Can BLANC build the Net-A-Porter of Dry Cleaners?
While most dry cleaners are unbranded local businesses whose idea of technology is a garment conveyor, Blanc has a very different vision: international, heavily branded, tech-savvy and eco-friendly.
LONDON, United Kingdom — In a vast warehouse, located in a West London suburb, high-tech Japanese machinery is ballooning and spinning cotton shirts with clouds of steam. Across the room, a Louis Vuitton dress from Nicolas Ghesquière’s debut collection is being cleaned by hand with the precision of an artist’s paintbrush. Not far away, large sci-fi-looking machines are wet-washing clothes.
Blanc, the company behind the operation, aims to reimagine the business of dry cleaning the way Net-a-Porter reimagined the multi-brand fashion boutique, with a powerful combination of brand desirability, convenience and customer service — all enabled by technology. The company calls its off-site cleaning facility an “atelier.” Its network of shops — one in London’s Marylebone, another in nearby Notting Hill — are “concept stores.” But eco-friendliness is also central to its strategy.
“Blanc is a clean living brand,” says Ludovic Blanc, a former vice president at JP Morgan who left banking to study French eco-launderettes before launching his own business four years ago. “We want to be synonymous with taking care of yourself and your environment. Dry cleaning is carcinogenic and toxic — and most dry-cleaners use perchloroethylene, or PERC, which is strong pollutant for air, water and soil, as well as irritating for the skin.”
"biodegradable, health-friendly detergents promising a fresh smell and brilliant whites"
Instead, Blanc uses biodegradable, healthier detergents, which first came onto the market back in 1995, as well as sophisticated wet-washing machines pioneered in California, Denmark and France. “We have customers that come to us because of health or environmental concerns and other that come just for the quality — the ironing, the finish,” adds Blanc. “Most dry cleaners are not nice places to be in and have very limited opening hours and customer support, yet it’s somewhere where you take your most precious clothes — we pride ourselves on care, quality and convenience."
The company has certainly carved a niche for itself with its polished branding — all Provençal greys and clean lettering. “People need trust and that doesn’t what doesn’t exist in the industry. If you want to buy a suit and you go to Tom Ford or Armani, you can go in with closed eyes because you know it will be good. That’s what we are trying to create for discerning customers.”
"the company launched a line of products — Blanc Home — which aim to offer a more sophisticated alternative to mainstream eco-brands"
It all began with a single store in Marylebone, designed by Ludovic’s wife, Mathilde Blanc, who also oversees the company’s branding. The machines were initially kept in the basement, however as the business expanded to a second store in Notting Hill, Blanc opened a centralised cleaning facility in West London. The original Marylebone store is now a tech-enabled, ATM-like drop-off and collection centre with automated rails and a digital system that responds to a customer’s unique Blanc Card, offering 24-7 service.
"The next couple of years will be focused on London and growing our products and services to reach all postcodes efficiently — and then we will aim to open branches internationally"
“You can drop off a big bag of clothes in the middle of the night and we will process everything and send an e-mail receipt with all of the details,” explains Blanc, who recalls years of finishing late at the office and missing the opening hours of his local cleaner. “It’s key to make the experience seamless so that people can outsource completely and get on with their lives.”
The company — which raised "tens of thousands" in seed money back in 2013, followed by a £1 million round of investment in September 2015 — grew 50 percent last year and now generates revenue of just under £1 million (about $1.25 million). Alongside the core cleaning business, in London, the company launched a line of products — Blanc Home — which aim to offer a more sophisticated alternative to mainstream eco-brands like Ecover. Sales of Blanc Home currently make up about 10 percent of annual revenue, and are continuing to grow rapidly.
Looking ahead, Blanc is aiming big and plans to open three new stores in London — in High St Kensington, Chelsea and the West End — followed by international expansion, beginning with other European capitals, Beijing, Tokyo, New York and Dubai. “The next couple of years will be focused on London and growing our products and services to reach all postcodes efficiently — and then we will aim to open branches internationally,” Blanc explains. “We’re aiming for 30 stores — either physical stores or the equivalent in office and home collections and deliveries — within five years. Our model is scalable because we don’t clean in the stores and we deliver. We have our online platform, too, so all we need in a city is an atelier, a couple of stores and then we can cover the whole city.”
Blanc says he draws inspiration from the rise of players like Uber, Deliveroo and Airbnb, which have disrupted entire sectors with their approach. But he's taking things one step at a time. “We’d like to think we are very disciplined, so we tend to work step by step and build each day on past successes and only push areas that we have proven ourselves in already. It can be very tempting to do loads in one go because there is demand, but we want to make sure we can actually deliver before committing to delivering a new service or a new area.