The Changing State of the Uniform Industry

In a recent conversation between Apparel and Richard J. Lerman, the former president of the North American Association of Uniform Manufacturers & Distributors (NAUMD), said he sees the uniform industry continuing to transform. Following are a few excerpts from that interchange.

Apparel: You have been away from the uniform Industry for about two years now. What looks different from where you stand now?

Lerman: The industry has been changing for some time. In the public sector business segment (police, fire, postal, military, etc.), for example, fewer independent distributors are in the business than when I left, which is likely changing the shape of the industry, and even the Association. Most recently, [public safety uniform provider] Galls bought the second-largest distributor in the country, Red the Uniform Tailor. As the industry consolidates, that limits the ability of those in the public sector, such as police departments, to get a variety of bids. Manufacturers have fewer distributors to sell their products.

Apparel: What major factors do expect to have a significant impact on the future of the industry?

Lerman: E-commerce has to be the most impactful issue facing the industry, even in the public sector apparel side. It is certainly true that the customer is king. Young police officers, firefighters and postal workers want to buy their uniforms the same way they buy everything else, on Amazon and other websites, by pointing and clicking and having the items in their sizes delivered directly to their homes. The idea of spending time traveling to a police, postal or fire gear store to be fitted and tailored is to these buyers a huge waste of their personal time. So it is easy to see how First Tactical, the first online [pure play] police uniform supplier is succeeding.  The success of their founder with 5.11 Tactical and now First Tactical is a sign that the industry direction is moving in sync with buyers’ needs.

Redevelopment of the distribution chain is also changing the shape of the industry. With the purchase of the majority of independent distributors by Galls and others, the ability of independent public safety distributors to compete for small departments will likely increase as the Galls of the world will likely not want to sell small lots and departments. But the ability of the smaller distributors to buy competitively will decrease and their costs will rise with the advent of a greater focus on e-commerce. Also, the cost of store fronts, both in terms of rent and taxation, will rise, making their profit margins even tighter. More business will likely go toward suppliers such as First Tactical and away from “distributors” with storefronts. 

Finally, changes in style and formality in hospital, school, hotel and other private sector apparel will continue to keep the industry on its toes. Fashion will remain a key factor in the apparel worn by workers in all corporate-owned facilities. Less formal outfits, without ties for men, will likely continue. Fun and comfort will be the focus in hotel, restaurant and cruise line uniforms, moving away from the more military look of the past. However, distribution will need to be improved so that employees can get their clothing directly at home rather than having to go to human resources or to in-company retail operations.

Apparel:  What do you think the industry will look like a few years down the road?

Lerman: Clearly, business will continue to move online. The industry will be focused on e-commerce and new delivery methods. Manufacturing will continue to be carried out on a contract basis, outside of the United States. Even with the incentives being provided by the Trump Administration to manufacture in the United States, labor costs will not allow for the razor-thin margins of the public sector police, fire, postal and others to compete with out-of-the-country manufacturing.

There may well be significant changes to the private sector apparel industry as well. With a draw down in foot traffic there will be fewer stores. Hotels may well choose to go the route of less original design and move toward more brand name suits and sportswear, perhaps even toward business casual, which can be bought online from brands such as Lands’ End. Hospitals are already allowing employees to buy scrubs from any online provider.

In all, the landscape is much different from just a few years ago, and like everything else, is likely to continue to change as time goes on.

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