By Gary Goldberg
The use of school uniforms has been on the rise. According to the most recent National Center for Education Statistics, between 2000 and 2017, the number of schools requiring uniforms climbed 8%, for a total of 20% of U.S. schools requiring uniforms for the 2017-2018 school year.
In strictly business terms, where there’s an expanding market, there’s opportunity. That opportunity isn’t just for suppliers to meet growing demand, however. It opens up opportunities for you to explore your options and find a vendor whose capability and business practices align with your school’s own needs and goals.
Are you changing your mascot, logo, school colors or some other aspect of your current uniform? This would be a perfect time to perform due diligence to ensure you’re receiving the best possible service from your provider.
Another good time would be as part of an annual assessment—probably best done in the fall once you have data on any backorder issues and feedback from families on their experiences with the latest round of ordering.
The mere prospect may be daunting. Changing your uniform vendor can be a time-consuming undertaking with multiple considerations. But with research and planning, you’ll emerge from the process with the answers you need to make the most informed decision to suit your many stakeholders.
It helps to start with a strategy. You’ll certainly want an idea of how you’ll handle a possible transition, but also devise a game plan for the type of information you need to gather up front. Don’t view your uniform provider as a supplier or vendor—view them as a partner.
Assuming your partner is working with you toward a common goal, you should consider the following in any evaluation of their abilities:
- Customer Service
It goes without saying that a vendor should provide a minimum level of customer service. What does that look like when it comes to uniforms? It starts with timely and useful answers to questions about availability, colors, payment options, delivery, returns, etc.
It might also include personal touches: advice to parents on sizing and how to order to accommodate a child’s growth over the course of the school year, for example.
Finally, it’s about fostering trust through transparency. Your vendor should be willing to share something as simple as samples and references and as detailed as real performance data to help you make an informed decision.
The typical ordering cycle for uniforms is to prepare in May for August arrival. But a vendor with sufficient stock offers an enhanced degree of flexibility and agility to meet last-minute local needs, as well as work around larger issues like potential supply chain delays. A history of backorders not only indicates future frustration for you, but might lead to uniform compliance issues for children at your school.
You also want to look for a vendor with a wide variety of in-stock products so that students and parents have choices and can find the style and fit options that work best for them. Like the other factors on this list, it all comes back to a vendor’s core commitment to service that fulfills their customers’ needs.
School uniforms should be viewed as an investment in everyone’s happiness. How? For students, comfort is key. That means fabric selection with some stretch and clothing with adjustable waists to leave room for growth. For parents, convenience is key. That means fabric selection that’s wrinkle free, soil-resistant, and provably durable to withstand frequent wear and regular washing.
For you, the resulting satisfaction of students and their parents is key. But “quality” can also extend beyond the products themselves to how you can aid quality of life concerns. Consider vendors who use a sustainable production process, given its potential future environmental impact.
Most of us have grown accustomed to online purchasing and direct-to-home delivery. Online ordering avoids the need for families to fill out (and you to manage) paper forms, and it helps maintain the privacy of an individual order. Home delivery ensures the order reaches a family without depending on the orders of others or passing through multiple hands and risking misrouting.
It also safeguards everyone’s health by avoiding the long lines, close crowds, or need for appointment scheduling and management that may come with in-person pickups.
It’s important for your uniform provider to be available when you need them, and 24/7 service ensures that late registrants or late-breaking disasters can be accommodated with minimal disruption. A vendor with an online platform that centralizes your school uniform activities provides the benefit of streamlined efficiency for both you and the families you serve.
This approach also facilitates easy access for children who qualify for financial assistance to use a coupon or other program code anonymously.
Knowing that change may be needed doesn’t make it any less challenging to face or embrace. As new technologies emerge for both the production and distribution of apparel, it’s important to know whether these innovations are a better fit for your needs. Taking the proactive approach will give you the breathing room you need to be fully comfortable with your decision.
If nothing else, it’s important to ensure that the service you use is helping you meet your school’s mission, not just the provider’s own goals.
To that end, we know that education holds an unparalleled power to help build and advance our communities. Parents, teachers, and officials all have an important role to play in that.
So, school administrators need time to focus on that most important task: delivering an experience that enlightens and inspires children to go out and make positive change in the world.
Your uniform vendor should be part of a support network that works toward this goal. Every aspect of their service should be designed to ensure you spend less time coordinating, tracking, and managing, leaving you more time for listening, mentoring, and preparing today’s youth to meet tomorrow’s challenges.
Gary Goldberg is founder and chief executive officer of SquadLocker, a provider of innovative online tools to ease apparel purchasing for leagues, teams and schools, www.squadlocker.com.