Smart Buying

What You Need to Know About Your Dry Cleaner

A missing or ruined garment can get you really steamed. Here's what to look for -- and what you should expect -- from a good dry cleaner.

1. Make them come clean. Before you entrust your precious Armani to a dry cleaner's care, ask to see a suit that the shop has recently worked on. Expert cleaners will show you their handiwork, says Steve Boorstein, who dispenses advice at ClothingDoctor.com. Telltale mistakes to look for: untreated spots, pockmarks under buttons, lapels that look as if they were pressed in a George Foreman grill and wool fabric that shines as if it were polyester.

2. The rate should be all sewn up. Some dry cleaners try to charge more for detail work, such as replacing lost or damaged buttons and snipping loose threads. But, says Boorstein, "the garment should be ready to wear for the price you paid." A standard two-piece wool suit (men's or women's) should cost about $13 to clean, he says, though prices in big cities often run higher.

3. Don't get steamed. Good cleaners will reclean garments that aren't completely stain-free and iron out problems when a customer is dissatisfied. But, says Boorstein, "some cleaners would rather lose you as a customer than pay the claim for your ruined dress." If your dry cleaner won't make good on your Diane von Furstenberg and you want to fight back, ask your local Better Business Bureau, at www.bbb.org, to arbitrate the dispute and send your garment to a third-party laboratory to discover who is responsible for the damage. The lab test typically costs $32, and the cleaner usually has to pay the fee.

4. Where's my shirt? Even if your dry cleaner admits that it lost or ruined your year-old Thomas Pink, which cost you $140, you'll probably collect only $43. Most cleaners will reimburse you for a fraction of your garment's replacement value, following the stiff claim-adjustment guidelines of the International Fabricare Institute, an industry trade group. The best way to find a shop that will stand fully behind its work is to ask the manager of a local upscale retailer for a referral -- but expect prices at such cleaners to be about 20% higher.

5. Out, out darn spot. If you've dripped salad dressing on your suit and tried getting it out with water (or club soda) and a napkin, don't expect miracles from your dry cleaner. Often your attempt to rid clothing of a spot only sets it permanently into the fabric, says Nora Nealis, executive director of the National Cleaners Association. Oil-based stains, such as butter, mayonnaise, gravy and makeup, don't come out with water. But you can sparingly pre-treat water-based stains -- from the prosaic wine and coffee to the more classic blood, sweat and tears -- with household stain removers.

6. Eco-friendly? Not exactly. About 28,000 dry-cleaning shops in the U.S. use perchloroethylene as a solvent, which dissipates from your clothes shortly after treatment but is considered hazardous under the Clean Air Act if released into the environment. That's why some dry cleaners have substituted nontoxic solvents, some of which were judged to be as effective as perchloroethylene in a 2003 test by Consumers Union. To find a "green" cleaner in your area, go to GreenEarthCleaning.com.

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