By David Volz
Personal relationships and a strong dedication to service are critical elements to the success of smaller to midsize local uniform companies. These are two of the most important things that organizations and government agencies that purchase or lease uniforms want from their suppliers. Large uniform companies often give the managers of local outlets substantial autonomy so they can build customer relationships and solve problems immediately. Smaller companies have an important advantage in that they can address the needs of their customers quickly and develop personal relationships with the people they serve.
There are various ways organizations can obtain uniforms for their personnel. If a business goes with a mail order approach, they are working with a company that is probably in a distant city and the uniform must be shipped. It will take time for the uniform to arrive and also to correct any issues. That customer cannot walk into the headquarters of the uniform supplier and meet with a person to take care of their problems with the uniform. The same case is true when the employees are told to go buy a uniform on their own as long as they buy what is specified by the organization. Employees source from many different suppliers, leaving inconsistencies.
Some companies do what is known as the quartermaster system where a manager simply hands uniforms to people. Instead of outsourcing, the company takes care of its own uniforms.
A third option is to work with a smaller local company where people go and buy the uniform from a local supplier.
The benefit of working with a small local company is that employees get the uniform that is more comfortable and to their size. Many people in public safety will go and buy a uniform from a local company based on the specifications given to them by their police department. An agency will have a contract with a local uniform supplier, and everyone goes to that one place to obtain a uniform. The advantage with this approach is that, if an employee has a problem with the uniform, the issue can be dealt with right away. There is not the sense the employer is dealing a large company that is far away and impersonal. Also, there is the image of a local provider. Employees have a place to go and get service locally. The local store can stock all the products an organization may want in one place.
“If someone says, ‘I want black shoes,’ the local uniform supplier will have many types of black shoes,” says Neal Waters, president of the NAUMD. “They become a good resource to make sure you are getting the best products for your employees. They are sorting through all the different options that are out there. I think the local service and the ability to have someone sort through all the options and have all of the inventory in one place is good for organizations.”
To be successful in the uniform industry requires a strong dedication to service and the personal touch.
“I believe in the concept of working with the people you need to get to,” says Harvey Klein, president of Red the Uniform Tailor, based in Lakewood, N.J. “You should be able to talk to the manager at a local or regional store. The uniform supplier needs to have a good personal touch.”
This means that a customer needs to be able to talk with the person who is in charge at the local level and can make decisions. If a change in a uniform product is needed quickly, the customer needs to able to talk with the individual who will make that change immediately.
The difficulty in dealing with big corporations is that there is often a large and complex chain of command to deal with when solving a problem. “With local companies and owners, you can get someone on the phone and decide what the problem is and get it fixed immediately,” says Klein. “With a big corporation, things often get lost in the translation. There may be five or six layers of bureaucracy and answers may be take a while or may never come.”
Klein emphasizes that customers want to have someone who can solve a problem, and that may be hard or impossible if a company does not allow decisions to be made at the local level. “We run our company as if every store is its own business. People have the ability to make decisions if something goes wrong. Clothing is a very personal business. We run this as a family business. Any police chief can pick up a phone and get in touch with me. I am always available, and you don’t have to go through five or six layers of chain of command to get to me,” he says.
Also, Klein wants customers to be able sit with an expert on their particular problem. They may be able to arrange wear tests and work specifically to help a customer handle a situation. He wants customers to feel they are being cared for.
By having a local presence in a community, a uniform company can establish strong local relations. This is often helpful when going through a municipal bidding process, as many cities require that the businesses with which they work with be in their city. Also, if a person wearing the uniform wants an alteration or a repair, they can have it fixed right away rather than having it sent somewhere else. City administrators can more easily get the specifications they want from a local company, and the manager of the local company will have a better sense of what the customer wants.
Klein says, “It is really all about service. You must get the orders out in a timely basis. If people are not getting good service, they complain to the supervisor, and nobody wants that. You can take care of business more efficiently in a local store.” His company is based in New Jersey and has nine locations throughout the nation. It has locations in Florida, Texas, Georgia and Wisconsin. It is a big company but works to establish a local feel.
“We must have the right people in the right place with the authority to solve problems. Our stores are run as if they are independent operations. We have had customers with us for 40 years and they would not stay if they were not being taken care of,” says Klein.
He says in one small town the police department there has been in a relationship with his company for 40 years. The local uniform store operator knows the leadership of the department on a personal level and will work hard to solve any problems that might arise.
Larger companies with a wide range of products and services can offer advantages as well. Jerry Martin, vice president of sales and marketing for Prudential Overall Supply, says his company can offer many things to a business. The company can rent, lease or sell uniforms to people and it has more than 30 locations throughout the United States.
“We offer a wide variety of customer services and deal with many businesses. We provide a rental program, a lease program and a purchase program,” says Martin. “There are benefits with all of these offerings.”
By renting uniforms, companies can rotate uniforms in and out on a weekly basis. If a uniform is damaged, it can be replaced easily and the organization does not have to worry about it. The user becomes part of an efficient system. Uniforms are used, then laundered and repaired with no problems for the user. The customer always has an extra set of uniforms. Also, because the uniforms are bar coded, Prudential knows the exact history of the uniform and how it can best be serviced.
Customers who buy uniforms from Prudential can establish a relationship, and this means that Prudential has a better sense of what the company wants and needs. Also, the company offers a wide range of services including uniform logos and specialized garments for users.
Brent Caplan, vice president of uniform distributor Caplan’s based in Alexandria, La., says that the advantage of working with a local company is relationships. He works with many manufacturers around the nation. He believes synergy among organizations is important and that he can pull together many products and service providers.
“We want everyone to leave happy. I purchase from big uniform manufacturers and I can provide more attention to my customers,” he says. “I find out exactly what my customers need. I work with different suppliers and I sell directly to end users.”
Caplan often works with police officers and will give them specific uniform products in terms of shirts, shoes, pants, vests and ties. “When I am working with an officer, I make sure to have proper measurements and make sure everything fits properly.”
He is in the school uniform business too and has established successful relationships with schools and administrators. “We work with parents to make sure we provide their children with uniforms that fit properly. We can make a uniform that fits each individual child. We have established strong relationships with the schools and they want to do business with us. We know the parents at the schools,” says Caplan. “It is important that the parents know they are in compliance with the school’s uniform policy. Certain grade levels may wear certain shirts. Some schools allow their student to wear shorts at certain times of the year. We know what the schools we work with require in terms of uniforms.”
Marc Stein, the owner of Ace Uniforms.com in San Diego, says there are many advantages to working with a smaller companies when buying uniforms. A primary one is dealing with someone who cares about individual needs and can establish a relationship.
Stein says, “We have been around a long time. With a smaller company like us you get a better relationship, better deals and more loyalty. It is harder to work with a big business because they won’t care as much about a single customer. They don’t care about cutting a good deal because they are so big. With us, you are working with a friend.”
According to the Lord Baltimore Uniform website, a large national company may be able to impress a customer with their annual volume and roster of clients, but they won’t be able to devote much attention to providing personalized service. A large company has many accounts so the individual needs and problems of one customer may not mean much to them. The website states, “At Lord Baltimore Uniform, on the other hand, our customers are our top priority. We work hard to ensure that all of our clients are completely satisfied and we offer a level of service that large national companies simply cannot match.”