The future of school uniform purchasing is online

Philip Linz, director of school uniform at The School Uniform Specialists

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that online retail is here to stay, and that is no different for the supply of schoolwear. Philip Linz, director of school uniform at The School Uniform Specialists, outlines his thoughts on the future of school uniform purchasing.

For decades schoolwear has generally been supplied by a local retailer, often advertised as the only way in which parents can obtain the correct uniform for their selected school. But the once admired benefits of fitting out a pupil in-store have since been replaced with an abundance of advantages when using online shopping.

Retail is no longer the preferred option for parents juggling a hectic lifestyle. There has been a steady decline in retail only shops over the last 20 years and this has been substantially accelerated by the COVID-19 outbreak.

In the early 2000s the schoolwear company I was working for decided that they needed to offer online as well as retail and experimented with different ideas. They went to great expense setting up an online shop ensuring that it would be as easy as possible for customers to make their purchase.

The trials included the following:

  • Selecting specific schools to offer online and retail.
  • Only offering school branded uniform and not generic items.
  • Offer all schools all products online.
  • Click and collect.
  • Returns to shops and or returns to warehouse.
  • Refunds and exchanges.
  • Stock holding in shops and or warehouse.
  • Picking, packing, dispatch.
  • Free delivery or charge delivery.
  • Free returns or charge for returns.

It became clear early on that combining retail shops and online was not only going to be a challenge but as it turned out, it would be an expensive mistake. The truth is that for independent retailers with one or a few shops the two systems are incompatible, why I hear you ask?

Parents today are practically experts at purchasing online, they are used to slick shopping experiences that provide an intuitive and uncomplicated purchase. The expectation is that you have their items in stock and despatched within 24 hours. It is unacceptable to them that they may have to wait for weeks to receive their order.

Where is the stock going to be kept? Initially, they decided to dispatch from their warehouse but very quickly realised that they needed to call in stock from their retail shops. Shop managers were reluctant to let the stock go as they wanted it available when a customer came into the shop to make a purchase. So, do companies operating this way end up holding more stock than is required their warehouse? What happens when a customer that ordered online decides to take the item back to their nearest retail shop and wants to exchange the product, how could they keep track? How would they cope with customers ordering three different sizes so that they can see at home which one fits best and then either returning the items not required to the shop or warehouse several weeks later?

All of these issues became compounded when customers were ordering the week or even days before students were due back to school, the warehouse was too busy supporting the shops and the shops too busy coping with the in-store customers, so had no opportunity to pick and pack unless they employed extra resources.

The already busy shops now had online shop customers collecting their click and collect and then deciding they wanted to try on the products in the shop before taking them home, and some purchased sizes they didn’t require and wanted exchanges or refunds, more customers in the shop at a time when staff can barely cope. Shop managers accused the online customers of just queue jumping, ordering online so they didn’t have to queue in a very busy shop. It soon became chaotic and their usual high level of customer service became the worst it could be.

Was there a solution?

  • Decide that you couldn’t offer the online service for back to school so switch it off.
  • Decide not to offer click and collect or accept returns/exchanges in the shop.
  • Ignore online customers’ expectations and ask that they allow three weeks or longer to receive their order.
  • Bite the bullet and recognise the two systems are incompatible and do one or the other.

The company I work for today only offers online shops, I consider that this is the future of school uniform supply, something which has become even more evident during the COVID pandemic

This is done by working with the school to define their uniform and sportswear requirements and then creating an online shop dedicated to the pupils of that school. Putting customers first is a sure road to success. Because stock is warehoused centrally it’s possible to pick and despatch orders within 48 hours and often within 24. Parents can choose to have their order directly shipped to them or via a weekly delivery into the school. The often-chaotic back-to-school period benefits greatly from this, assuring stock availability and quick delivery.

From a school’s perspective, their interest is in providing parents with a cost-effective way to purchase good quality schoolwear with the minimum of friction.

Isn’t it about time that more schools and schoolwear retailers caught up with the expectation of today’s parents and moved school uniform supply wholly to online shopping?

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