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Do Customers Really Have to Beg This Store to Take Them In? Michael Phelps Too?

Do Customers Really Have to Beg This Store to Take Them In? Michael Phelps Too?

June 03, 2010

How one business is turning away customers and growing!

I was shocked! We sent our Editor Dennis Sullivan to go undercover and he actually got turned down when he tried to drop off his laundry at this legendary laundromat. 'Come back in 2 years,' he was told.

I'm trained at being able to 'spot a story.'

Spotting one often comes about in the most casual conversations such as the one I had with Gold Member and Launch client Ezra Hercenberg. When he told me that he gets his shirts done at a place where he had to use all of his resources to get them to 'accept' him as a client I knew there was a story that I needed to share with you.

Listen, Ezra is one of the smartest negotiators I have ever met. But he had to basically beg, cajole, network and work at getting this dry cleaner to do his laundry. I thought to myself, THIS IS INSANE. A smart guy fighting to have his clothes dry cleaned. Come on, it's just a commodity. What's the catch?

The secret is that the business in NOT a commodity for T.C. Wing, the oldest hand dry cleaner in Baltimore. They've been gently turning away new customers with their wrinkled shirts and blouses for years. I've even heard they turned away 14-time gold-medal winner and Baltimore-native Michael Phelps (more in a moment.)

The business is tucked away on the corner of an eclectic neighborhood called Roland Park about 3 blocks from our Brand Launcher Center. There's also a coffee shop, video store, car repair shop, Mexican restaurant and a laundromat along the main road, all of whom would be glad to take in as many customers as they could be.

Across the street at Brite White Laundromat, a woman behind the counter eating lunch and watching the afternoon news barely takes her eyes off the TV to acknowledge customers as they enter. The laundromat promises speedy service (clean clothes within 4 minutes) and low prices, but most of the machines are empty. In between her spoonfuls of apple sauce the woman from behind the counter pauses and looks out the window at T.C. Wing and says, 'I see people coming and going there all the time. They must be doing something right.'

That something is this: They have a BIG MAMA ZIG. When other businesses zag, they zig and they do it BIG! They ONLY do 'hand dry cleaning.' Not only that, they've positioned themselves as THE go-to guys if you want the best and want to be part of an elite crowd. Yes, people are still willing to pay more for an exclusive, premium experience. In fact, the people coming and going from T.C. Wing are now the children and grandchildren of customers they've been serving since 1932. Some customers even ship their clothes from California to have them dry cleaned. The waiting list is known to be as long as 2 years. And if you don't know someone you're not getting in.

But whoever heard of a 2 year wait or even a wait list just to have your dry cleaning done?

Most are begging to get people in the door with promises of $1 shirts and same day deliveries.

We had to investigate this business phenomenon. So I sent our intrepid editor, Dennis Sullivan, to find out more. With his wrinkled shirts in hand, this is what he found...

As I walked through the screen door, the woman behind the counter puts down her iron, smiles and asks, 'Can I help you?' I pretend not to notice the handwritten, cardboard sign that says they're not accepting new customers and I simply tell her, 'I'd like to drop off my shirts to have them dry cleaned.'


That's when she very nicely confirms the rumors. 'I'm sorry but we're not accepting any new customers right now because we're so busy,' she says pointing to the sign apologetically.

Her name is Shirley Tsao and her husband is the grandson of the founder of the family-owned business. They do everything the same way as the grandfather did more than 70 years ago. The cash register even looks like something he may have used in the 1930s.

Cleaned shirts are returned to customers 'the old way' in a brown paper package. Each item is pressed by hand 'so you can see everything,' Mrs. Tsao says and nothing is missed. A hand dried shirt is $2.35, about twice what most competitors charge. They have no plans to take any new customers because 'it gets too much and the work gets sloppy,' she says. They don't do any advertising or want the publicity (she didn't even want to talk to us for this story). Worst of all, I had to walk out with the same dirty shirts.
So why is it that a dry cleaner can turn away customers when others are doing just about everything they can to get customers through the door?

The answer: They're not trying to be all things to all people. Even as a laundromat, they've carved out a niche. They're only serving those who want high-end, high-quality, custom service. And people are willing to pay more than twice what they normally would for the experience ' even in a recession!

So is it true that they turned away Michael Phelps? That rumor is not true, says Mrs. Tsao. 'I wish he would come in,' she said. 'I'd like to get his autograph.' She didn't say anything about taking his dry cleaning. He may want to leave that at home.

Ask yourself these 4 crucial questions:
1. 'How can we create a Big Zig?'
2. 'How can we create exclusivity?'
3. 'How can we go above and beyond the expected?'
4. 'What part of our business can we create more demand than we have capacity to deliver?'

Always taking you from where you are to where you want to go,

Jon Goldman