Each year British parents spend some £6 billion equipping their children with school uniforms. It's a situation that would have been unthinkable a decade ago when the demise of formal uniforms, or at least their replacement by casual wear, was being predicted throughout the trade. Sonia Roberts reports.

With the UK's state supported schools now actively competing for students, insistence on relatively formal dress codes is now seen by head teachers as a key weapon in the struggle to improve the image of their establishments.

Moreover, in an era when many children have a considerable say in what they will, and will not wear, the huge popularity of JK Rowling's Harry Potter sagas, in both print and on screen, has made children eager to emulate the traditional schoolwear insisted upon by the fictitious Hogwarts Academy.

Surprisingly perhaps, the return to traditional style school uniform has not been at the expense of the more casual garments which started to infiltrate the market in the early l990s.

Badged polos, T-shirts, fleeces, and even jogging tops and bottoms are often simply tacked on to more conventional uniform lists as "required sportswear", allowing suppliers such as UK Leisurewear Ltd to report brisker than ever 2003 business..

New lease of life
The back to uniform trend has also resulted in a new lease of life for not only uniform manufacturers but specialist, high street retailers too. True, some have now to compete with in-house school shops, many created by schemes like that set up three years ago by Trutex, under the name School Link.

"Putting responsibility for selling uniform items into the hands of the schools themselves seemed like a good idea at the time," says David Burgess, head of sales and marketing for David Luke Ltd, the company that most analysts would rate number three in the UK schoolwear trade.

Latest figures put Trutex as the UK schoolwear market's brand leader with an eight per cent (value) share of sales overall. Only Banner Plc is bigger, but its nine per cent corporate share of the market is split across several brands and it also has a foot in the retail own label trade.

"Our experience is that enthusiasm for in-school shops quickly wanes as school managers discover there's more to successful retailing than they had supposed - that fitting sessions, stock control and range re-ordering are chores which can bite heavily into time which ought to be spent on other things," says David Burgess.

On schoolwear stock control, one of the biggest problems for retailers is in holding the correct balance between boy's and girl's wear.

Traditionally boy's wear is the more lucrative, with the current figure putting its value at £196 million per annum against £182 million for girl's wear.

The once clear gender gap, however, appears to be closing as more and more schools allow girl pupils to wear trousers. Trousers for girls, however, tend to hit the peak of their popularity at the age of 14, after which skirts are considered the "sexier" option.

The blazer currently appears to be popular as a uniform component at all levels of the educational system. But fast disappearing from all day school uniform lists is the regulation overcoat rendered redundant by the parental "school run" undertaken in the family car.

Also now virtually vanished from day school lists is the school hat or cap. Attempts to introduce the American-style baseball cap have succeeded only at primary school level, where caps with a peak which can be reversed to protect the back of the neck from the sun have been introduced by some British schools.

The school blazer might be one of the most consistent of all school uniform requirements, but it is also one of the most expensive.

'Plain' blazers in sizes suitable for secondary school pupils seem to average out at around £100 retail. Those required in colours other than navy or black are more expensive, since they can usually only be purchased from specified outfitters. Vertically striped fabrics specially woven in school colours would seldom cost less than £200.

The McDonalds kids
In common with all British children, 2lst century public school pupils tend to be not only taller but fatter than their predecessors. Youngsters with 36" waist measurements at the time they transfer from primary to secondary school are by no means exceptional, making the bigger sizes of uniform garments liable to VAT on the same level as adult clothing.

Although colloquially known in the schoolwear trade as 'the McDonalds kids,' a fast food centred diet can't wholly be blamed for this growth in girth. The earlier onset of puberty, particularly in girls, means that specialist school outfitters increasingly have to accommodate children with the proportions of adults from the age of 11.

Uniform labels
Benefiting from the boom in school uniform sales are specialist producers of labels which identify the owners of otherwise identical items.

A particularly thriving enterprise in this sector is Kwik Tapes Ltd which has developed a system for on-the-spot in-store label printing. The labels can simply be ironed, rather than sewn on to school uniform garments.

Kwik Tapes has had its machines on test in 100 of the larger Marks & Spencer branches which carry schoolwear. It claims the unit can dramatically reduce the cost of label production compared with other methods, and therefore offers opportunities for impressive added profit to both high street retailers and to school owned shops prepared to invest an initial £600. The machine is delivered complete with 50 batches of 50 blank labels.

Expert Analysis

Childrenswear 2002
Childrenswear represents a fast-growing sector of the UK clothing industry. Since 1991, the retail market has grown by over 60%, and in 2001, there was an increase of 5.1%, to £5.57bn. The three main sectors covered in this report are girls' and boys' clothing for children aged up to 14 years old, and infants' clothing for newborn babies up to 2 year-olds. Find out more here.

 

Kwik Tapes' own research suggests not only that the average parent will buy at least three dozen new labels at the start of each new academic year, but that they will be more than happy to pay £4-5 for a three dozen batch which, using the KwikTapes system, costs as little as £l.60 to produce..

And while opportunities for overseas sales of school uniform clothing will tend to be limited to those nations where independent, and possibly also state education, still takes inspiration from the UK, John Baines, managing director of Kwik Tapes, points out that the system isn't confined to the educational sector.

It could equally be used in hospitals, old peoples' homes, or any organisation where identical items of residents' clothing or staff workwear passes through a central laundering system.

On this basis it has already been successfully sold across the EU and negotiations are currently in progress to licence its manufacture and use in South Africa and Australasia.

By Sonia Roberts.