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Ace Uniforms… Like Having an Ace Up Your Sleeve

Ace Uniforms Inc. has been an understated workhorse of the Southwest for decades. As a reliable, consistent provider of uniforms and accessories, Ace has spent more than 50 years building a reputation for knowledgeable service and quality products. It’s now putting renewed emphasis on rebranding itself online for a whole new generation of shoppers.

In the 1950s, when Stanley Louis Stein finished his service in the Marine Corps, he started his own modest business; it was so modest that he spent weekends loading up a truck with Levis and luggage to sell to farmhands around California. He sold uniform and surplus goods to members of the military, but he clearly wanted something more for himself and his family of six children.

Stein then began working for Martins Uniforms in Phoenix, Ariz. After a move to San Diego, Calif., he opened Ace Uniforms Inc. in 1958, calling on all his past experience and the desire to be his own boss. When Stanley left Martins Uniforms, however, he didn’t lose touch with that business. Instead, the two companies merged under his leadership.

Stein continued to grow the business and took his son Marc under his wing. Marc worked with his father for five years, learning the ropes of business management. It ultimately led Marc to split from his father in 1985 to start a sister company, Ace Uniforms & Accessories Inc., that focused on uniforms and blue goods instead of surplus. Sadly, Stanley passed away in 1996, but he is remembered as “a great man respected by all his family, friends and the community, and customers loved him for his humor and zest for life,” Stein says.

Stein’s new company started in a small, 750-square-foot location, and he worked two other jobs to make ends meet. After three years, he traded up to a building 10 times the size, where he stayed for another 10 years. After one more move, Stein found a great location, a huge retail space in downtown San Diego just a few blocks from PETCO Park, home of the Padres. According to Stein, the location is “a fun and exciting old-school retail location” with 25,000 square feet of retail space and 10,000 square feet of warehouse space with alterations and embroidery machines.

In 2007, the old Martins Uniforms was renamed Ace Uniforms of Phoenix. That location is an old bank that has been redesigned into a classic retail space. Just four miles from downtown Phoenix, the store has maintained its customer base through the name change by emphasizing that it’s under the same owner and management. The only change was literally the name on the front.

A third Ace Uniforms location is in Vista, Calif. That store operates under the name Uniform Specialists and is in a small strip mall on a busy four-lane road. Because it’s only about 35 miles from the main San Diego location, it relies on a much smaller footprint yet can still offer many of the same services as the primary location.

Stein says the main drive of Ace Uniforms is essentially the same as when his father started the business nearly five decades ago. “Our stores continue to serve the blue goods industry along with industrial, but we have added medical uniforms and accessories, and we’re branching out into other professions.”

Customer traffic is fairly evenly split among fire, law enforcement, military, medical and industrial employees. That means Ace is tasked with stocking a huge inventory of brands, styles, colors and accessories. Products range from apparel, scrubs and chef coats to school uniforms, leather goods and medical accessories. Brands like 5.11 Tactical, Crocs, Chefwear, Propper, Landau and Dickies adorn the walls and racks at each of the three stores.

Stein says he thinks customers return again and again to Ace Uniforms “because we are old school and have been in business for 50 years.” He says customer service has always been and continues to be the most important aspect of the business. Certainly, there are other uniform suppliers in Southern California, but Ace Uniforms has the lasting relationship with its customers that keeps them coming back.

Stein says, “The best-selling items are our personalities.” He says this as a joke, but it’s actually true. It takes people to sell merchandise, and it takes excellent service to create a regular shopper. “We have a loyal staff that enjoys working here. We believe being a small, local, family-owned and -operated business sets us apart. We care about the community over the bottom line. Of course we are a for-profit business, but we give back as much as we take. We are a community-based business, and we serve the baseball team to the police department, the homeless outreach volunteers to the state government.”

Ace Uniforms outfits individuals and entire departments. Among its larger customer accounts are the California Highway Patrol, California Dept. of Corrections, U.S. Postal Service and California Dept. of Forestry. In addition to off-the-rack items, each store provides screen printing, embroidery and alteration services. Promotional products, complete with custom logos and artwork, are also available.

To help draw in more traffic, Ace hosts monthly store events, and employees attend or facilitate events “almost every other weekend helping the community at one level or another,” says Stein. Ace Uniforms employs 37 people: 19 in the San Diego store and headquarters, seven at the Vista location, and 11 at the Phoenix store.

While the business has had an Internet presence and online shopping since 1999, Ace Uniforms has had higher goals for its online profits. To help in that avenue, it has tapped the UniformMarket StoreSystem to completely redesign both of its sites, and The former just enjoyed its re-launch on July 1 of this year, and the sleek new layout and navigation reflects the tech-forward vantage point of the company.

One of the difficulties in translating a huge variety of products for a range of industries onto the web is how to organize all of it. What was once a cluttered page of lists and menus has become bold buttons for each product category. The store system even serves larger customers with their own private stores populated only with approved uniform components.

Another difficulty is just how to provide the same service online that customers enjoy in person at each of the store locations. Stein says the Internet has been one of the killers of what he values about business. Repeat customers are built on a foundation of helpful staff, fast service and lots of experience. Internet shopping doesn’t allow for much more than an easy website to navigate and a problem-free transaction.

“In the past 10 years, this has become the hardest business to be in; Internet-only companies sometimes have little idea what they’re doing, and it is super hard for new guys to stay in business once they have gone through the two years of growth,” Stein says.

Instead, Stein is steering Ace Uniforms to continue on its path of steady growth, stellar customer service and lasting legacy. Stein laughs, saying his personal five-year goal is to hit it big in the Lottery, but then quickly follows up with the actual five-year outlook for Ace. “We expect to see our stores in other locations and continuing our growth with values and service,” he says. “We do not concern ourselves with being the cheapest with the cheapest products; we’re more interested in being a value company.”

That sums up the business philosophy: worry less about the competition and focus instead on providing the best value. The Steins’ company has been the veritable “ace up the sleeve” for many uniformed industries in Southern California. When a customer needs help, Ace Uniforms is waiting to fill the order quickly, accurately and with a smile. It can outfit not only the nurses and doctors in a hospital but also the food servers, maintenance staff and security officers. Police find full uniform apparel and all the belts, holsters and accessories to boot (and the actual boots, too). Hotel managers can tap Ace to provide front desk uniforms, wait staff aprons, chef coats and even the logoed items in the gift shop.

From top to bottom, Ace is a tightly run company. It has played all its own cards just right and is positioned to hold a winning hand for another 50 years.

Ace Uniforms Inc.
633 16th St.
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 233-0227

Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Fall & Winter 2009 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
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