By Jenn Abelson, Globe Staff
In the dry-cleaning world, they're called the 'not mines'. Those too-small jeans and who-would-wear-that dress that infiltrate your dry-cleaning order.
Zoots, a Newton dry-cleaning chain, has hit upon some high-tech solutions to curb the 'not mines' and 'where are mines'? (the favorite cashmere sweaters that go missing in a vast dry-cleaning vortex) that plagued the company after it was launched in 1998 .
In the early days, Zoots was spending 6 percent of revenue on lost and damaged claims -- about six times the industry average -- and not doing a great job of cleaning the clothes it didn't lose.
"While we always knew this business would be challenging, we underestimated the magnitude of the challenge," said Tom Stemberg, one of Zoots's founders and creator of Staples Inc., the Framingham office-supply chain. "As we lost customers' favorite garments or failed to remove spots, we had huge customer payments and defecting customers."
Zoots knew change was needed to survive. So the chain brought in a manufacturing team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to focus on quality and productivity. The leaders began investing more in technology, such as permanent garment tags and ATM-style dry-cleaning machines that automatically dispense orders.
In recent years, Zoots finally began to do what it had set out to do: take the dry-cleaning world by storm, offering quality 24-hour service, home delivery, and high-tech perks like e-mailed invoices at dozens of stores. The 78-store chain says it has cut its loss claims to less than 1 percent and made huge gains in adding new customers, keeping existing customers, and improving margins at its locations in nine states.
Along the way, the $66 million company got the confidence to continue its acquisition spree -- including last month's takeover of Sarni Cleaners -- and racked up more than 75 Readers Choice awards for best dry cleaner.