As we move into an uncertain time for consumer confidence and retail models, it is more important than ever to focus on how schoolwear retailers and stockists deliver the best service out there.
In spite of the political turmoil of 2016, it was a good year for schoolwear retailers. Specialist uniform was embraced by a growing number of schools, supply was broadly reliable and in the majority of retailers I have spoken to, there was a year on year increase in sales.
Additionally, there was a noticeable lack of mud-slinging from the press about ‘expensive sole suppliers’. This was in no small part down to the excellent work of the Schoolwear Association and their presence when there was any comment about uniform and price. They have been relentless in their positive promotion of this market and the education that is needed to understand the realities of the school uniform supply chain.
The other common threat at Back to School is from the supermarkets and their seemingly limitless budgets to promote cheaper and cheaper uniforms. The battle they have had with the discounters may well have tempered their usual campaigns and lobbying or perhaps it is just that they cannot compete with the specialists when it comes to the bespoke uniforms that schools have favoured in recent years. Whatever the reason, they have not gone away and yet independent retailers continue to weather the storm effectively.
So with the press and supermarkets having been relatively low key, it has been a disappointing turn of events that for many retailers, the biggest threat is now coming from their own supply base. The attraction of controlling the contract with schools and ensuring a secure distribution route has been too appealing to those motivated by increasing turnover and profit faster than has been typical in schoolwear. Many retailers have not been directly affected by this as yet, or believe they will be protected in circumstances when it arises.
To turn a blind eye or stick your head in the sand is to forget all the aspects of being a specialist schoolwear retailer that set you apart from the competition. It is time to acknowledge that you can win contracts for yourself and present your businesses in a way that demonstrates its superiority. It is time to recognise that large organisations cannot offer schools the service that you can.
Schoolwear retailers have such a unique set of advantages to offer schools. Putting together a uniform that will work for the look the school wants; taking into account cost considerations of parents; understanding which of the available brands offer the best quality and value; mitigating supply chain risks and making changes where necessary; investing heavily in stock for year-round availability; upscaling appropriately to manage the Back to School surge in demand; and dealing with the face to face management of parents and carers, to take the headache away from the school.
These are only some of the standard elements of schoolwear retailing: there are so many other bespoke service offerings that are provided to schools and parents up and down the country. So why is there a threat?
The initial sales pitch, presentation and design seem to be where larger organisations are investing and winning, persuading schools on to a single brand of uniform. This style over substance approach fails to focus on those attributes that are so essential in providing schools with the optimum delivery of uniform at the key times of the year. To claim that there can be the best of both worlds with contract win at brand level and service delivery at retail level is hugely concerning when prices are set by the brand without the necessary consideration or understanding of service costs.
So what can be done to maintain control at the retail end of the market where the service value is generated? It’s time for retail to shake off modesty or doubt and start talking itself up. What you offer meets the demand of the peakiest of peaks of Back to School in a way that other models cannot achieve. And with self-confidence, the right conversations can be had with schools to show your business off in a way it deserves, with more substance than just a slick presentation.
As wholesale suppliers to retail, we could also be feeling threatened by new models, where retailers go straight to factories to source products. However, we feel confident that we bring value to the chain that cannot be easily replicated: forecasting and planning of raw materials; financing fabric far in advance; scheduling production in factories to manage the peak demand; heavily investing in generic stock for all-year-round availability; credit terms to support retailers’ cash flow and new product design to offer competitive advantage.
At David Luke we’re focused on producing garments that will give you a point of difference, making them available at the best price and stock supporting where there is the greatest demand. But in addition to this, we’re aiming to support your design and presentation needs so that you can go into pitches with the confidence to compete. We will be providing a suite of tools that will help you promote your business effectively, which you can dip into as you need. We look forward to talking to you more about this and how we can work with you, side by side, as the year unfolds.
So as we get ever closer to the 2017 Back to School in these uncertain times, it’s not a time to worry about the things we can’t control, but a time to take action in our own businesses. If you’re not already a member, join the Schoolwear Association and give yourself a voice. If you’re being threatened by competition in your schools, commit to upping your game, making the right choices to retain control and keep talking yourself up.
Kathryn Shuttleworth is managing director of school uniform and sportswear supplier, David Luke.