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Smaller Focus Brings Bigger Profits Siegels Uniforms finds new success after 90 years

Siegels Uniforms has been in existence for 110 years, but it wasnt until the past 20 or so that the retail store has found its highest success. It was in 1987 that Fred Levin took over management of the Southern Indiana store, and he brought a major change in direction toward a more focused uniform apparel format that raised sales six-fold.

Until just four years ago, Siegels was a family-owned business. Levin almost can be counted as one of the Siegel family though. When his great-grandfather immigrated from Russia, he eventually settled in Evansville, Ind. The street was home to three families: the Levins, the Goldmans and the Siegels. Each family had its own business. The Levins operated an army surplus store for a time. Fred attended Indiana University for three years, but returned home when medical school became too expensive. His intention was to work for the Siegel familys retail clothing store until he could afford to return to college. Instead he stayed with the business, working his way up to general manager.

Im the fourth generation, but its not my family. I bought the store four years ago on Sept. 10, 2002. I had been the general manager since March 1987. So I ran it for a while and then bought the store from Alan Siegel, who was one of my childhood friends, Levin says. He wasnt interested in taking the store any further, and he wanted to get out.

The Siegel family was selling the whole gamut of clothing, including Levis jeans, Western wear, work clothing like overalls and outerwear, big and tall apparel, and ladies uniforms. The store enjoyed moderate success, but there was hidden potential in the items it was selling as an afterthought rather than as its main product line.

In 1988, we were using only a small part of the store for selling uniforms. We expanded that to take up the entire store and then a smaller part to put the orders together, says Levin. We changed the ideology. Before, a guy would come in and order something that might take two weeks to take the shirt out of stock and put the emblems on. It changed so that customers could take at least a partial order with them if not the whole thing.

That focus on uniform apparel was the turning point the store needed to boost its profits. In just the past 20 years, sales have bolted up from a half million dollars annually to approximately $3 million. Levin credits that major increase to the stores specialization in law enforcement, fire/EMS, honor guard and similar uniform programs versus selling all types of clothing. The custom embroidery, added about 16 years ago, was also an important supplemental service.

Much of the day is spent doing what he calls rushes, custom orders that are prepared on the spot while the customer waits. Emblems, insignia, stripes, piping and lettering can be added to any item in stock so the customer can leave with a full uniform ready to wear that day.

The boost in profits led Siegels Uniforms to open a second location six months ago in Louisville, Ky. That smaller location 3,000 square feet compared to the 20,000 square feet at the Evansville store requires only three employees to operate but has helped bring the Siegel name to a new pool of officers and public safety agents. Overall, Siegels Uniforms tends to steer clear of the major cities departments, focusing on the more rural and suburban police, fire and EMS departments. It serves individuals and entire departments in a 150-mile radius from St. Louis to Indianapolis to Nashville.

Were just branching out. Were not trying to grow too fast, Levin says. In fact our fear is growing too fast. Were just trying to do some additional walk-in business. I dont want to be too aggressive. Thats one of the only things that can hurt us is growing too fast.

The main location houses a 5,000-square-foot showroom, and the remainder of the building is used for storage, offices, alterations and embroidery. There are 26 employees at the Evansville location, including general manager Matt Baumeyer, four seamstresses and four embroidery operators. Siegels Uniforms owns four embroidery machines: two single-head machines and two multi-heads for a total of 14 heads. Levin estimates they customize 2,000 items a week.

He says, My daughter was born the same day I got my first embroidery machine in October of 1990. I had been questioning whether I should get it or not, and I finally decided to order it. It has taken off big since then, so its neat to have those two important changes on the same day.

Levin was able to foresee the trend toward Class-B uniforms versus the standard Class-A of polyester shirt and poly-blend pants. More often, departments are turning toward the less formal uniforms and are embroidering insignia as a way to add comfort and protection to those wearing it. There are no metal badges to poke or stab the wearer, and there arent multiple items to remove at the end of the day or before washing. The customized Class-B uniform has become the specialty of Siegels Uniforms.

The showroom is mostly glass walls facing the sidewalk and street outside. The windows cover much of the available wall space, so most products are presented on floor displays. The extensive glass walls have been a difficult feature for Levin to work around, but the 120-year-old building enjoys historical landmark status so structural changes are limited nor are they really desired. He likes being in a building with history so much that the new Louisville location is also in a historical building. He says it is just something he is attracted to and that customers seem to appreciate as well.

The store itself is designed in colors of tan and brown something Levin is looking to change soon. He will be redesigning the store to have white/gray walls and white trim to help update the look and bring complementary colors to the mostly black and blue uniform apparel pieces. Levin says he likes to do something small every year to keep Siegels Uniforms moving forward.

This past year, the major change was the computerization of the ordering system. While the billing and embroidery processes have been computerized for years, employees still were relying on hand-written orders. All new computers were purchased, and inventory and ordering software will be in place within the first few months of 2007.

The Siegels Uniforms website was the innovation a few years ago. It has grown every year to include online ordering and more robust product listings. Users can track their orders and join the mailing list for occasional announcements. Levin says the website has provided a nice supplement to the walk-in business. While the online presence hasnt made drastic changes to the companys bottom line, it has helped maintain sales figures. Customers are given the option with every item on the website to include special instructions, allowing for the signature customization.

Our repeat customers are number one, he says. We rely on them for repeat sales and for word-of-mouth advertising. Besides our website and an occasional catalog that we make, we just use outside sales and word of mouth. And it has worked. If you have a good enough product and great service, the rest will fall into place.

Levin is grateful for all the people he has met throughout his two decades working with Siegels Uniforms. He has made many good friends and looks forward to the department visits he makes to measure and fit officers. Occasionally he even brings his son, now 13 years old, on those trips.

Siegels employees are given some latitude for family events. Though Levin admits he was too feisty when he started as manager of the store, he has settled into a better balance of work and family. Where he once thought a missed day of work was bad for business, he now encourages his employees to take time to enjoy their kids or grandkids big events. That change in attitude is credited to his own wife and children who are first on his priority list. His wife, Kim, directs the embroidery department, and the couple works well together both in and out of the store.

Siegels Uniforms is essentially still a family-owned and operated apparel store. The family may have changed names, but the close relationship to the original founders is a strong bond that cant be ignored. The new leadership has altered course to smoother waters, and the results are apparent in the sales figures and the opening of a new location. Levins plans of slow-and-steady growth have provided the boost in sales while maintaining a manageable size to ensure fast, quality service.

Siegels Uniforms
101 SE 4th St.
Evansville, IN 47708
Toll Free: (800) 352-2555
Phone: (812) 425-2268
Fax: (812) 424-5961

Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Spring & Summer 2007 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
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