The Big Discount
... and the Dirty Laundry behind it
written for Canadian Community News by Mike Sterling
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It's fun to contact an old friend after not seeing him for many years. I called one this week. His name is Tony. We were both Depression kids and grew up in the shadow of WWII.
We went to the same private high school. We had two jobs together. I'll describe one of them today.
We somehow got a job at a local cleaner. They were not just local but had their corporate offices 280 miles away. They had a lot of branches too.
My friend Tony and I were glad to get the job at 75 cents/hour. We worked very early in the morning and then some after school and on Saturday. It was a job out of a Seinfeld episode or maybe Woody Allen. Here's how it went.
We were issued fancy, brand new, uniforms. They were always fresh and clean. We had a silly hat too.
Our job had us sprinting out the front door of the cleaner and not letting the customer get out of their car.
We were to take their orders, give them a ticket, put their clothes in a bag and toss it in a pile inside the laundry.
If they were looking for their clean clothes, we would take their ticket and race inside to find their laundry and dry cleaning and bring it to them. Making change in a rain storm was awkward and puzzling to the customer. In summary, it made no sense.
The customers were not at all amused by the gangly teens. Sometimes we had to wrestle with the door of their car to contain them while we politely explained our purpose in life.
Some customers were afraid to roll down their window to face a uniform-clad teen with that dumb hat. It was difficult because it was foreign to them and the laundry business in general. They wanted to talk to somebody else inside about starch and stains and normal laundry things. We looked unreliable for these tasks.
If we could not contain them in their cars, we would receive a dour look from whatever boss was lurking around, if we freed them.
We started in the morning, way before sunrise. Either Tony or I would get an old, even then, 1930's panel truck with no muffler and chug up and down the main 8 lane highway was and where all the motels were. We would pick up the motel laundry from the day before, race to a town nearby, open their branch office there and hand it over to a woman clerk who came in about 6 am.
We would then motor back to the main laundry with our uniform and hat and accost the poor customers trying to get out of their cars.
The big boss from the main plant hung around checking out his ideas of marketing with uniformed teens. He thought he had found the secret of drive-up laundry. We were part of his grand marketing design and his 'well thought out plan'.
I heard him comment about a small mom and pop laundry down the street. He said to his subordinate (branch manager) "We're going to bury them. Out they go! The cigar smoke danced as he told his underling the fate of those who opposed him. "They can't compete with my new plan." He seemed to be able to hide away smoke inside his not insignificant belly and bring it forth a minute or so after his last big puff.
He had an idea for getting the entire laundry and dry cleaning of the area in one master marketing blitzkrieg! He would offer all laundry and dry cleaning at an unheard of 10% of its present price or 90% off. People rushed to their piggy banks.
What an idea! Knock out the competition in one gigantic marketing salvo. What a clever gambit. Even to our young brains, it seemed a bit risky, howeve. After all, we were veterans of the Laundry Corp and its uniformed troops. The great man said: "One giant sale and we'll have all the customers and bring aboard more uniformed young men to serve them."
The great sales day came and Tony and I were poised to take on the customers. It was going to be busy weekend duty.
As luck would have it, we were well into the fall going on winter. Not a good time for lingering outside.
To say the sale was a resounding 'success' was discounting the great man's idea. It was magnificent at 10% of the regular cost. The great man was about 5'5", rotund and with an ever present cigar jammed in his yellowing teeth.
The people came and came and came. Old attics were emptied. Basement storage was cleaned out. Neighbors were notified. Cedar chests were examined for anything that could be laundered or dry cleaned. Wedding dresses and those awkward looking bridesmaid dresses made their first appearance since the wedding.
Small rugs from the porch were scheduled to be cleaned for the first time. The horizon was obscured by cars lined up to get our uniformed attention.
Soon, it was evident that Tony and I had to execute a retreat. We could not contain the hordes pulling up and honking for attention.
We went inside shielded somewhat by the 90% off signs. We finally took a place behind a sturdy counter. It was our last line of defense.
We would grab the customers laundry and dry cleaning, jam it into a bag, write a ticket, rip it in half and give the small part with the crucial number on it to the customer.
With the stub firmly in the customers hand, we would move to the next. But first, our part of the ticket would be attached to a bag with string and the bag would be tossed into a large, square container behind us.
Soon the container became full. We pushed it aside and began a pile on the floor behind us, but still they kept coming.
Soon the pile became a mini-Everest and we had to make another mountain nearby.
Tony looked at me and whispered in my ear. "Mike, we'll soon be out of bags!"
Yes, that crisis came quickly. No more bags, but still they came. We used string trying to make a tidy 'lump' that would still be identified by the all important tag. The tag was crucial, but so was the amount of string we had left.
The deluge of customers was sweeping the Great Man's Plan into a mass of bags and rags and unraveled knots.
We got a bit carless with our impromptu nautical knots with the none too sturdy string.
But, soon it became apparent that the string was not sufficient as garments popped free and got mixed up with other customers garments. The string ate its way through where it was secured.
We could use anything handy like a button hole to secure the garments, but the string was breaking at the slightest tug.
But, still more customers penetrated our faltering defenses. We were slinging the lumps over our shoulders, landing some place in the rear. It was like a scene from a Marx Brothers' Film. We had graduated from Seinfeld and Woody to the zany brothers. This whole fiasco had taken place on a Saturday so the uniformed teens (us) could handle it all.
Now there was not one pile, but many giant piles. The piles were merging into a mountain range. The laundry and dry cleaning of the customers resided some place behind us. They could only see the peaks of the range we had created.
When we looked closely, we saw that many of the bundles and even the early bags had broken loose. The local ability to wash and dry clean these piles was far exceeded.
No problem! The day ended with the giant piles teetering and creating runaway bags and lumps tumbling down. The boss ordered a semi-truck to come and take it all more than 200 miles away to be sorted out there.
Ok.... Tony and I saw what was going to happen. For a few days, all was well, but after 10 days, people were upset. My top coat, where is it? Snow flakes were starting to fall. The customers became more demanding.
Finally after 3 weeks and the attendant uproar, we were given instructions about the mystery load of laundry.
We were to tell the customers to go to the next town, a few miles away, to find an old and abandoned car dealership. It was once a Cadillac, Buick, Pontiac and LaSalle dealership before the war with plenty of room in the service garage.
The customers, would find wire clothes lines spanning the old dealership garage like a spiders web, with line after line containing clothes, rugs, winter coats ... and box after box with wrinkled garments that were to be found nearby.
The customers were bewildered. It was now cold and they needed, no demanded, their winter coats and hats. Wives were mad at having to wash the same shirts over and over again.
They wandered aimlessly in the big garage. They had to open laundry boxes to look inside leaving them snarled and unboxed.
Well, it was a good lessen for Tony and I. 'The Big 90% Discount' was a great learning experience. The little fat guy and his chain of laundries went out of business and Tony and I were not disturbed by it. We moved on to other work adventures.
It was a total failure, but whenever Tony and I talk, the GREAT SALE is discussed. If you find it hard to believe, I must tell you that it is as true and as unexaggerated as I could make it. Tony and I are probably the only survivors of 'THE GREAT DISCOUNT'
Footnote: The Great Man's laundry dynasty collapsed, but the little mom and pop laundry and dry cleaner down the street prospered.
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Friday, February 24, 2017