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The Future Uniform Store

Part I The Store and Technology:
Moving From Automated to Integrated

A

mere decade or so ago, when a customer purchased an item in a uniform store, the employee would manually write up the sale. If an owner wanted to track his stock, he would count one by one the items in inventory. If he needed to talk with a customer, hed call them on the phone. Invoices were sent via mail. And while the fax machine was all the rage, few had ever heard of the Internet let alone imagine its potential to influence the purchasing decisions of customers.

But that all changed in the 90s when the World Wide Web made it theoretically possible to reach a global audience and other technological advances gave retailers the opportunity to automate their systems, effectively streamlining costs and bolstering efficiency. Some embraced the changes; others went kicking and screaming toward the future. A handful became bogged in the past, refusing to accept the new tools at their disposal.

For several years, I tried to get one store owner to automate, making proposal after proposal, says David Johnson of Premier Data Systems, whose company provides The Uniform Solution, an automated point-of-sale, purchase ordering and inventory control system to many in the business. But he was uneasy with the technology and couldnt see the benefits, and hes since gone out of business.

Although not widespread, that reluctance still exists today, according to Johnson. Our research indicates that fear of technology and a fear of failure dramatically affects purchasing decisions, he says. In order to buy anything new, the customer needs to be comfortable with the product.

To assuage such concerns, Premier Data Systems offers its customers a rigorous training process, including on-screen tutorials and telephone technical support, and has incorporated the suggestions of its customers into product enhancements. And while some prefer on-site training, Johnson discourages the idea. Its really cost-prohibitive in todays world, and its not necessarily better, he notes.

Making their Presence Known: Stores and the Web
In 1999, the most important thing a uniform store could do regarding the Web was to simply be there. No one was selling back then; the site was for informational purposes only, says Chris Ciccone of MP Uniforms and Supply. But just being there today isnt good enough. If youre a store, you must have an e-commerce component to your site, continues Ciccone, who will soon launch a site using UniformMarket Store System. You can only stock so much product in a store. The e-commerce site shows the customer all the options available, and gives him a better knowledge of what we do. Besides, todays customers are very savvy, and they expect you to have such a site.

Joe Chiusolo of Turn Out Fire & Safety agrees. E-commerce is an extension of service that the dealer can provide to the customer, says Chiusolo. Most customers go to the website to see whats available, and then either make their purchases online or come into the store.

One of the many benefits of e-commerce is the ability for the customer to order an item online and pick it up at a local store. Indeed, retail giants such as Wal-Mart and Circuit City have such a procedure in place, even going so far as designating special pickup areas and marking the space with electronic signage. Has the practice trickled down to the uniform industry?

Not really, according to many uniform retailers. Selling on the Web seems to be an either/or situation customers either buy exclusively online or they research the product and visit the store to make a purchase. Uniforms are not appliances; they have added-on value, notes Chiusolo. I list a large variety of trousers on my website; each can be specialized to fit a departments individualized requirements, whether that is providing a stripe, a certain shade of blue or a specific fabric blend. You cant provide that level of service over the Web, and were too complex of an industry to function like a Circuit City.

The uniform business is too touchy-feely, adds Leonard Sloan of ChefUniforms of Dallas. Sloan, who started in the screen printing business some 30 years ago, recently opened his first uniform store. Yes, I do a lot of business online, and theres no doubt about the strength of e-commerce, but Ive actually picked up additional customers because I now have a store.

Which brings up an interesting point: Do uniform retailers attract more business by having an e-commerce site, or is it simply another benefit for existing customers? The answer, at least for the moment, is a qualified both.

Weve picked up additional business since we started selling online, but its sporadic, says a representative from Graves Uniforms. While we do get queries outside our area, much of the business is local or within the region we traditionally sell.

POS, Inventory Tracking and Email: Whats New, Where is it Going?
When MP Uniforms opened its first store 14 years ago, Chris Ciccone wrote up all orders by hand and, if he wanted to know if an item was in stock, he walked around until he found it. Since that time, Ciccone and his partners have opened three additional stores specializing in medical apparel. Their initial store, serving the law enforcement market, has grown from 800 square feet to 1,900 square feet.

We couldnt have survived the growth without computerization and technology, he says.

The automated store is perhaps the greatest achievement in the industry over the last decade or so. Most store owners rely on either The Uniform Solution or Merchant Technologies to fulfill their computer and in-house needs, using the systems to generate electronic sales reports and to easily determine if an item is in stock. Uniform specifications, too, can now be stored in a computer, saving time and reducing the chance of human error. Before, you had to hope an employee jotted down a customers most recent specs in his file, says Chiusolo, who uses Merchant Technologies in his original store and The Uniform Solution in the recently-opened Totowa, NJ, location. Automation has not only streamlined costs and improved efficiency, but it has facilitated a better level of customer service, a much coveted goal on the retail side of the business.

But technology moves at rapid speed, and the uniform store moved with it in 2007. This year, The Uniform Solution began offering several new options to the 700 uniform stores using its system. Stores now have the ability to convert anything that is printed from the program straight to a PDF file and email it at the same time. Custom emails also can be created, and customers can attach their own files as well. Also new is the ability for stores to electronically send purchase orders to vendors over the Internet. And advance ship notices make it possible to quickly receive shipments by scanning the barcode on a shipping label. Next year, stores can look forward to real-time vendor stock reporting, a tool designed to make the retailer more efficient and productive. Johnson says, Were putting in their hands the capability of a Wal-Mart.

Indeed, none of the above is exactly new to retail, but it is new to the uniform industry, at least on the retail side. You have to remember that many are small business owners, and the costs traditionally associated with this type of technology were huge, says Johnson.

And what of the future? Before 2000, the mantra was automation. Today, it may very well be integration. Were moving from a point where technology operated independently, says Johnson. At the beginning of this century, little, if anything, was connected. Today in the uniform industry, were moving away from automation in a vacuum to an integrated system between manufacturers and retailers that will enhance the business for all.

Part II Appealing to Todays Customer:
the Brick-and-Mortar gets a Facelift

In the beginning, uniform stores were a hodgepodge of merchandise with little, if any, design elements incorporated into the overall layout. No more.

Competition from catalogers, e-commerce sites and companies outside the uniform marketplace has forced the brick-and-mortar to rethink its merchandising equation. So too has a changing customer base, which is more discriminating thanks to all the options at its disposal. As a result, brick-and-mortars across the country and across all market segments are rethinking their existing layouts, sprucing up their image and making some important changes to attract and retain customers.

How has the uniform store adapted to the new paradigm? The trends and responses thus far are below.

Trend 1: Keep it Simple, Make it Pretty, and Ring up Sales
It wasnt long ago that walking into a uniform store conjured up images of being in a war zone. Customers walked across thick, shag carpet and plowed through rack upon rack of merchandise to find what they were looking for.

That crowded-house mentality of retail design is a thing of the past. Today, uniform stores are striving to offer environments that are less distracting and decidedly clutter free. Many retailers are reducing the amount of merchandise in displays, promoting items in unorthodox ways and making better use of white space as a rest for the eye. We dont want to look like Wal-Mart, says Melanie Imlay, whose three Ohio stores cater primarily to the medical apparel industry. Its a very competitive market space with a fashion-forward sensibility, and our stores reflect this.

That means less clutter and more open space at Imlays. While racks are used for discount scrubs and lower-end items, coveted, high-end brands are displayed on table tops each in their own area. Were giving our stores more of a specialty boutique look, a trend which I believe will continue for some time to come, says Imlay.

Steve Land of Lands Uniforms says, The shopping experience is much more pleasant nowadays. Customers are exposed to so much and the competition has become so fierce that theres really no alternative. Land, who hired a merchandising planner to assist with his stores layout, has also invested in new lighting to entice customers. We use halogen lights to spotlight dead areas and are looking into LED lighting for the future, he says.

Some compare whats going on in the uniform industry to whats occurring in retail overall. We are not expected to have the same level of sophistication as a GAP or Target, but then again we have a much different model, says Mark Blumenthal of Blumenthal Uniforms. Still, we can learn from those companies, and make the appropriate changes. Blumenthals, which serves the public safety and transportation markets among others, is currently working to update its stores with better lighting, fixtures, graphics and displays. It is also spending more energy on merchandising and signage to make shopping easier for its customers.

The common denominator driving this approach to store design is an evolving notion of customer service one based on subtlety. The idea is to find not-so-obvious ways to streamline the shopping experience so that the customer is left with a pleasant, lasting impression, notes Land.

Trend 2: Perception is Reality
Todays customer is not only looking for hassle-free shopping options, but he or she is increasingly brand-conscious. Manufacturers have understood this reality for quite some time and have spent countless dollars positioning their products as the latest must-have brands. On the retail level, uniform stores have done a good job of stocking these brands and have made good use of signage available from manufactures to better guide customers to the items they desire.

But while all this serves to strengthen the manufacturer, it does little to solidify the stores identity in the mind of the customer. That seems to be changing, however, as more retailers recognize the important role branding plays in distinguishing themselves from others in the field.

Branding makes you appear larger than what you are, says Land. It professionalizes your store.

To bring the brand to the forefront, Land uses a flat-screen TV to keep customers in a shopping mood. Housed near the checkout area, the slide show depicts store information, styling options and new product news. This helps create visual interest in the store while they are shopping, he says. The tactic has proved so successful that he is considering adding televisions to the dressing rooms. It is, after all, a captive audience, he adds.

Others have incorporated their logos into manufacturers materials as a way to reinforce the brand. If you only use what the manufacturer has given you to advertise the product, you wind up looking like everyone else, says Joe Talkington of Star Uniforms.

Land adds, Spending a little bit of money can make you look big, and in business, perception is reality.

Store Redesign: Tips to Help Get Started
Of course, not all brick-and-mortars have redesign plans in the works. For the few in niche markets or underserved areas, a complete overhaul, or even a tinkering, may be unnecessary at this time. Geography and customer base may also dictate the level of sophistication used in any new design. So, too, does cost.

Still, there is little doubt that the changing uniform market landscape demands a fresh approach, both in-house and online. For those who are considering a redesign, or for those who seek a few budget-friendly fixes, is the following advice:

Hire a professional merchandising planner or designer. Retailers are in the uniform business, not the design business. Expert advice helps to get the right look for a store. While costs vary, expect to pay about $2,000 to $5,000 for this service. If the price causes pause, Land suggests you think about all the business that will be generated from your updated customer-friendly store.

Consider the options. An expensive ground-up redesign may not be needed. There are several quick-and-easy visual enhancements that can improve a stores look, including an updated paint job, high-impact graphics or a newly designed fixture package.

Factor in curb appeal. When considering a remodel, dont forget your stores exterior. First impressions are everlasting. The right look can drive business to your store; the wrong look can send them headed in the opposite direction. If possible, consider updating signage. And dont forget about the landscaping. We recently redesigned the outside of our building to include more flowers and shrubs, and its really made an impression, says Imlay.

Update the logo and business cards. The new image should extend beyond store parameters to include new company logo and business cards. Its a cost-effective way to spruce up an image, further the brand and distinguish one store from others in the space.

Part III Mixing it up: New Products,
Trends and Niche Markets

In the industrys nascent years, uniforms were predominately made-to-measure garments and the marketplace limited to the law enforcement, military and transportation sectors. The introduction of an in-stock program in the 1940s, a growing American workforce and technological advances all combined to push the business of uniforms past its traditional boundaries, giving the nations manufacturers and distributors entre into new markets and an expanding U.S. economy.

But while the marketplace may have been changing, the merchandise was not. Few fabric options existed; products were prosaic and ordinary. Uniforms were, by and large, uniform.

Not true of todays uniform landscape. Todays uniforms come in a variety of styles, colors and fabrications. Uniforms can wick away moisture, repel stains, provide ease of movement and protect against hazardous situations. And, of course, they must do so while being stylish and comfortable. The greatest change Ive seen is in the level of product diversity, says Fred Levin of Siegels Uniforms, whose store serves the law enforcement, fire and EMS markets. There are so many options available now that it can be sometimes difficult to keep up with it all.

Inventory: A Delicate Balancing Act
It also can be difficult to keep the right mix of inventory on hand, and retailers can agree only on the fact that there is no one solution. Managing inventory is a full-time job, says Blumenthal. The store, with five locations and a growing e-commerce business, relies on technology to track inventory. The computer system certainly makes it more manageable, but we still have to make numerous decisions daily to create the product mix and inventory levels at the retail level and on the Internet. We are striving to provide a broader offering without having to stock our inventory deep. Our best suppliers are able to restock our shelves quickly so that we can service our customers and turn our inventory. This is very important to cash flow.

Indeed, lean-and-mean inventories seem to be the mantra at the retail level, but there are exceptions. Were known for overwhelming the customer with product, says Talkington. The white goods industry is very competitive, so having enough inventory on hand is critical. Daily phone calls to each of Stars three locations and inventory-shifts between sites assure a consistent product mix.

Theres an expression which says that you cant sell from an empty cart, says Dan Mendelson of Unitex Direct, whose company specializes in the private security market. Of course you can get stuck, but in my experience, the merchandise will eventually sell. Product offerings may be more diverse nowadays, but it still takes time for trends to trickle down to the uniform industry.

Tactical Uniforms and Casual Wear: Trends or Mainstays?
Once a trend does trickle down, however, it appears to take root. Witness as examples the influence of tactical uniforms in the police market and the role of casual wear in career apparel. Wildly popular for over a decade, the trend, if the term can be used to describe such longevity, shows no signs of slowing down. Taking its cue from retail-inspired designs, casual wear is a mainstay in the career apparel industry and can be found in the programs of hospitals, restaurants, hotels, airlines and entertainment facilities.

On the police side, retailers say there is one name on the lips of their customers: 5.11. It the hottest product line right now, says Chiusolo.

Its what the customer wants, no doubt about it, agrees Levin. The look is much more casual than what has traditionally been the norm, but the garments are very functional for the type of police work being done today.

No one is suggesting the demise of these phenomena any time soon. But there is nonetheless evidence in some regions and some markets that a backlash may be brewing. John Best of Best Uniforms notes that veterans of the Iraq War often seek out careers with sheriffs departments, well-known for projecting a more traditional appearance. This is a growing trend in South and North Carolina, says Best. These guys know how important a command presence is and want to work for departments that value that attribute.

And in the white goods industry, which has seen the likes of Mickey Mouse and Sponge Bob dominate its scrubs line, the trend now appears to be skewing conservative. Theres definitely a push by the hospitals to go back to solid, but not white, colors, says Star Uniforms Phyllis Goewey. Image is the driver of these decisions.

Levin adds, Everything eventually cycles back. Its just a question of when.

The Rise of Niche Markets
Product diversity and changes in customer tastes have not only influenced trends but has lead to new opportunities for retailers. One of the more important developments in recent years has been the rise of so-called niche markets. Indeed, many retailers have earned a comfortable living serving these smaller sectors of the economy. Such is the case of Sloan and his aptly-named ChefUniforms of Dallas, specializing in both low- and high-end clothing for the chef and restaurant industries. Most chef wear is sold online, so Im kind of unique, notes Sloan. Theyve never had anyone to cater to them before. Now they have.

Following the trend of the overall retail industry to provide more types of merchandise so shoppers can find everything they need in one place, Sloan has added a line of cutlery to his store. Its been very successful so far, he says.

He also stocks a line of hospitality and restaurant wear in the hope of ringing up additional sales. This store is all about pleasing the chef, says Sloan. If he or she is happy, Ill be recommended as a supplier for cocktail outfits or waitstaff apparel. In the end, this business comes down to service.

And in the end, Sloan is right; it is all about service. It has, and always will be, the hallmark of the uniform dealer. The independent retailer has always faced threats to his existence from manufacturers, unfair government practices, foreign competitors and catalogers.

Then came what some considered the greatest threat the Internet. People predicted e-commerce would eliminate retail stores, but the reality is that stores use online sites and brick-and-mortar locations to balance one another. Each is vital in this high-tech age. Customers search websites to gain knowledge but still make purchases at the brick-and-mortar.

Why? Because in no other industry can you find the level of service that exists in the uniform marketplace. Many stores have in-house tailors and embroidery services and can customize a garment precisely to a customers specifications. Without service, the uniform store is just another retailer. With it, it is truly a unique entity, sure to outlast the trendiest Johnny-come-lately consumer retail outlet.

Everyone wants the best price, says Mendelson. But they also want help when they need it, they want the value-added. Thats what we have in this industry. It all comes back to service.”

Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Spring & Summer 2008 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
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