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Uniform Retailers Association Aims to Fill Void Left by PAA Closing

Melanie Imlays phone began ringing shortly after the Professional Apparel Association (PAA) closed its doors for good last December.

People were very upset, says Imlay, who was a member of the PAAs Advisory Council. It may not have been perfect, but the PAA had given retailers a way to communicate with one another, and its dissolution on Dec. 31st left a void and had people wondering, Whats next?

What turned out to be next was the formation of a new group, the Uniform Retailers Association (URA), incorporated in March. Imlay, who owns two stores in Ohio, provided seed money to get the organization up and running, as did Steve Land, owner of Tennessee-based Lands Uniforms, and David Johnson of Uniform Solutions, a company that provides software to the uniform industry. Imlay serves as its president.

Why would small business owners invest their time and money to resurrect a group that had previously failed? Its important for the independent retailer to have a strong organization behind him, says Land. Retailers need a place where they can share ideas and build the relationships that this industry has become known for.

Imlay adds, The independent retailer needs a voice if he is to grow and prosper.

For the Retailer, by the Retailer
And that voice will be paramount, a distinction which URAs founding members emphasize sets it apart from its predecessor. While it is true the PAA served as a conduit among dealers, it was never designed as a dealer organization. It was run by manufacturers, and retailers never really had a say in its day-to-day operations, says Imlay.

It was also an increasingly exclusive group. According to several sources, many smaller manufacturers were prohibited from exhibiting at the annual trade show, a situation that was seen as giving an unfair advantage to larger, better-known firms. We just didnt feel like we were getting a fair representation of what the industry has to offer, observes Land.

The new URA hopes to remedy that. Like the PAA, the URA will hold a trade show as its premier event and offering, but with a marked difference any manufacturer, no matter his size or market space, is welcome to exhibit. If it can benefit the retailer, were interested, says Land. The group also seeks to expand its scope beyond its traditional market and geographic appeal. Were reaching out to the ad specialty companies and other businesses allied with the uniform industry, continues Land. The bottom line is this: if you have a product that can help a retailer grow his business, we want to hear from you.

Imlay also plans to cast a wider net by taking the group national. The PAA show was more of a regional event, notes Imlay. Retailers are more comfortable with a larger trade show, where they can see and learn about a broad spectrum of industry goods and services. Were reaching out to dealers coast to coast and targeting market segments and industries that the PAA wouldnt.

Theres another, and some would say necessary, distinction between the old and new organizations, and that addresses membership. While any manufacturer is encouraged to exhibit at the show, membership in the URA is open to the independent dealer only. Imlay explains the reasoning behind the decision. Retailers are essentially small businesses, and as such, the needs are different from many manufacturers. By remaining a retailer group, we can be more flexible and change things quickly if we have to. URA will charge no dues its first year. We want to wait until we have more to offer before we institute a dues schedule, says Imlay.

Perception is Reality
Yet some might question the wisdom behind starting another association at this point in time. Many associations have fallen on hard times in recent years, a result of declining membership and budget constraints. The uniform industry, too, has seen its share of turmoil, brought about first by consolidation and next by globalization. The question remains: are there enough retailers out there to warrant the URA? Or is the retailer base shrinking?

The answer, it appears, is a matter of perception. Actual numbers are sketchy at best since most are privately held companies. Estimates from those in the industry however place the number of retail establishments at about 3,000; of these, roughly half are said to center their business activities in the white goods industry. The above are considered uniform retailers if you factor in ad specialty companies and other non-traditional businesses, the actual figure may be higher than the initial 3,000.

Still, the last two decades have seen an erosion of the independent retailer base, as some folded and others were absorbed by manufacturers. Is the independent retailer still a viable force in the industry?

Again, the answer depends on how it is approached. Theres a perception out there that the retailer isnt as strong as he used to be, but thats just not true, says Land. Seventy percent of a manufacturers business comes from the independent retailer. If that doesnt make us viable, Im not sure what does. According to Land, the URAs recent mailing totaled 4,800 pieces, many of which were addressed to retailers.

Land and others also point out that much of the consolidation came from the blue goods industry, a market seen by many as being mature. Yes, many blue goods retailers arent around anymore, but others retailers in other market segments, particularly those selling medical apparel, are thriving.

Starting any new business venture is risky. Wouldnt it make more economic sense to join forces with other uniform trade groups, such as the National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors (NAUMD), Uniform Textile Rental Association or UniLink? Indeed, the NAUMD in particular has worked hard recently to reposition itself as an association responsive to all industry players, regardless of size or market. Have the attempts gone unnoticed in the retailer world?

No, but Imlay stresses the differences between the groups. Many of our businesses are mom-and-pops with needs that dont get adequately addressed by other organizations.

URA Show Scheduled for
Nov. 1-3, 2007

The URAs inaugural meeting will take place Nov. 1-3, 2007, and will be held at the Hilton Riverside, New Orleans.

New Orleans was selected because its a safe, fun city with a rich history, and we wanted attendees to enjoy themselves while at the show, explains Imlay. As a non-union municipality, it is also an affordable option. Theres never been a more cost-effective way for a manufacturer to exhibit, notes Land.

Exhibits will be open on Friday, Nov. 2, and Saturday, Nov. 3. The purpose of the exhibit portion of the annual trade show, according to the groups website, is to expose the retailer to products that can drive their sales, make their store more appealing, organized or efficient, and to help the retailer make informed buying decisions that will make their business more profitable. There is no limit to the number of booths a vendor can have, provided space is available in the exhibit hall. Manufacturers that sell items such as storage racks or design services may sign up for a tabletop exhibit space.

In addition, the URA is serving up a couple of twists designed to captivate the attention and appreciation of attendees. The first is the opportunity for exhibiting manufacturers to host exclusive meetings in a noncompetitive and private environment. A manufacturer can rent a meeting room during the day where he can talk with as many or as few retailers as he likes, says Land. This format puts the onus on the manufacturer, but it also gives him the chance to position his company in the most favorable fashion. Held during exhibit times and limited to one hour, no two vendors will have an exclusive meeting room at the same time. The meeting will be listed on the official trade show agenda and announced in the exhibit hall immediately before the event.

There are also a number of hosting possibilities available to exhibitors. Meals, receptions and social events are all potential hosting possibilities. While the concept isnt new, the format is the vendor hosting the event will be the only one allowed to exhibit at that event. A sign at the entrance to the event will indicate which vendor will be the host.

Writing Orders Encouraged
Unlike some trade shows, writing orders is enthusiastically embraced by the URA. It furthers the business relationship, notes Imlay.

To encourage order writing, there will be a fashion show during the welcome reception touting the latest offerings for each exhibiting uniform vendor. It wont be a formal event, but a quick-moving evening where everyone will hopefully have fun, says Imlay.

Vendors are also being encouraged to create special offers for trade show attendees. Were looking for anything that helps the retailer make a purchasing decision while at the show, says Land. As an incentive, vendors that provide a trade-show-only special will have their name listed on a display board at the entrance to the exhibit hall.

To further the professional development of its members, the URA will hold several educational seminars during its stay in New Orleans. Johnson, president of Uniform Solutions, will conduct two workshops: one designed for the novice user of his companys inventory systems program, the other for seasoned users looking for the latest applications and updates. The software is the standard by which all others are judged, says Imlay about Uniform Solutions products. Most retailers in the industry use it, so it is important to keep them aware of current offerings.

Time will quickly tell if the URA will succeed. Previous PAA meetings had drawn between 100 and 200 retailers, by most accounts. The groups founding members are hoping to surpass those numbers by launching an aggressive marketing campaign.

Were trying to do things right, says Land. We want to make this organization a good experience for both the manufacturer and retailer.

Other retailers agree. Im all for it, says Joe Talkington of Star Uniforms about the URA. We need to communicate with one another, to tackle some of our problems head on. With all the competition that retailers have from the big boxes, this type of organization is sorely needed.

But will retailers attend the November meeting? Talkington thinks so. Theres great buzz about it, he says. Ill be there, and Im bringing someone with me who is new to the business as well.

To learn more about the URA or its activities,

percent of a manufacturers business comes from the independent retailer. If that doesnt make us viable, Im not sure what does.

Steve Land
Uniform Retailers Association

Were trying to do things right, says Land. We want to make this organization a good experience for both the manufacturer and retailer.

Steve Land
Uniform Retailers Association

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