From the increasing popularity of pop-up shops and online ordering, via the arrival of crest-embossed buttons and on to a school shoe company with a fascinating back story, there are some fascinating trends in the provision of uniforms to children in independent education.
One major development in recent years has been the expansion of multi-channel supply solutions, as deployed by Stevensons. The school uniform provider now sells to parents via a variety of methods: its online shop, retail branches, on-campus school shops, an order hotline, school selling events and pop-up shops, and wholesale direct to schools. Over 20% of Stevensons’ annual sales are now online: at the last count the company had 96,500 online customers and processed over 6,500 online orders monthly, a figure which can triple in August.
Pop-up shops or selling events held at school are growing in popularity as parents seek the convenience of being able to pop to the school to buy all the uniform their child needs – and to try everything on for size. Stevensons runs over 300 selling events at schools around the UK each year, greatly assisting the school by providing the stock, trestle tables, signage, staff and tills and communicating with the parents to tell them when the event is happening.
Profitability in the sector is notoriously difficult, with companies working to low margins and having to keep a large stockholding of uniform year-round, over 80% of which remains unsold until July and August each year. Many smaller uniform shops are closing nationally and there have been some recent mergers and acquisitions: both Barretts in Bournemouth and Schoolwear Oxford have been acquired by Stevensons in the last 18 months.
Elsewhere, there is greater unity than ever at Gloucestershire’s Bredon School where, for the first time, all ages from four upwards wear blazers (juniors formerly wore sweatshirts.) A new headmaster’s fresh approach to the school’s uniform now sees the girls wearing tartan, rather than plain blue skirts – but children remain free to choose their own overalls and wellingtons when working on the school’s farm.
Meanwhile, the much-loved retailer John Lewis brings experience to the uniform-buying experience, according to Katrina Mill, the company’s schoolwear buyer. “We’ve been selling schoolwear for more than 80 years, so we know the importance of offering schools and parents uniforms in a reliable, helpful and convenient way. Parents know that they can rely on us for good value, excellent quality and easy-maintenance clothing that their children will want to wear, as these are the key principles we consider when designing our John Lewis-branded uniforms. Even our Basics range features Teflon fabric protector, our knitwear and jersey sportswear has a safe treatment preventing bobbling and colour fading, and all our shirts and blouses are non-iron.”
John Lewis also offer easy ordering, and can accommodate all sizes of pupil. “For parents’ convenience, all our school-specific uniform is available to purchase online 365 days a year and parents can also visit our shops where we have samples available to try,” Katrina explains. “Our trained schoolwear partners offer a fitting service and provide advice on fabrics, quantities and fitting for growth. With school-specific schoolwear we also offer a special measure service on bespoke uniforms if the child falls outside the size range we normally sell.”
There is interesting news, meanwhile, from Leicestershire’s Oakham School, which has teamed up with shoe manufacturers Its Got Soul to design supportive school shoes, informed by the University of Northampton’s Division of Podiatry, for teenage girls. Sample shoes, which can be seen at the school’s shop, have been tested to ensure that they meet durability, performance and legislative requirements.
Its Got Soul was established by a mother whose daughter was studying at Oakham. The former pupil (who left in 2012 and is now at university) had numerous back problems through constantly wearing ill-fitting and unsupportive ballet shoes. With the help of the university, the key design points to ensure comfort and support in footwear were identified. As a result, all of the company’s shoes have leather uppers and cushioned leather insoles. Non-slip shoes have a rubber shock-absorbing sole to take pressure off the knees, ballet shoes have a strap holding the foot in place to stop the toes from clawing, while the Eleanor style also has a hidden strap under the suede fringe. Shoes are designed in Northampton, sized on a British last (making them generous in size) and manufactured by a family-owned business in Spain.
Elsewhere Robin Horsell, Schoolblazer co-founder, identifies one of the uniform sector’s hottest trends. “Suddenly the buzz word in independent schooling is branding. Design agencies are being appointed to dispense with the age-old crest complete with fleur-de-lys and heraldic imagery, and replace it with something more modern.
“The reasons are clear: schools are in a market-driven business and want to present their view of the world in a consistent style. At Schoolblazer we’ve been at the forefront of the branding revolution, working closely with some of the sector’s leading agencies, creating looks and styles that fit as a coherent whole within the design philosophy.”
This process has given rise to some clear guidelines. “Uniform says a lot about the school: a ‘smart, urban, business-focussed school’ may consider a suit, possibly with coloured pin-stripes and a very tailored look. Alternatively, a school may wish to play on a more rural or ‘county’ heritage, even going so far as a tweed jacket. Subtlety is important – branding is as much about detail as it is about logos. Many of our more recent school designs have not used a logo in the garments, preferring more subtle approaches such as a unique suit lining, colours or even a simple crest-embossed button. Sportswear is a crucial part of the ensemble, Robin underlines. “Sports clothes are the garments most often worn outside school – but too often their design decisions are left to Heads of Sport. Sports clothing should be at least as important to a school as its uniform, and should not be dominated by sports companies’ logos.”
Robin identifies some dos and don’ts for a successful uniform redesign. “Run focus groups with the pupils and parents, but ensure they are well-moderated with a strong vision of what is and is not open for discussion. Ensure that the board of governors shares this vision, and sees the uniform decision as integral to the rebranding. Most importantly, remember that the uniform and sportswear supplier will be the first contact that new parents have with the school. Finally, don’t be afraid to change suppliers. We can help to manage the process, and have moved over 100 schools to our system in the past few years.”
“The relationship between school and school uniform provider is not straightforward,” says Martin Heatlie, Managing Director of newly-founded Newplan Solutions. “Ultimately, though, the end customer is a family and a child who is going to school and will be keen to fit in. For most, that will mean looking like everyone else. Identifying the right uniform is key.Long lead times arising from complex, unique and branded uniforms creates problems where there are ‘unexpected sizes’. Measuring pupils in May/June to manufacture uniform in June/July and supply in July/August fails pupils who do not experience ‘average growth’ in the intervening months. And smaller schools with non-stock uniform face higher manufacturers’ minimum orders, meaning that the ‘one-off’ garment for a ‘one-off’ pupil is often not an option.”
Newplan Solutions was created after the John Cheatle group entered administration. “We were able to retain some of the best staff and outlets in the country,” Martin explains. “Retaining these staff means that Newplan benefits from thousands of years of collective industry experience. We know that it is essential for the pupil, their parents and the school to recommend the right uniform – having first considered the school’s size, its aspirations and its pupils’ needs. 2014/15 will be a fantastic opportunity for Newplan Solutions to ensure that the uniforms we provide meet our customers’ every need.”
Its Got Soul www.itsgotsoul.co.uk
Newplan Solutions www.schoolwearsolutions.com
Bredon School www.bredonschool.org
Oakham School www.oakham.org.uk