Missing out on school uniform sales

Oct 01, 1998 9:30 PM  By

New market opportunities don’t come along every day. Yet one that’s been available for more than a year isn’t drawing many takers. The market is students attending public schools that have adopted dress codes. Shep Doniger, spokesman for children’s apparel distributor French Toast, estimates the market at $400 million-$500 million.

To date, at least 11 major cities, including New York, have adopted or plan to adopt a school dress code policy, according to research company The NPD Group of Port Washington, NY. While some of the schools require uniforms, many others have less stringent guidelines-requiring kids to wear navy pants and white shirts, for instance. The look-alike concept is designed to position the school environment as a level playing field.

But despite this trend, only three major consumer catalogers are homing in on school uniforms: J.C. Penney, which has been targeting the market for nearly a decade, and Lands’ End and Hanna Andersson, both in the market for more than a year.

For catalogers that already sell children’s apparel, adding regulation school clothing is an easy transition. As Pip Denhart, spokeswoman for children’s clothing mailer Hanna Andersson, says, “Almost our entire file is families with children.” The Portland, OR-based marketer twice a year devotes the center spread of its catalog to regulation school apparel.

Lands’ End, which like Penney publishes a separate catalog for regulation school apparel, has developed an incentive program to obtain names. Schools that participate in Lands’ End’s School Contribution Program give the Dodgeville, WI-based casual apparel cataloger a list of students’ parents or distribute its School Uniforms catalog themselves. In return, Lands’ End donates to each school 3% of the net sales derived from that school’s student body.

The school uniform style-khaki pants, navy blazers, and like items that customers have requested in the past-is similar to the cataloger’s “nonuniform” offerings. The main difference for Lands’ End, says uniform manager Christine Hess, is the material. “General merchandise tends to be 100% cotton, while uniform products are a blend of cotton and polyester for multiwear durability and wrinkle resistance.”

Too much of a stretch Despite the size of the market, catalogers that don’t have a foothold in the children’s apparel market aren’t interested in targeting it. “Even though we sell some kids’ items, we’re not really in the children’s apparel business,” says Peter Canzone, president/ CEO of New York-based multititle apparel cataloger Brylane. “And [uniforms] are too ‘niched’ a market for us.”

Likewise, outdoor apparel and gear cataloger L.L. Bean has no plans to adapt its products for the school uniform market, says spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett, because it’s a stretch from the mailer’s core line. And cheerleader apparel book Varsity, medical apparel cataloger S.C.R.U.B.S., industrial uniform mailer Wearguard, and Wasserman, which sells postal, fire, and public safety uniforms, all say that while they are watching the trend, the market is too far a leap from their core products as well.