RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The rising cost of labor in China doesn't seem to be affecting the price of wire hangers made there. In fact, they are so cheap the U.S. government recently slapped tariffs on Chinese wire hanger imports, saying manufacturers there were flooding the U.S. market with below-cost products. Those tariffs have led to a spike in wire hanger prices, and dry cleaners are all hot under the collar.
Gigi Douban has this report
GIGI DOUBAN: At Monarch Cleaners in Birmingham, Alabama, customer Don Kirkpatrick strolls in clutching dirty shirts in one hand and a bunch of wire hangers in the other.
Mr. DON KIRKPATRICK (Customer): Good afternoon.
Mr. MARK DICHIARA (Owner, Monarch Cleaners): Hey, how are you?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Good.
Mr. DICHIARA: Did you have any pick-up or just dropping off?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Just dropping off.
Mr. DICHIARA: OK.
DOUBAN: Kirkpatrick uses wooden hangers at home and doesn't care for the wire variety.
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Garbage. Just throw them in the garbage can. Pretty much useless. There wasn't enough of them to try to give them to an iron or steel scrap person. It just didn't weigh enough to make any sense, so I just literally threw them away.
DOUBAN: But at Monarch, one man's garbage is a dry cleaner's treasure. On the counter is a stack of fliers urging customers to return hangers on their next visit. And it's not the only one. Across the U.S., dry cleaners beg people to do the same.
A flood of Chinese hanger imports in recent years forced every major U.S. hanger manufacturer out of business, except one - M&B Hangers in Leeds, Alabama. At M&B'S plant, a machine twists and turns metal rods into that familiar narrow triangle. When CEO Milton Magnus III complained to the Commerce Department that the Chinese were dumping hangers well below market value, the government agreed and imposed a tariff on all Chinese wire hangers.
Mr. MILTON MAGNUS III (CEO, M&B Hangers): I had almost come to the realization that we couldn't make hangers in this plant anymore.
DOUBAN: Today, M&B is thriving. It makes more than a million hangers a day and Magnus expects to double his workforce in two years. But that still won't meet the demand. Since the tariff, virtually every dry cleaner has to pay more for hangers, on average about $4,000 a year. But Magnus says most customers probably won't notice it.
Mr. MAGNUS: I mean, if I pay $12.95 to have my suit cleaned and that hanger cost him a cent and a half more, that's $12.96 and a half. It's not a factor.
DOUBAN: Analyst Bill Fisher with the trade group Dry Cleaning and Laundry Institute, says a number of former U.S. hanger manufacturers have made a comeback since the tariff ruling. One reopened its Wisconsin plant and opened another in California. But he says it's a mixed bag.
Mr. BILL FISHER (Dry Cleaning and Laundry Institute): It will certainly result in competition. I would be very surprised if it drove prices down. The bottom line is cleaners are really struggling right now.
DOUBAN: Hangers are one problem, higher energy costs are another. Plus, Fisher says, there are too many dry cleaners in the U.S.
Back at Monarch Cleaners, owner Mark Dichiara says he goes through 2,000 hangers a week and he's doing anything he can to save money.
Mr. DICHIARA: I don't mind getting free hangers. You know, because they're giving me what they consider to be garbage. And every - if somebody brings me in a box full of hangers, that's like putting $10 on the counter before they even do business with me.
DOUBAN: And that's a cost he won't have to pass on to customers.
For NPR News, I'm Gigi Douban in Birmingham.
MONTAGNE: And you can find out still more about wire hangers and the U.S. government's investigation into dumping at npr.org.