Nicki Household looks at the advantages of schools running their own uniform shops
Six years ago, Fullbrook school, a mixed foundation school near Addlestone, Surrey, found a new use for some "troublesome" boys' loos that were hidden away at the end of a long corridor.
They converted the area into a school uniform shop, complete with counter, stock room and a shutter that rolls down when the shop is closed. So successful has this venture been, that later this year the school will take possession of a smart new minibus that has been bought with the profits.
The idea was born out of desperation. The shop in Woking that had previously supplied uniforms for the school's 1,500 pupils went out of business and parents were faced with the prospect of travelling some 20 miles to another in Guildford.
"Even before the Woking shop closed, the situation had never been satisfactory," says Sylvia Stride, who is the school's prem-ises manager and oversees the shop. "They seldom had everything the children needed in stock and a lot of pupils had to start the year without the proper uniform."
The first challenge was to find a wholesaler who was happy to deal directly with the school. Several turned out to be willing but Mrs Stride chose the Lancashire firm of Trutex as her main supplier because their quality was good; they didn't demand payment for the first consignment of stock until after the first summer of trading and, best of all, they offered a free shop design and consultancy service.
"I knew nothing about opening a shop," admits Mrs Stride. "So, having been thrown in at the deep end, it was helpful to be given expert advice on how it should be designed and how much stock to buy."
Crucially, there were no strings attached, which left her free to buy items like the girls' gold sweatshirts (which Trutex don't make in the right colour) from another supplier.
The shop stocks the whole uniform except white shirts and blouses and boys' grey school trousers. "We can't compete with the chain stores on those as the Trutex wholesale price is the same as Tesco's retail price," says Mrs Stride.
Mark-up is left to the school's discretion. "I was advised by Trutex that 50 to 70 per cent was about right, but ours is 40 to 50 per cent. If it were any lower we wouldn't be able to keep enough in stock or pay for new stock. Even at the end of October, our quietest time, there is still pound;6,000 worth of stock in the shop."
Most business is done during the summer holidays. The rest of the year it opens for one hour a week throughout term time and holidays. The school pays someone to run it, though Sylvia does the books.
On the advice of an accountant, the business is owned by the PTA and its profits (pound;6,000 last year) are gifted to the school, which can claim back all the tax.
"An added advantage is that it gives us more control over what the pupils are wearing," says Mrs Stride. "So in general they look smarter than they used to. But it's popular with the parents too, because they don't have to queue up in a busy high street shop. They also like the idea that the money they're spending will directly benefit the school."
However, she still runs a second-hand uniform sale every July, and in cases of hardship, the school itself buys uniform from the shop for parents.
The success of the Fullbrook venture is partly due to the fact that the school's colour is brown, which - unlike grey, navy blue and black - is not widely stocked by the chain stores. Most schools insist on only certain school-specific items, such as ties and badged blazers, being bought from a school uniform shop, leaving parents free to buy standard things like jumpers, skirts and trousers from any retailer.
In the experience of Comberton Village College in Cambridge, however, if everything the pupils need is available at the in-school shop, they don't bother to go anywhere else, despite the colours being the ubiquitous grey and blue. "The minimum they have to spend on essential items (a badged jumper, tie and two sports shirts) is about pound;40, but once they're here, the majority spend in excess of pound;100," says the school's business manager, Peter Woodward.
Set up two years ago (also with the help of Trutex) the Comberton shop, housed in a former classroom that was too small to be useful, cost about pound;3,000 to fit out and pound;6,000 to stock. "But people shouldn't be put off by that because we recouped the outlay within 12 months," says Mr Woodward. "Since then, it's been pure profit."
Mr Woodward believes that the key to success is to have all the facilities of a high street store, including changing cubicles and merchandise displayed on shelves and rails. "It's a real shop - we don't fetch things out of cardboard boxes," he says. But unlike Fullbrook, the Comberton shop (catering to around 1,000 pupils and open two lunchtimes a week during term and also on a new parents' evening and by appointment in the summer holidays) is manned by internal administration assistants rather than a paid shopkeeper.
"From the parents' point of view, the main advantage is convenience," says Mr Woodward. "Previously, parents were going to John Lewis in Cambridge, so we aimed for similar quality and prices. The main difference here is that there's no hassle or queues."
Though delighted with the help the school received from Trutex, (who have a similar arrangement with some 400 schools) Woodward is by no means committed to them for ever.
In addition to the Direct to Schools service, Trutex also runs a catalogue mail order service called School Link. Ten per cent of each sale generated through the school goes directly to school funds. Contact Trutex on 01200 421204
* The good uniform guide (comparison is based on smallest 11-year-old size)
Fullbrook school shop pound;29
Marks and Spencer pound;29
John Lewis from pound;29
Marks and Spencer pound;18
John Lewis pound;11.50
Box pleat skirt
Marks and Spencer pound;16
John Lewis pound;10.40
Boys' grey trousers
Marks and Spencer pound;15
John Lewis pound;13.50
Cotton PE shorts
Marks and Spencer pound;11
John Lewis pound;5.25
John Lewis pound;17.50