La Isla Uniforms: A Uniform Oasis in the Vegas Desert
By Susan Derby
From the second a customer walks in the door, it is obvious that La Isla Uniforms of Las Vegas isn’t your average uniform store. There are live birds chirping and smooth jazz music quietly playing. The tiki bar is serving cool filtered water. Candy and lollypops are waiting at the counter under the full-size palm trees. The high-definition TV is playing a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, and a few customers are enjoying the massage chairs as they take a break from shopping. The store smells like ocean breeze and tropical flowers. The lighting mimics sunlight, without the blue or yellow tints of regular fluorescent lighting. Even the fish seem happy and relaxed as they swim along in their tanks.
It’s surprising to find all of this in a uniform store on a bustling street in Las Vegas, but then again there is little in Vegas that is as simple as it would first appear. La Isla Uniforms is a family-owned and -operated retail store that has grown to fill its huge 12,000-square-foot building to the rafters. It is a uniform store that somehow has become a tourist destination. It sells uniform pieces to non-uniform-wearers. And in a city known for its harsh desert conditions and tough employers, La Isla Uniforms is a relaxed, fun place to work.
“One of the things that we’re trying to do is give our customers the full unique shopping experience,” says Dimitrios Stavros, director of operations and manager of La Isla Uniforms. “Usually uniform stores are something based on necessity, but they really aren’t that appeasing to the shopper. So what we are trying to do is create the most amazing shopping experience you can have, not only for uniforms but for any shopping experience. I take care of all the senses.”
Stavros is the driving force behind the five-year-old store. His father was in the apparel business, so Stavros grew up knowing a pique from a pleat. The family owns a store in Los Angeles selling ready-to-wear apparel for the whole family, everything from shirts to socks and underwear. That store is owned and managed by his sister.
Stavros wanted to branch out from the ready-to-wear business into uniforms. He seized the opportunity to purchase the building in a prime location in Las Vegas just one mile from the strip, on Sahara Avenue where more than 50,000 cars pass by every day. He had taken many trips to Vegas on business and to attend industry shows and recognized the great opportunity when he saw the building vacant. He bought the huge building, wanting to ensure a solid location without worrying about short-term leases.
He says, “[The building] was exactly what we wanted: a big store space on a main artery. I wanted to come into Vegas and target the locals but also hit the tourists. 40 million people come into Vegas, so this was an opportunity to see if what was working in L.A. could work here on a larger scale. We came from the ready-to-wear, mass-merchant mentality and wanted to take advantage of this growing market.”
Stavros chose the name “La Isla Uniforms” because he loves the Spanish language and the imagery that is associated with the name “the island.” He says he didn’t use his own name when christening the store because “it’s not about me; it’s much bigger than just me.”
La Isla Uniforms features medical scrubs, construction apparel, casino black and white, restaurant wear (both back and front of house), and security and EMT uniforms. Non-slip and comfort footwear is a relatively new addition to its product line. The high upfront cost of carrying shoes kept Stavros out of that merchandise until the store was more established. Now La Isla Uniforms carries mid- and high-end brands with the philosophy that higher quality will last longer, be more comfortable and ultimately be worth the extra price to the customer.
The 13 full-time employees are all store salespeople, with no seamstresses, screen printers or embroiderers. Instead, they all know everything they possibly can about every product in the store. Stavros says one employee focuses on ordering, including all special orders from customers.
“We will special order anything from any company without charging our customers upfront. We take the gamble, not our customers. And if it’s backordered or out of stock, or if the customer decides they don’t want it once it comes in, we handle it on our end,” Stavros says. And the customers don’t pay shipping or ordering fees for their special items. “Lots of others are dealing with private labels, but we know that our customers want the brand names and aren’t looking for the private label things. We get some of our merchandise in by pallet because we move so much merchandise.”
It wasn’t always so successful. Like any new business, La Isla Uniforms had to build its customer base. On the day La Isla Uniforms opened its doors, Aug. 26, 2002, it banked just $100 in sales for the day. Now, Stavros says he’ll sell that much within the first few minutes of each day. He attributes that growth and success in part to aggressive marketing and advertising. Every yellow pages carries a La Isla Uniforms ad. While admittedly that is an expensive endeavor, Stavros says it is essential and something in which he believes strongly. On top of that, ads in the major tourism guides as well as all hotel welcome packets boost marketing by 2 million ad views every month.
“Our marketing budget is more than some uniform stores gross in a year. We’re just in a different category, so we have to sell more than the average uniform store,” he says.
All of that advertising and word of mouth has led to customers from all over the world shopping at La Isla Uniforms. It’s an unlikely tourist destination, but visitors from every state and many countries have stopped in to browse the selection. La Isla outfits individuals as well as entire companies, restaurants, hospitals, colleges and portions of Nevada’s state employees. Some repeat customers drive in from Arizona or California.
“When we get compliments, it’s humbling. When customers say they will drive miles to get here or will only shop here even for their non-uniform needs, I could get all puffed up and say Wow, we’re really good,’ but instead it humbles me. It reminds me that I am here to serve them,” Stavros says. He brings up one woman who took the advice of some nurse friends to try La Isla Uniforms for her compression hosiery needs. Her friends said “Only go to La Isla they are big and have everything but they give the best service,” so she gave the store a try and has been a devoted customer ever since, buying more than just pantyhose.
Some of the tourists ask if a similar store could be opened where they live places like Alaska, Hawaii, Canada and Louisiana. Stavros says such an idea wouldn’t work because he needs that “critical mass of people” coming through the doors every day. An average sale is usually around $50 per customer.
That demonstrates one of the biggest shifts he has seen in the uniform market over the past three decades. A single uniform sale used to total $300 for a nurse to buy the dress, pantyhose, hat, shoes and apron that made up her uniform. Now the medical field is all scrubs, meaning cheaper apparel parts and more competition as chain stores get in on the action. The same holds true for many other types of uniforms; Wal-Marts and Targets are carrying Dickies and Carhartt for construction wear, scrubs for medical personnel, and lots of other apparel that make up common uniforms nowadays.
“They see that normal, everyday apparel can also be transformed into a uniform. This used to be a quiet little industry, but now all the big names are making it more mainstream,” Stavros says. “To succeed in this industry now, you have to be at the top of your game and really cater to the customer just to get them through the door.”
Some of the biggest competition comes from the Internet. La Isla Uniforms of Las Vegas is building a website to help attract even more customers, but Stavros knows customers are happier with their purchases when they get to feel the fabrics, see the quality and try on the sizes in person. Plus, he says, Internet shopping can still be a bit of an unknown, including returns or shipping charges. It comes down to more than just price. Quality products, top service, a lasting presence and a unique shopping experience are all major factors.
“We’re 12,000 square feet and we’re not going anywhere,” says Stavros. “It’s like sowing and reaping, and we are at harvest time now and get to have more fun. In the beginning, it was very stressful. But now we can see that the plan is working. We had a clear mission statement from the start, so now we will just keep working to be the best uniform store in the United States, period.”
La Isla Uniforms of Las Vegas
|Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Fall & Winter 2008 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.|
|Halper Publishing Company
633 Skokie Blvd, #490
Northbrook, IL 60062
Fax (224) 406-8850