen by using a special detergent without optical brighteners, which can make uniforms appear lighter in the dark.
She also believes airmen will eventually go back to old habits.
"I think in time they will have them pressed as well," she said.
Despite their convenient on-base locations, laundry and dry-cleaning shops contracted out by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service haven’t been immune to the big losses.
AAFES operates about 50 of these shops in Europe. Overall, those shops have seen a 14 percent drop in sales so far in fiscal 2008 compared with the previous year.
"Obviously, the ABU has had an impact," spokesman Lt. Col. David Konop said. He added that similar drops occurred when soldiers went to the Army Combat Uniform.
The three shops that clean uniforms at Ramstein Air Base and Landstuhl Regional Medical Command have lost thousands in revenue because of the switch, said Ingeborg O’Neal, who helps oversee them.
Last summer, Ramstein’s two shops averaged roughly $55,000 a month. Now, they make around $37,000 a month. The Landstuhl shop saw a decrease of more than 50 percent from about $12,000 to $5,000 a month in the same time periods, O’Neal said.
"It’s cutting down on business," she said of the ABU.
Christa Rodriguez, who manages both shops at Spangdahlem Air Base and Bitburg Annex, estimates they’ve already lost half of its dealings. It could get worse since many airmen haven’t purchased the ABU, and Bitburg is slated for closure, she said.
A powerful euro currency also isn’t helping her shops, who pay a Netherlands-based company to clean the uniforms.
"The more the dollar drops, the more expensive it is," Rodriguez said.
The shops charge between 5 and 6 euros to wash a uniform. O’Neal said employee work hours had to be reduced to make up lost profits. Also, the German company that does the laundry from her shops switched to a "finishing tunnel" and the nonoptical brightener detergent to attract troops, she said.
"The uniforms look like they’ve been ironed," she said of the results of the tunnel which steam cleans uniforms without pressing them. "We had a few [airmen] come in and they like it."
Some shops have even combined with AAFES-run alteration services to cut costs. But no matter how bad business gets, closures are unlikely, Konop said.
"Bottom line is this is a service that our [servicemembers] require," he said. "We will go to great lengths to attempt to provide it for them."