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The Certified Success of Image First

ImageFirst_StaffIn a business world packed with big names, Image First Professional Apparel counts some of the biggest among its customers. Nationally known brands such as Pillsbury, T.G.I. Fridays, Campbells and Molly Maid all use Image First as an apparel supplier. And its no wonder why this Delaware-based business has enjoyed such big-name successes. It starts with a consistent process that is streamlined, service rich and customer focused.

Image First began in 1968 when Joseph Berstein opened a uniform rental company in Wilmington, Del. As the company grew, it evolved into three divisions: uniform rental, professional apparel, and medical wear. It also spread to multiple satellite locations through five states scattered across the eastern United States. Josephs son Jeffery joined the business, and he began to establish the direct sale business that would forever change the business model Image First would follow.

When the company was 40 years old, it needed some new leadership to sustain it and bring its new direction to full fruition. Enter Brian Beere. With an extensive background in uniform programs and sales including running his own direct sales uniform business, Beere was perfectly experienced to steer Image First Professional Apparel. He purchased Image First from the Bersteins in late 2008.

Beere continued to expand the direct sales component of the business while dropping the uniform rental arm. He partnered with Debbie Shelton, merging her company with Image First in September 2009 to offer expanded advertising specialty products. The result, as Shelton puts it, is a “focus on providing their existing clientele a one-stop-shop for uniforms, premiums and anything else we can assist them with.” Shelton now serves as Image Firsts director of creative programs.

Image First has taken full advantage of the internet business model. From a 25,000-square-foot corporate headquarters and warehouse in New Castle, Del., and a 1,000-square-foot warehouse in Philadelphia, the company moves hundreds of thousands of items annually. The key is the customized “webstores” that are created for each client.

Beere says, “The webstores that we have are really stores that we build to manage the clients apparel, and in some cases promotional product, needs. About 95 percent of our business is business-to-business customers that either have contracted with us or that we do business with where were supplying the company itself. They purchase the uniforms for their employees, or they authorize certain apparel and the employees buy it from us through the webstores.”

The custom webstores are loaded only with the pre-approved apparel items that fit within the clients uniform program. Image First offers brands like Dickies, Carhartt, Hanes, Champion, Walls, Wrangler, Outerbanks, Lee, Munsingwear, Russell, Hartwell, VF and Edwards. Plus it can stock completely custom uniform components and apparel items as needed.

The main Delaware location has tailors and seamstresses on hand and a huge bank of embroidery machines. The vast majority of orders requiring customization are handled fully in house. The Philadelphia location manages only medical uniforms and scrubs. Beere says this arrangement works best because the company serves a high concentration of medical institutions in that area, so the orders can reach the customers quickly.

In all, it takes just 45 employees across the two locations. Stock items usually ship within 24 hours of ordering, and the goal for non-stock items is a five-day turnaround. Staff is loosely separated into warehouse production, administration and IT, and sales. Account managers work closely with customer service representatives or may handle the customer service calls themselves. Thats important in ensuring reliable answers quickly when customers need help.

“When other organizations set up uniform programs and have their employees purchasing directly from the web or phone, most of the time they dont have one specific person to speak with, whereas we really try to maintain that relationship,” Shelton says. “People get frustrated when they continuously get a voicemail and have to leave messages. Because of the way the economy is, everything is going back to relationships. You have to keep your customers happy and make sure they have what they need when they need it.”

Shelton and Beere agree that customer service is why Image First doesnt need a large advertising budget. They say the company is enjoying a high retention rate, and customers are referring others to Image First for uniform apparel and advertising specialty products.

Polo shirts are the biggest seller, easily beating work shirts. Of course the polos come in a huge selection of fabrics, brands and colors, plus they can each be customized with logos or a completely custom garment design. Scrub and chef apparel are also key items.

Beere says, “Theres one other item thats big for us. We carry a niche market for food processing. We manufacture certain snap-front garments that they are required to use in the food manufacturing process. That includes shirts, dresses and coveralls all with no pocket. We also manufacture a hook-and-eye pant with no-button front because they cant have buttons in a food processing facility.”

If clients dont see what they need from the stock items Image First offers, there is always the option to create a truly custom garment from scratch. Image First has a graphic designer on staff who will start the process with the client, and then it is turned over to a contract design team to create the board drawings that meet all the specs. Once the client approves the drawings, a sample is created.

But heres something that sets Image First apart from most custom manufacturers: “We do the full size range they are looking for so they can see not only what they look like but also the cut of the items and have people try them on to see if they fit properly. You dont want something that looks good on paper or on the board and may even look good in a sample, but then doesnt work in a different size,” says Beere.

He says something as simple as a European size scale can completely throw off a smooth production experience for a client, so it is worth the effort to have a full range produced for the sample pack. Once that stage is complete and the client is satisfied, full production is launched and can take anywhere from 30 to 90 days depending on the size and scope of the order.

“We constantly provide our clients with up-to-date ideas that we see in the workplace,” Beere says. “For example, we do work with T.G.I. Fridays. They use a custom red shirt for their servers. As we see new ideas that a manufacturer brings to us, if we see a new design that matches their colors and we think would look impressive for their stores, well provide samples and ideas to them even while were supplying their current program. They can keep it in mind when they want to phase in a new program, and it gives them time to test some stores with the new products to see what the reaction is.”

At its essence, the goal at Image First is to streamline the entire apparel process for the client. Image First creates the custom ordering webstore, manages the inventory, handles the design and production of garments, customizes products, ships with 99 percent complete orders, and still answers customer calls with
a smile.

How do they manage to keep it all straight? Thats where the ISO 9001: 2008 certification comes in. Thats the International Standardization Organizations most recent guidelines for quality management and quality assurance. It used to be something many manufacturers from all industries were very familiar with, but more recently it has become less common. Image First has met all the requirements and follows all the practices to maintain the stringent standard.

“I stress that its a specific protocol,” Shelton says. Every process is documented, and Image First holds its suppliers accountable for their part in the process too. If an issue arises, there is an established process the company goes through to identify the systematic problem and correct it with documentation of course. For every embroidery file, the company logs what the image is, what colors were used, which placement the decoration is approved for, what items it can be used on and so forth. In this way, the customer gets a consistent product and logo.

Beere says, “It helps us keep a set of procedures consistently in place and enforced on how we do each piece of our business. Its important that clients realize that we take what we do seriously and have a process behind what we do. Our customers often spend a lot on their image, and they require consistency. If its not consistent, it can put their logo in jeopardy as to the protected trademark.”

The processes in place are working well for Image First. The company has streamlined its procedures and pared down to two large warehouse locations from its once multi-state operation. It has cut the less profitable uniform rental component and added advertising specialty products to its lineup. And a new owner and recent merge have reinvigorated the entire company from the top down.

So what comes next? Beere says the new target is the health care industry “because it is always evolving and always in uniform programs.” What traditionally has been
an industry that uses individual uniform purchasing is now evolving into branded, specified uniform apparel. “As these health care institutions decide to market themselves, a number of them have brought the [uniform purchasing] process internally, so the employees still can buy what they want to a certain extent but the styles and colors are limited to a marketing plan and color scheme.”

Its a safe bet that Image First Professional Apparel is preparing to launch even more customization capabilities for its webstores to meet the specific needs of the health care industry. It already has expertise in scrubs and medical uniforms, so this next step wont be too much of a stretch. It will, however, be interesting to watch how this 50-plus year old company will continue to adapt to new technologies, industry demands, fashion trends, global perspective and economic influences.


Image First Professional Apparel

100 Lukens Dr.
New Castle, DE 19720
(302) 656-2774