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Tips for saving big at the dry cleaners

When dry cleaning goes wrong, your garment could be ruined and your money wasted.
SAN FRANCISCO - JANUARY 29: A worker at Sohn's French Cleaners, which uses eco-friendly chemicals to dry clean clothes, presses shirts January 29, 2007 in San Francisco, California. 

Dry cleaning, which uses chemicals instead of water, can help your favorite clothes keep their shape and last longer than when they’re machine washed. The dry cleaning industry in the United States is a $9 billion business, according to a 2017 market research report by IBISWorld.

But when dry cleaning goes wrong, your garment could be ruined and your money wasted.

Renea Eure, 28, an account director at a marketing agency in Portland, Ore., once sent a $100 dress black dress with orange sequins to a dry cleaner. When she got it back, all the sequins had lost their color.

“I felt like it ruined the dress,” she says. And, she adds, the cleaner wasn’t willing to compensate her.

“I felt like I should have gotten some discount or something because it ultimately altered the dress,” she says.

These five common statements are dry-cleaning red flags, to help you avoid frustration — and possibly financial loss — in case there’s damage to your designer splurges and professional duds.

Choose your wedding gown preservation service carefully.

The average wedding gown costs $1,564, according to the wedding website theknot.com, so brides want to make sure they preserve their investment. That’s why many dry cleaners offer professional wedding gown preservation services.

That service can cost an average of $250, according to Sally Conant, executive director of the Association of Wedding Gown Specialists. But that can vary, depending on where you live and the gown’s original value, because the cleaner is assuming more liability in caring for a very expensive gown or other expensive dresses.

If a gown gets damaged during the preservation, technically, if the cleaner is following the instructions on the care label, the designer/manufacturer is liable, Conant says.

“In practice if the client takes the gown to court, the judge is liable to rule in favor of the client on the theory that the cleaner is the expert and either knew or should have known what would happen,” she says. “If the cleaner does not follow the care label, he or she is responsible.”

You can take photos of the state of your gown before sending it to be preserved and cleaners also take photos so that they can document existing damage. But Conant says the camera bleaches color.

“Very often the bride remembers an ivory gown as white,” she says.

Conant recommends using a cleaner that preserves at least 100 dresses a year because it will have more experience treating all aspects of the gown, including beads and embellishments. Also, never send the gown away for preservation.

“Legal liability is difficult to enforce long distance,” she says.

One big reason why gowns need to be professionally cleaned before being preserved is because you want to clean off anything that came in contact with the dress. And a good cleaner will know to look for all of the possible culprits, including sugar-based spills like soda, white wine or even cake frosting. These will dry onto the gown without a mark, but over time, the sugar begins to caramelize and discolor the gown.

Cleaners also should use acid-free materials to pack the gown, particularly when a paperboard box is used. That’s the best method of preservation, Conant says. Otherwise, over time, the acid in typical paper can yellow the dress.

“If you’re spending $8,000 on a cocktail dress or a dress for the mother of the bride, the last thing you want to do is take it somebody who is going to throw it in the washing machine and wash it in water,” Conant says. “You will have nothing left.”

Dry cleaners should have bailee’s insurance because they are responsible for a garment in their care, as in the case of a fire. The trick, she says, is to carry enough insurance to cover the cost of every garment and also to have no limit on a single garment. For example, if a cleaners has $500,000 worth of insurance, but there is a limit of $5,000 for a single item, the cleaner is not going to be very happy if a gown worth $125,000 perished in a fire, she says.

“By the same token, the insurance should cover work in progress so that damage to the gown is covered,” she says. “The cleaner turns the claim over to the insurance company, who makes sure the value of the gown is properly documented.”

The Drycleaners and Laundry Institute’s position is that a wedding gown is a single-purpose item and the value drops by 50 percent after the wedding day. But according to the calculator on PreOwnedWeddingDresses.com, some gowns have a good secondary market and a higher value.

If you’re unhappy with the work, ask to be reimbursed.

There are a number of ways an item can be ruined while at a dry cleaner, including faulty care labels, items left in pockets that caused stains and sugar blemishes.

“If it’s a situation where you had something cleaned, and it didn’t perform as expected, the first question is what happened and why,” says Peter Blake, executive director or the South Eastern Fabricare Association (SEFA), a nonprofit professional organization for dry cleaners and launderers.

Bianca Shamim, 22, of Athens, Ga., worked at a dry cleaner for six months. She says that when something was ruined there, the staff would offer to perform the service again for free. If the item was still stained, the business handled it on a case-by-case basis, sometimes offering a full refund or reimbursement for the garment, and other times offering a free cleaning, depending on the particulars of the incident.

While policies generally differ from business to business, there are industry standards and guidelines that cleaners should follow.

The Drycleaning and Laundry Institute International (DLI), a trade association, provides a fair-claims guide to members that establishes how much should be returned for an item that is damaged depending on the life expectancy of the item.

Both it and SEFA have labs that can analyze what went wrong with the garment to help resolve certain situations. Ultimately, Blake says, cleaners want to work with people to resolve issues.

“It’s really important that we listen, that we understand what the issue is, and we really try to work with the consumer to get a reasonable resolution to a problem,” he says.

Members of the Association of Wedding Gown Specialists guarantee that the gown will not yellow or have caramelized sugar stains. Even if the cleaner retires or goes out of business, the association will honor the guarantee.

“No one can guarantee that beads will stay silver or that sequins will not change color,” Conant says. “Either they or they do not, and nothing the cleaner can do changes that.”

Don’t forget to clean out your pockets.

We all know that wonderful feeling when you find something in the pocket of a jacket you haven’t worn in forever. Awesome, right?

But what if the dry cleaner finds something in your pockets? Blake says the standard procedure is to put the money or item in a plastic bag and attach it to your hanger or receipt.

If the item is valuable, like jewelry or money, the cleaner should notify you in case you want to immediately retrieve it.

To be on the safe side, always check your pockets before dropping your things off at the cleaner.

Small fixes should be free.

Imagine putting on a shirt you picked up from a cleaner and realizing that one of the buttons is missing or broken.

Jon Meijer, director of membership at DLI, says part of the inspection process should catch broken or missing buttons. For easy fixes like a plain button on a men’s work shirt, a cleaner will typically sew a new one on for free, or maybe for a small charge.

“A lot of what our members will do is put a tag on (the shirt) and say: ‘By the way, you had a broken button. We fixed it for you,’ ” Meijer says.

But for a specialty button on a blouse or more expensive item, there may be costs associated with finding a suitable replacement and paying someone who makes alterations. Typically the cost is less than $5.

For something more complicated, such as sewing on a special button, hemming or making alterations, you can expect an additional price because the service is more involved.

Read the labels on your clothing carefully.

Avoid some expensive damage to your clothing by double-checking the care instructions on the label first. If dry cleaning isn’t the best way to launder an item, it shouldn’t be cleaned that way.

Items made of polyester, such as men’s work shirts, golf shirts and women’s blouses, are typically cleaned using a wet method, Blake says.

He says the machines at cleaners typically clean clothes in a way that creates less agitation and shrinkage than at-home dryers. Plus, the items are professionally pressed, which adds to the cost.

Shamim says when she took items from customers, she let them know exactly how their clothes would be treated.

“If a customer specifically wanted something dry cleaned, but the label said that wasn’t the best option, we went by what the manufacturer had written,” she says, “just to keep the integrity of their clothes intact.”

Get to know your dry cleaner.

If you keep returning to the same cleaner because you like his or her professionalism and quality, learn more about that person and the business. That way, if something goes wrong, you’ll have developed a helpful rapport.

If you’re curious about certain special services, like preserving wedding gowns, ask specific questions about it, like these from the Association of Wedding Gown Specialists.

Find out if your dry cleaner is a member of professional organizations.

Being a member of a professional association means that the cleaner takes the business seriously. Blake says one advantage to being a member of SEFA is that the organization will publish notices about certain garments to let cleaners know if others are having issues with it. Members of SEFA and DLI also have access to testing labs that can determine what went wrong if a garment was ruined and identify the best way to make reparations.

MagnifyMoney is a price comparison and financial education website, founded by former bankers who use their knowledge of how the system works to help you save money.

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