By Susan Derby
he Ed Roehr Safety Products Company of today looks very different than what it was 60 years ago. Back in the 1940s, Ed Roehr himself assembled a team focused on installing car radios. Just think about that for a second; we’re talking about cars packed with chrome and waterfall lines that are now considered classic and highly collectible. That’s how long this company has been in business.
Eventually car manufacturers made radios standard in all their models, so the company transitioned through a variety of product lines and services, still mainly centered on automotive products. Finally, by the mid-1980s, Ed Roehr Safety Products had shifted mainly to police and fire equipment. It had always installed equipment on emergency vehicles as part of its early line of services, but the public safety niche proved to be reliable and consistent enough to be the heart of the entire company.
Ed Roehr Safety Products would go another 20 years before it added police uniforms to the lineup. It sold body armor, lights and sirens, holsters, handcuffs, mace and other police equipment, but it didn’t add soft goods to its offerings until 2007.
“We should have gotten into the uniform business earlier,” says Duane Wall, president and regional sales manager. “Even five years earlier would have been better for us. We feel like we’re really catching up. There was a need for a police uniform store. We were a little slow to jump on it, but we’re so glad we did.”
Wall joined the company in 1980, back when it was still an automotive equipment distributor. He was among the five owners who took over after Ed Roehr passed away in 1993. After buying out the other owners over the years, he is now the sole owner of the company. And yet that fact isn’t very well known among its customers. On the company’s website, Wall is listed only as Regional Sales Manager for the St. Louis Metro Area.
Headquartered in St. Louis, the company is a wholesale distributor serving seven states: Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois, North Dakota and South Dakota. A total of 18 employees handle outside sales, administrative duties, shipping/receiving, automotive installation, alterations and showroom sales.
One key employee is Andrew Strebler, operations manager. He joined Ed Roehr Safety Products in 2007 at the point when uniform apparel was added to the product line. With a 12-year background in the blue goods industry, Strebler has the experience and knowledge the company needed.
Strebler says, “We don’t just sell the goods. We put our expertise to work testing, installing and recommending each product. That helps us gain the knowledge we need to sell these items to the customer. We equip the cars bumper to bumper, not just sell the equipment for someone else to install. We can outfit an officer head to toe, creating the entire uniform program and using our full-service uniform tailor shop.”
The company tagline is “We outfit public safety from bumper to bumper and head to toe,” and that’s no exaggeration. Three installers are on-site to add customizations to police cruisers, fire vehicles and EMS vehicles. Meanwhile, the sales team is ready to provide apparel, shoes, hats, safety vests, TASER equipment, body armor, duty accessories and even metal detectors.
The company’s full-time on-site tailor can perform custom alterations, taper pants and shirts, add emblems and stripes, take in waistbands, change buttons, add snaps and do heat transfers. In most cases, work for walk-in customers can be done immediately so officers can walk out with a fully assembled custom uniform.
The walk-in storefront is the latest addition to Ed Roehr Safety Products. Wall and Strebler worked together on the design and layout of the store, and Wall did much of the construction work himself. It’s been open since late summer 2009.
“It’s been a great success. Our walk-in business has grown daily,” Wall says. “Word of mouth and sales have been the biggest ways to advertise that it’s open. We did some direct mail to announce it, but mostly we’ve grown the walk-in sales based on word of mouth.”
They turned an old garage and office space into a 2,000-square-foot sales floor. Strebler describes the design as “contemporary industrial.” Bright colors and a clean, uncluttered area let customers browse a huge selection of products in a comfortable setting. With the full warehouse attached, every size and style in stock is available for immediate purchase.
Strebler says, “We themed everything to public safety, so our dressing rooms are just like jail holding cells with bars and everything. The police seem to get a kick out of that.”
The storefront has given the company a new way to connect with public safety officers of all types. Wall says, “We were always in contact with the lieutenant or captain that did the buying. But the individual officers didn’t really recognize the name of Ed Roehr Safety Products. Now with the retail store, our name is becoming more popular with the police departments. There is a lot more recognition there.”
The store has also boosted individual sales, although department contracts are still the vast majority of sales figures. Some of the major departments Ed Roehr serves include the St. Louis County Police, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Many major customers turn to Ed Roehr both for officer uniforming and duty gear and for vehicle equipment. A single contract with a department can incorporate hundreds of individual products and many services.
Strebler and Wall work with all the salesmen when departments approach Ed Roehr to develop entire uniform programs. Customers can review choices at the main St. Louis headquarters, or more commonly the sales team will bring samples to the actual department and provide guidance on final selections. Sometimes the police, fire, security or EMS department may only be looking for a specific item, a jacket for example. The department may not be aware of the full range of jackets available, from reversible to fully insulated to all-weather options. Once Ed Roehr shows up with all the choices, the officers get excited about choosing their new look.
“We’re very hands-on in creating an entire program instead of just asking what shirt they want and sending it to them,” says Strebler. “They may start out with just a general inquiry, and then they see our knowledge of the industry and what they can do with the selection available. In our relatively short time in the uniform business, we’ve learned the exact questions to ask to get them precisely what they need to accomplish what they want to accomplish.”
Ed Roehr Safety Products also hosts demonstration events to help promote new products and allow departments to compare items before purchase. There are body armor shoots where officers can see first-hand how a bulletproof vest performs. A tow-behind trailer can be loaded with up to ten vehicle light bars and assorted warning items so departments can compare different brands and styles.
Wall says, “We can take that to a department and give them a full-blown emergency warning light presentation because we’ve got the tools to do that. You pull up with the trailer and the officers are curious right away. It just goes from there.”
Once all the program specifications are set, the company creates custom interactive ordering forms. This helps the end users get exactly what they need without getting confused or bogged down with specific style numbers or color choices. Strebler says it also helps their fulfillment department match the exact item with the department it’s being ordered for.
A brand new website will further ease ordering in the future. Ed Roehr Safety Products has tapped UniformMarket’s Store System to create a new online shopping system. The current website is mostly equipment products, reflecting the relatively recent addition of apparel. The new site will include uniform apparel, duty equipment, body armor, vehicle products and informational pages.
“The website is what we expect the biggest change out of from the next few years. This is something we’ve never done before. Suddenly we’ll be able to let our customers shop 24 hours a day, both departments and individuals,” Strebler says. The website should launch in the first quarter of 2010.
Wall and Strebler discovered the UniformMarket Store System at last year’s NAUMD show. They say the trade shows are the most important way to find new products, network with manufacturers and other dealers, and identify new trends in the industry.
“Each year when we go to the show, we decide on at least one thing that we want to accomplish or focus on that year. This past year was a new website,” Strebler says. “The last few years in a row, we’ve come back from NAUMD with new information that has taken our business in a new direction.”
The company also attends the annual International Association of Chiefs of Police trade show and the annual Police Fleet Expo.
Advertising for Ed Roehr is heavily dependant on word of mouth and the sales team. It does use direct mail and flyers sent to departments and security companies, but thus far word of mouth has been enough to continually grow the business. The walk-in store is proving to be a big boost in advertising potential as well.
With big changes in the last three years entry into the apparel goods industry, a new walk-in store, and an extensive website redesign Ed Roehr Safety Products continues its tradition of adapting as needed to fit the current demands.
“By focusing on public safety, instead of uniforms in general, we can really target our vision and prepare for new trends,” Strebler says. “Back in our automotive years, we did business with everybody. We’ve focused it to law enforcement, fire, and public safety to provide better service and knowledge of the products we sell.”
Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Spring & Summer 2010 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.