When I was growing up I vividly recall the small shop in our local town that was the schoolwear supplier.
He was the only place in the area where one could purchase the relevant blazer and tie and, whilst admittedly it was in the 1970’s, it did have a very “Are You Being Served” feel to it – even down to the wooden fixtures and fittings and small drawers that held the various stock items.
Today I find myself kitting out my own children with the various items for school but find a very different, and evolving, landscape within the schools supply business.
Yes, of course, the traditional schoolwear specialists are still around and, indeed, many are thriving. But most interestingly many now offer a combination of sporting goods alongside school supplies as the two channels merge.
Of course this is not an entirely new phenomenon – one only has to look, for example, at the list of Intersport Members to see several prominent businesses that have, for many years, offered both solutions together as a retail proposition.
Take FR Monkhouse for example – having recently passed their 75th anniversary, the business has become one of the UK’s leading schoolwear suppliers as well as having been a founder member of Intersport GB – offering sporting goods to complement their product offer.
“Whilst the trade continues to evolve, our schoolwear business undoubtedly benefits from the sports side and vice versa and the business continues to grow based on these factors” commented Peter Monkhouse when I bumped into him recently at the Intersport Trade Show.
But, interestingly, its not necessarily these old established retailers that have recognised the business opportunity here.
For many embellishment houses the traditional core business was, on the one hand supplying embellished school and work garments and on the other using their in-house embroidery and print machines to produce a wider range of promotional items or, perhaps, do some embellishment for the local sports retailer.
Over time, as that sports retailer has found an increasingly challenging environment he has considered the outsourcing costs to have his items embellished and also looked at the opportunity to service those very markets that his fellow retailer does i.e. schools and workwear.
Likewise traffic has flowed the other way with many schoolwear and workwear suppliers beginning to look at sports teamwear as an opportunity to expand their own businesses.
The result is a merger of the two channels.
The pressures forcing these changes also show interesting similarities.
Just as the sporting goods industry has seen seen the development and evolution of the multiple retailer, own brand and aggressive pricing, the schoolwear industry has seen the grocery channel take a large slice of schoolwear sales.
Both channels have also seen the ever increasing growth of the eCommerce specialists.
However, in both instances, a vacuum has been left with consumers, and schools who put locality and customer service high on their priority list – something that, in general, these mega retailers are often poor at.
Local retailers are better placed to “court” the school head and chase their business as well as provide an environment for pupils to try on their uniform and to shop for other periphery items – again something both the multiples and online dealers are not proficient at.
The result is the independent retailer filling this hole.
The process of purchasing the uniform, the sports kit, the periphery items (such as mouthguards, shinguards, bags, baselayers etc) is often a seamless combination of an online or in store solution.
One simple pack, fully embellished (on all items) with school crest, excellent service and a local focal point.
But is the trend likely to continue?
One look at recent statistics provides a clear answer;
Whilst, on the one hand, the recent Sports England participation figures showed a slight drop in those regularly participating in sport or exercise at least one a week, on the other hand Official Government estimates suggest that the overall school population is set to grow by 1 million pupils in the next decade.
Set this in the context of sporting goods independent and the challenges they face, versus the chance to (relatively easily) move into the schools sector and one can see why this is a trend that is likely to continue.
As Neil Keeling of NK Sports in Weston-Super-Mare recently commented to me “The repositioning of our business to focus on schoolwear alongside our teamwear business was the game changer for us. We continue to pick up schools based on our customer care and service levels and the same demands from our sports teamwear customers means that we can also grow that side too with both elements complementing each other”. Keeling continued.
As I look around this ever changing industry I do see a business model that appears to be working very effectively in the present environment and it is based on this merged school wear / teamwear business.
It’s an out of town unit, with cost effective rent and rates and excellent parking.
A showroom with schoolwear and teamwear, changing rooms and in-house embellishment.
An eCommerce solution with specific school and club shops.
A core group of small suppliers – both direct and through wholesalers such as BTC or Ralawise.
Excellent customer care and strong links into the community (both through the local schools and local sports clubs.)
A further step is to take this business into the workwear marketplace – after all many local businesses sponsor grass roots football, rugby, cricket etc teams and the dealer may well already have their company logo set up for embellishment if they have printed the kit – Its a small step then to offer them a workwear solution.