Retailers Size Up Growth in Uniform Business

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Years ago, school uniforms were confined to the halls of private and parochial schools. But now, with uniform policies being adopted in districts across the country, students are donning uniforms to go to public schools, and retailers are starting to sit up and take notice.

School systems see uniforms as a way to improve safety and discipline, but retailers see growth potential in the clothing industry.

Lands' End, a well-known catalog company that has been selling clothes by mail order since 1975, started its line of children's clothing 10 years ago and is now tapping the school uniform market. The Dodgeville, Wis.-based company recently created a catalog that features items conforming to typical uniform guidelines.

Company officials said they're responding to constant inquiries and requests from parents and school groups for uniforms.

"The calls we have received indicate that uniforms in public schools are more than just talk," said Lori Liddle, the managing director of the company's children's-clothing line.

Parents and districts from California to Florida have been calling the company to find out what fabrics best suit their climates and what components--oxford shirts, blazers, dress pants, jumpers, and so on--schools should suggest as uniforms.

"We've been excited about the relationship we're building with parents and school districts," said Mike Grasee, Lands' End's director for children's uniforms.

Buying from the Lands' End catalog can set back parents anywhere from $19 to $75 for such items as a long-sleeved shirt or a boy's blazer. "Costs to parents can vary, depending on styles," Mr. Grasee pointed out.

The biggest concerns parents seem to have is getting quality at a good price and having year-round availability, he said. "Kids don't just grow during the back-to-school season."

In fact, the J.C. Penney Co. Inc. recently decided to offer its "Class Favorites" catalog of school uniforms year round, company officials said.

The Plano, Texas-based department store chain offers various options for uniforms. It has its local stores meet with area schools to present their products and work to foster partnerships to meet school needs.

The school uniform catalog has been available for the past four years, said Stephanie Brown, a public relations coordinator for the company. "Within the last two years, we have seen a big explosion in [uniform] sales."

A Growing Niche

In the retail world, school uniforms appear to be a booming business.

"It's a growing industry," said Jackie Roselli, the spokeswoman for the National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors in New York City. "Traditionally we haven't studied or monitored trends in school uniform sales, but more and more manufacturers are going into it."

In fact, with interest among public schools increasing over the past five years, the association has begun to pay more attention to school uniforms, Ms. Roselli said.

But because uniforms in public schools are fairly new, hard numbers on the impact that their sales have had on the retail industry are hard to come by.

"They are a small segment of retail sales," said Allison Wolf, a spokeswoman for the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, an Arlington, Va.-based lobbying group.

States are paying attention, too. There are now 12 states with state-level policies on uniforms and dress codes that allow local school boards or school districts to establish uniform policies.

In Florida, the Dade County school system recently amended its uniform policy to permit schools to require students to wear uniforms if 50 percent of families, plus one, vote in favor of such a requirement. That action has delighted area uniform retailers that will provide a majority of the outfits. Of the county's 281 schools, 90 have mandatory-uniform policies, and 66 have voluntary policies.

For about $80, parents can get a uniform package of three shirts, two pairs of shorts, a belt, and a pair of pants or skirt from Ibiley School Uniforms, a local company that works with many Dade County schools.

Fashion Statements

Two years ago, Texas passed a law that gave districts the right to require uniforms as long as students who couldn't afford them would receive assistance. Parents opposed to uniforms have the right to refuse to have their children participate or to seek a transfer.

In Houston, nearly 70 percent of the system's 257 schools have opted for some form of dress code or uniform policy--including three high schools.

"Uniforms have really blossomed," said Lisa Bunse, a spokeswoman for the Houston Independent School District. "We have seen a significant jump in the number of schools requiring uniforms."

Students there get uniforms through specific vendors, such as the retail clothing store Weiner's, which has locations throughout Texas, or form partnerships with local businesses that provide T-shirts and sweat shirts.

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