My dry cleaner just moved. I hadn’t been in a month or so and just went to drop off a pair of slacks and a dress before a business trip. This is the second dry cleaner in that space in the last two years. The previous one lasted seven years and looked prosperous, right up until the end. This one looked bare-bones, appropriate for the economy, I thought. I have yet to find out where they went.
Instead, I went looking for the next closest one, five minutes away, downtown in the nearest town. Looking busy, with someone standing at an industrial iron and someone else working at a sewing machine, they seemed to be doing well. Encouraged, I asked the owner, “So, how’s business?” I believe dry cleaners are a leading indicator in the economy. That is, people have some discretion about going to the dry cleaners. They can wash and iron their own shirts. They can wear a suit an extra time or two. They can choose washable instead of dry cleanable clothes. This time, of course, even my dentist is a leading indicator, as he told me on my last visit people are postponing not only teeth cleaning but major work.
The dry cleaner’s answer surprised me. “It’s bad.” OK, so the economy isn’t turning around any time soon, if this is the case. But, he went on, “more people are working from home. More companies have casual dress, not just casual Fridays.” This goes beyond a nationwide economic downturn. Now, we’re into buggy whips, watches and the automotive industry in terms of trends that wipe out entire industries in a decade.
I’m actually optimistic about the economy. I see this time as an unprecedented reset of our expectations about how much we should consume – a good lesson for young people starting out, Gen Y – how much we should save how to do more with less and a recommitment to those in need. Doing more with less isn’t just happening with individuals and families. It is happening with businesses. And, though building up higher cash reserves and leaning on current employees to do more before hiring is stressful, and delays the growth of new jobs we all need, doing more with less is the very definition of increased productivity.
Ultimately, this should translate into a more robust, expanding economy where new jobs are added at the rate we need. Do we still have to hang on until this happens? Yes. Will it be difficult to hang on? Yes. But, I can feel it coming. My new dry cleaner is clearly hanging on. His employees are clearly working hard, and likely happy to be working. We’ve all reset our expectations.