Schoolwear strategy: Finding ways to win

Consultant to the garment decoration industry, Will Hemming, looks business strategies and how to survive the tough world of the schoolwear market.

I’ve had some great feedback since my last article – thanks to everybody who has emailed – we’ve had some interesting discussions about the coming year. One thing is clear; there are a multitude of approaches out there. This article looks at some choices facing operators in this market, but they also apply more generally.

Your businesses strategy will depend on what assets you have, and what your goals are. It might be to run a successful local store, it might be world domination – but there needs to be an end game. When times are tough, it might simply be ‘survival’.

Another way to think about it is – in what areas of your market are you going to compete, and where are you going to win?

If you compete on price, then you win by being the cheapest.

If you compete on service, then you win by being the fastest or most reliable.

If you compete on product, then you win by having the highest quality or best value for money.

If you compete on relationship, then you win by building customer trust that will outweigh potential offers from your competition.

Pre-internet, most businesses competed on relationship, as a result of being geographically close to their customers. Businesses who traded nationally could also build relationships by hiring sales reps to cover geographical areas.

In the schoolwear market, the supermarket competition is competing very clearly on price, and – increasingly – service.

There aren’t many small businesses who can beat a supermarket in a price war, so we have to focus on service, product, and relationship. I’m going to focus on service and relationship in the rest of this article, and to illustrate the point I ask you to consider two example businesses (these are illustrative):

Business examples

Company A has an operation running from a warehousing unit, with a few embroidery machines, but has installed a small retail shop for customers to visit and purchase from.

Most orders now come online, so separate orders from parents at the same school are manually batched together to try and fill the eight-head machines that they have been running for the past decade. During August the phones get so busy with customers chasing their orders that sometimes they turn them off just so staff can focus on getting their work done.

Company B supplies parents directly via their website, but also handles larger orders from schools themselves, and have some salespeople in the field visiting schools, but even the schools themselves would now rather order online. They have a long-standing relationship with small embroiderers, who charges a premium on orders smaller than eight. Once a week they put all orders that have come through into a van and drive them over to the factory. They pick up last weeks finished orders to bring them back for packing and shipping. During the busy summer they might send a van every day, and dedicate two members of staff to working through lists of orders to chase through the factory more quickly.

In both cases, you can spot the ways in which the businesses have adjusted their operation to suit their own strengths. If you have invested in internal production facilities, it makes sense to use them in the most efficient way possible. If you have a reliable supplier, manage them well and let them do the hard work.

However, neither of these approaches are focused on service – delaying customer orders so you can fulfil them at a lower cost is a price-focused (internally driven) rather than service-focused (customer driven) action.

Here are some suggested service-focused actions you could take:

  • Update your customers regularly with clear information about the status of their order, ideally including an expected delivery date.
  • Handle orders first in first out, rather than delaying small orders.
  • Look for opportunities to cut time out of the process, both internal and external.

There are huge developments in the technology of garment decoration that can help you with the second and third points above. Many manufacturers are producing small machines with clever software integrations that can produce one-off orders quickly and efficiently. A few small embroidery machines will outperform one larger machine by a significant factor when working with low order quantities.

I would also recommend thinking about the number of touches an order has involved in it – from when it arrives with you (from your website or telephone sales team) through to dispatch. How much information has to be re-typed, or read and interpreted by humans? Do you have to manually print out paperwork or shipping labels? Many of the garment suppliers will now accept electronic orders – which means you can automate the purchase of stock – making it quicker and less prone to error.

Finally, and this is specific to the example of Company B – they could consider working with their supplier to pack and dispatch the orders directly to their customer, cutting out unnecessary handling time, and internal staff cost.

 Be customer driven

All of these actions are both customer driven – orders fulfilled more quickly – and internally driven – the less time your customers wait, the less chance they call you to chase up their order.

None of the detail on how you achieve this is going to matter to your customer – the parents want their orders delivered accurately and on time, and the schools want happy parents. If you are achieving this, make sure you are regularly telling the school how well things are going – give yourself every chance to protect the relationship.

You will know the relationship is strong when your contact at the school calls you to say that they have been approached by another supplier, and I guarantee that schools you deal with will be getting a call from the Tesco marketing team – in the time I’ve spent writing this article they have signed up another 28 schools… the challenge is on!

Please email me if you want to know more about any of the ideas mentioned in this article:

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