Uniform Suppliers: A Leap of Faith

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Peter Drew Black Label Suit Jacket

Before we analyse the mechanisms of switching uniform supplier it would be helpful to look at what motivates and drives companies to do so. Switching is a difficult business decision. There are often long-term relationships to consider, with both parties having invested time and energy into their partnership arrangement.

Taking on a new supplier means a good deal of effort and there must be complete confidence that the new company can improve upon the service level currently being received.

There are three main scenarios in which companies may consider changing supplier: performance, contract renewal and growth.

Performance

Performance is the most common reason to review the supply chain. Suppliers failing to meet standards of quality, price and delivery dates can trigger the tender process. If the supply failure is business critical to the customer, the need to find a new supplier pretty quickly is vital. In these situations, the formal tender process is often skipped, with the first company to provide a response chosen.

It's essential that, in these cases, the purchaser has access to companies that have a uniform solution with a dedicated switching service, or they may find themselves in exactly the same situation as before.

Quality issues have become less prevalent in recent years as overseas manufacturers have met the more exacting standards required for corporate clothing. However, Brexit has caused disruption in the marketplace due to the weakening of the pound against the dollar. Suppliers have since seen a 30% increase in costs, and although the end user has been protected by high stock levels and currency hedging, cost increases eventually must be passed on.

Price increases always drive companies to review uniform issues in an attempt to maintain profits in what is a very competitive market.

Consideration of growth

Growth can manifest itself in various forms. Small companies that are guarding local services, and proving to be successful, often find their business driven by their customers. When the customer adds sites outside of the local area, the company transforms organically into a nationally-based service provider. In many of these cases the customer is receiving an unmanaged uniform service.

This supply chain is usually demand-based and without stock buffers. Local uniform suppliers can provide an excellent service, but they do require support from their clients to manage the collection and distribution of uniforms to sites, some of which may be a considerable distance from head office. Moving across to a remote managed service can be a major step and requires the building of trust.

Growth can also be driven from inside larger organisations. A common use of a managed switching service is during the takeover of a company, or when a large contract is awarded. Both scenarios involve removing the current uniform supplier and installing the parent company's incumbent supplier.

Contract takeovers are usually controlled under TUPE rules and lead times can be extremely short (often under two weeks). This will test even the most robust of switching teams and requires everyone involved to be flexible and committed to meeting the set deadline, which may well include both pre and post-sale service.

Contract renewal

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Brook taverner ladies Susa jacket

The final scenario that may result in a change of supplier is contract renewal. It's reasonable to assume that this would be the most common reason to switch. Nevertheless, in a mature market the top uniform providers who are closely and successfully partnered with security companies are often reinstated as the incumbent provider.

There must be serious performance issues to force the guarding company to market, given the investment in knowledge that's involved. Again, performance is the overriding factor in change scenarios. Clearly, the solution to these issues is to purchase from a supplier with a dedicated switching team.

Why don't more companies make the change? The answer is 'Fear'. Many companies have suffered from bad supply experiences in the past and, even if they're not receiving good service, they believe it's a case of 'better the devil you know'. However, we can show that this is simply not true.

How do these fears manifest themselves and prevent what appears to be a good business decision to switch supplier from taking place? Many companies are used to purchasing as a one-way process: you tender, you receive a quote, you buy. This process leaves the purchaser isolated. If something goes wrong they're left exposed.

Managed uniform supply is the antithesis of this and is a two-way partnership. It's a service and then a product — in that order. The service and support is integral to the partnership process. This trust is most evident during the critical changeover period. A structured switching service addresses and resolves any issues linked to the changeover, walking the client through the handover to ensure a smooth and stress-free transfer. The switching team will have some solutions to the common issues and even, perhaps, certain other factors that may not have been considered.

A critical part of the switching team’s role is discovery. Client sites should be visited and audited to ensure that designs are transferred and the quality improved.

Continuity equation

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Brook taverner suits available from Peter Drew

Can the new supplier match the uniform currently on site? Usually, the answer is 'Yes'. Many garments have a common source or brand. An experienced supplier will know where to source 95% of the garments you're using.

What if the supplier cannot match exactly and this impacts the client? The supplier will usually offer to help stage the roll-out to prevent mismatch. If four out of the five staff members on a site have new uniform and one has a legacy uniform, ask the supplier if they will swap out the legacy kit at cost. Many suppliers will do this on commencement to create a clean start.

If records are not available for all of the garments at different sites, with some garments having standard branding and others client-specific branding, how will the supplier know what's needed?

A critical part of the switching team's role is discovery. Client sites should be visited and audited to ensure that designs are transferred and the quality improved. A new supplier can also suggest improvements to the garments and branding, and will offer to meet clients on site to discuss these alterations.

Some companies have invested in setting up branding media, such as embroidery programmes, heat applied transfers and badges. Will this investment be lost when transferring? Depending on the circumstances the designs are not usually passed on from the incumbent supplier. If designs are provided the quality often needs to be improved/upgraded.

Uniform providers are sensitive to this investment, with some operating an in-house graphics team to recreate the graphics and branding free of charge as an incentive.

IT support involved

Part of the discovery process includes investigating company structures, budgets and reporting processes. Managed services are built on a strong company structure, enabling data to be collected and used. The IT section of the switching team will look at the current layout to set up web-buying portals, allowing for online ordering in bulk or, alternatively, for individual members of staff.

They're able to upload bulk data from company records, enabling the portal to be used quickly. Using the information gathered on the garment sets from the discovery visit to site, wardrobes of clothing can be created which are specific to each contract. Orders can now be placed with confidence that the right garments and branding will be processed every time. The buying portal will store data against each member of staff and control uniform issue.

How long will it take to switch? New staff are constantly being employed and uniform is needed every day. Using an experienced supplier, it's surprising how rapid switching can be. If you have completely unique and bespoke uniform sets that have to be manufactured overseas then the supplier might require a lead time to feed the supply chain. However, in practice this is rarely the case and exact matching or finding suitable replacement garments can be sourced either in-house or from third party stock.