Uniform Appeal

Uniform programs are the proverbial gift that keeps on giving. A whopping 95% of distributors and screen printers expect steady or increased uniform sales this year, according to the Wearables Sales Forecast.

Uniforms are necessity items, core components of an organization's operation and brand. The widespread need for uniforms spans markets from hospitality and health care, to education and manufacturing and reps. Here's how reps like you are fueling success with this niche.

It's Fundamental

Set up correctly and executed well, company apparel initiatives lead to long-term repeat business. The reason is simple: As companies onboard employees or as staffers' older uniforms require updating, the need to buy new logoed threads becomes paramount.

"Uniforms are great because they're a fundamental part of the supply chain," says Josh Frey, founder of On Sale Promos and the Swag Coach program. "The more supply chain items you sell, the more repeat business you get – and the more your business grows."

Both a frontline rep and a sales coach for promo industry pros, Frey has kept revenue streams flowing steadily with uniforms. By leveraging the services of key decorator partners, third-party website builders and suppliers like SanMar (asi/84863), he delivers made-to-order uniform solutions that free both him and his clients from having to carry inventory. Clients order the company wear through websites his tech vendors create, and the industry partners engineer the lightning-fast fulfillment.

"Customers are so happy with that kind of service they want to kiss your pinky ring," he says, chuckling. Indeed, he has been working with one property management company for 10 years. As the firm expands, so do Frey's sales. "Unless you screw it up," he says, "the business lasts a long time."

A Whole New Company

Sometimes, setbacks are platforms for success.

John Phyllis can testify to that. Six years ago, he decided to bid for a school's uniform program. Phyllis, who was already running a successful promotional products business, didn't win the deal. Nonetheless, by developing the bid, his eyes were opened to the potential in the uniform niche. "There are a lot of organizations looking for uniforms and we already had many things in place to be able to serve them," he says. "We decided to go after the business."

It was a wise choice. These days, Phyllis is president of Impact Promotions (asi/230396) and Uniforms Pros. The latter business is a direct outgrowth of the success he and his team have been able to produce working in the uniform arena. The fast-growing firm – which is bolstered by in-house decoration capabilities – provides uniform solutions for entities that range from first responders to hotels.

Phyllis says one of his best clients is a large hotel. Following a cold call, the sales pro initially got his foot in the door with the hospitality client by providing shirts for its housekeeping crew. Impressed by the service, pricing and quality of the products, the hotel steadily increased its spend with Phyllis.

Nowadays, he delivers uniforms for the hotel's front desk personnel, chefs and banquet facility staffers, too. Typically embroidered, the apparel pieces range from dress shirts and vests, to ties and chef coats. "We keep our clients happy by over-servicing them," says Phyllis. "We do embroidery here and that's a big help. We receive an order and quickly get it out the door."

The responsiveness is no doubt playing a role in Phyllis' success. The uniform component of his business was up 30% last year. "We're getting referrals that lead to new customers," he says, "and we're growing with existing clients."

Mastering Logistics

Russ Howarth's sales are accelerating. Uniform programs are a big reason for the growth. He drives nearly half (45%) of his business through uniform solutions he delivers for entities as diverse as manufacturers and membership associations. A strengthening economy has contributed to the sales surge. "Our clients are hiring more employees, which means there are more people for us to clothe," says Howarth, president and CEO of Proforma Think Ink Corp (asi/490854).

As it happened, Howarth did not plan a big push into the uniform market. Rather, certain core clients began asking for uniforms, and he determined to master the business to meet their needs. Beyond providing consultative service, the secret to his success is reliability. That consistency is rooted in his deftness at navigating the logistical hurdles that come with uniform programs, which include ensuring everything from sizing and packaging requirements to in-hands dates are met with aplomb. "You have to earn their trust every day, and that comes from doing what you say you will," he says.

His steadfastness in meeting clients' needs has helped him earn major accounts, including Blaser Swisslube, an international company that produces coolants to improve tool life and productivity. Howarth won the client away from a competitor who was falling short in customer service. Primarily, he provides logoed wear for the coolant maker's sales reps. Dress shirts, polos, jackets – all these are worn by reps around the U.S. and beyond.

"They have a vision of how they want their salespeople to look and it's up to us to realize that vision with the right products," says Howarth, noting that part of his job entails ensuring that the wearables are delivered on time to dockside containers for shipping to Europe. "Those containers are expensive. You can't miss the deadline." He doesn't – yet another reason why his sales to Blaser continue to increase. "I'm optimistic that we'll continue to see growth with uniforms as the economy improves."

Hospitality, Not Hospital

The senior care industry is adding employees to meet increasing demand. Nina Shatz, brand development director at HALO Branded Solutions (asi/356000), is ensuring those staffers look great on the job.

Of late, uniform sales within one of Shatz's senior citizen housing accounts have been soaring. On a steady growth trajectory, the company now includes 10 locations at which it provides assisted living, independent living and/or memory care services. Shatz delivers uniforms for nurses, front desk staff, cooks, dishwashers, wait staff, salespeople, maintenance personnel, drivers and more. "There are about 100 employees at each location," says Shatz. "We're always receiving orders."

When the program debuted, business managers would contact Shatz with their uniform needs. But to better accommodate buyers, she shifted the ordering to an online model – a system she says is more efficient and easier for her client to use. Through consultative service that included showing buyers apparel samples, she also recently helped staffers upgrade to a more polished look. In the past, front-desk staff wore logoed polo shirts. Now they're outfitted in form-flattering blazers, oxford shirts, ties (for men) and scarves (for women). Nurses, meanwhile, wear attractive tri-blend shirts – not scrubs. "They don't want their clients to feel like they're at a hospital," says Shatz. "They want to have a nice and warm hospitality feel. We have to deliver uniforms that project that image."

Evolving into online ordering, strategic sourcing to find her clients the perfect wearables – such actions illustrate the exemplary service Shatz delivers to the care company. That service has enabled her to grow the account from a few orders of promotional items to a full-blown uniform program. With the market for senior housing heating up, Shatz expects continued sales expansion.

The Referral Effect

A great performance on one uniform initiative can land you another. Such was the case for Howard Potter.

Leveraging his connections as an alumni at Mohawk Valley Community College, Potter earned the business of a police training program run out of the New York state institution for higher education. Potter and his team at A&P Master Images (asi/702505) spearheaded uniform solutions for the future officers, providing cadets with everything from logoed shirts, slacks and gym clothes to belts, ties, hats and boots.

By doing such a good job, Potter earned a referral to a buyer for MVCC's Aviation Maintenance Program. Before long, he was fulfilling uniform orders of embroidered coveralls and industrial work shirts for the program's next generation of expert aircraft mechanics. "The more you prove yourself," he says, "the more people want to work with you."

Potter and his team prove themselves by delivering within the tight timeframes required by the programs, and by working with suppliers to make certain the quality of the apparel is top-notch. Showing samples and simplifying the order process is also central to the distributor's service. The hard work is worth it: Between the two uniform programs and one other at MVCC, Potter generates at least $25,000 annually. "That's the base," says Potter. "A lot of times students order additional pieces."

School Days

Jesper Wieder runs uniform programs with a charity twist. His company, Back To My Charity Inc, provides logoed apparel fulfillment for large schools across the U.S. For each sale, 15% of proceeds are donated to the school or charity of the customer's choosing. The giveback is aimed at helping schools overcome funding shortfalls.

A native of Denmark, Wieder and his wife developed the business model after moving to America with their three children. They were surprised how American parents were always being asked to fundraise or make donations to support schools – something, Wieder says, is unheard of in Denmark. Deciding to be proactive, the savvy businessman with a strong background in the technology field put his entrepreneurial acumen to work to find a better way. He came up with Back To My Charity.

Launched about a year ago, the business facilitates the uniform buying process for schools that Wieder has won as clients. Schools are able to place bulk orders directly and resell to students – or parents, students, family, etc. may select from a variety of pre-stocked apparel and buy online. Either way, clients get their wearables fast. Those positives have driven rapid growth. "It's about quality and delivery and doing what we say we're going to do," he says. "We predict that over the next five months we will be approved by a lot more schools."

Another industry company exceling in the school uniform field is Children's World Uniform Supply (asi/161711). Equipped with an in-house decorating department, the Florida-based firm's specialities include providing turnkey uniform programs for private schools. Co-Owner Tim Holliday says this involves fitting students, handling the order process from first to last and carrying significant inventory.

Such service alleviates a lot of headaches for the schools – a fact that has earned Children World's an excellent reputation and many referrals. With the help of those referrals and lumpy-mail marketing, Holliday has continued to add new clients. "We were up," he says, "about 20% last year."

Hopsack single-breasted blazer is a perfect uniform piece for hotel front desk staffers and others in the hospitality business. The item offers classic tailoring and a lightweight tight-weave fabric that provides all-day comfort. From Edwards Garment, asi/51752.

Howard Potter of A&P Master Images (asi/702505)  provides these hats as part of a uniform program for aspiring police officers in Mohawk Valley Community College's police training program.

5 Tips For Success With Uniform Programs

  • Team Up With The Right Suppliers & Decorators: Fast, accurate delivery of quality apparel is essential in uniform programs. You need good partners to provide these things. Talk to trusted suppliers about their options for supporting uniform programs. Many already provide elements that help reps put programs together, including inventory housing, order fulfillment, product design, custom website development and more.
  • Be Prepared To Get Techy:  Developing a website or using existing client technology for program promotion and/or ordering functions is often required. Look to leverage resources from your distributorship, suppliers and/or third-party service providers to deliver these solutions.
  • Draw Up A Contract: Having a contract that names you as the exclusive provider of a company's uniform program benefits you and the client. You can use a contract to help you lock in pricing with suppliers, which protects end-buyers against escalating apparel costs.
  • Never Run Out: Whether you're carrying inventory or running a made-to-order program, it's essential to ensure that the items your clients need will be in stock. Before pitching certain off-the-shelf items for program inclusion, talk to suppliers to confirm the item is not at risk of being discontinued.
  • Get To Know Their Needs: Kick off uniform programs by asking questions that enable you to thoroughly understand what your client is looking for. Questions like: What is your budget? Who will be wearing the uniforms, and what types of activities do they engage in? What kind of durability/wearabilty are you looking for? What is the expected turnaround time on orders? Are special sizes (such as "tall") required? What is the expected length of the program?

Tap Into Team Uniforms

Beyond orchestrating programs, many sales reps capitalize on another kind of uniform business: Teamwear. To deliver uniforms that teams love, reps must ensure jerseys are decorated with numbers that offer durability and style. Use these tips to give clients what they want.

  • Suggest Trendy Number Styles: While traditional block numbers remain popular, teams increasingly desire unique numbers that empower them to stand out – to have a distinct identity. The trend has been fueled by professional and collegiate teams – think the Oregon and Maryland football squads – that have experimented with cutting-edge number designs. "Suppliers have expanded their number style offerings to accommodate this demand for custom-looking numbers," says Paul Sabatini, marketing sports coordinator at Stahls' (asi/88984), a global manufacturer and distributor of heat presses and heat transfer material
  • Understand The Jersey Material: It is important to identify the fabric content of the garment to which numbers are being applied. That's because numbers are made of different heat transfer materials that are designed specifically for application to different types of fabrics. "Determining the correct method of application ensures that the heat transfer material being used is correct for the substrate in relation to adherence, durability and opacity," says Sabatini.
  • Present Multiple Options: Sabatini recommends that you show six to 10 numbers that will best match the team's sport. For example, bold or block number styles are most appropriate for football, lacrosse and hockey. "Once you have identified the best styles, print them out and create a binder to go over with your client," says Sabatini. "You may go as far as creating a couple of samples."

Christopher Ruvo is a senior writer for Advantages magazine. Follow: @ChrisR_ASI. Contact: