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[34 comments]

The Uniform Makes the Associate

October 4, 2006

By George Anderson

Is it true that the uniform makes the man (or woman) working in the retail store?

It appears as though Wal-Mart thinks so. According to a report in The New York Times, Wal-Mart has begun testing a new navy blue polo shirt and khaki pants uniform with associates in about 100 stores.

The decision to roll out the uniform could come as early as next month, once the company has the opportunity to evaluate the responses of employees and customers.

"The look could still change," said John Smiley, a spokesperson for Wal-Mart. "We are still in the process of testing this dress code and evaluating how or whether to roll it out to additional stores."

One change that may occur is in the color of the polo shirt. There is some concern, according to the Times report, that it may be too similar to that worn by Best Buy store workers.

Stan Herman, who has designed uniforms for dozens of corporations over 30 years in fashion, said the new look Wal-Mart is "very classy." By changing its dress code, "Wal-Mart will raise the status of 1.3 million Americans" who work for the company, he added.

The look may be nicer, but it has some drawbacks for Wal-Mart employees who will find themselves buying khakis if they do not already own a pair.

Aubretia Edick, who works at a Wal-Mart in Hudson, N.Y., said, "I am buying these pants for work, and that is it."

Discussion Questions: What is your assessment of the role uniforms play in a retail operation? What will a change in uniform mean to Wal-Mart workers and customers?

Discussion Questions:

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

How important are uniforms to projecting a store's brand image?

Comments:

Easily identifying store associates is very important for both the customer experience and customer satisfaction.

That statement stands on its own. Wal-Mart recognizes this, as do the majority of retailers. The statement stands not just because it is good common sense, but because we have actual data.

We have a case study where an apparel retailer's employees were not easily identifiable. Many associates were not wearing the retailer's desired shirt and were not wearing name tags. The C-SAT data we collected showed a relatively low score and that a major area of contention was an inability to easily recognize store employees. Customers were approaching other customers, which to many, was annoying.

After designing a mystery shopping program around brand identification (uniforms, music, name badges), and after 6 months of measurement and training reinforcement associate compliance with uniforms and name badges, C-SAT scores increased by a whopping 5% to 97%.

As we all know, if customer satisfaction increases, so do sales.

Bernie Slome, VP of Business Development, ICC/Decision Services

I think employees should dress for their part in the retail play. Whether it be a polo shirt and khaki pants for clerks, bib overalls for produce clerks or southwest gear for seafood clerks the "uniform" should both communicate and compliment what the employee is doing for the customer.

Imagine attending the a production of Cats, at one time the longest running Broadway musical, and the cast gave their performance in their street clothes. Do you think something might be lost? The same goes for any business. The uniform should be appropriate for the situation.

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Richard J. George, Ph.D., Professor of Food Marketing, Haub School of Business, Saint Joseph's University

My feelings have changed on this point over time. When I was a recent college graduate/younger adult; my opinion was that it did not matter what I wore, I was the same person with the same skills and the same capabilities.

Now, I am starting to question that. There is some value to being more formally dressed, in a uniform, and identifiable as representing an organization (or at least "on the job" and not merely behaving as you would when pursuing leisure activities). The ability to "have pride" in your appearance, be recognized as part of an organization and feel an affiliation with that company, or just dress in a way that denotes you are working is a cue for those that work there and those that shop there that this is a place of business.

When you shop for clothing, cars, shoes, electronics, etc. - don't you expect the person working there on the selling floor to either be wearing or identifying with the product/company they work for?

Admittedly, there are two sides to this discussion and a case can be made that the clothing does not make the associate - but I see it as a positive step (not complete by itself, but a single step of several) to change the perception of Wal*Mart for shoppers and for employees/associates.

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David Zahn, Owner, ZAHN Consulting, LLC

I have to wear a company polo and khaki or black shorts, pants or skirt. Wal-Mart will not look more professional if it doesn't force employees to wash the shirts, get rid of stained ones, etc., and back it up by sending people home without pay if they show up in an unacceptable uniform. These are physical, dirty jobs, especially for people stocking shelves and handling food, and the stains never come out of the 60/40 blend shirts. People, especially teens, will wear the shirt until it is a rag to avoid having to pay for a replacement shirt, no matter how inexpensive it is. It might work if they were to have a uniform service, where you could change at the store and have a fresh shirt every time.

'ss219'

Store associates are far more important in conveying the image of the retailer than generally given credit for. To that end, any improvement in terms of their appearance is a good thing as long as it is consistent with the positioning of the retailer.

However, the "blue vest" program did have the benefit of distinguishing the Wal-Mart associates from the shopper and very distinctly so. While polo shirts may be more fashionable and even comfortable for the employee, it can be so at the risk of associates blending in as opposed to having a strong visual presence on the sales floor.

Further, pants and shirts can become soiled and wrinkled more readily than the relatively maintenance free vest program. Utility and maintenance of a new uniform should be part of the consideration. As a former store director, I can tell you that it will be unavoidable that some employees will show up wearing a polo shirt they slept in and blue jeans instead of the khaki pants.

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Mark Heckman, Principal, Mark Heckman Consulting

The transition to a polo shirt and khakis will certainly freshen up the appearance of Wal-Mart and upgrade the perception of employees to consumers. For this change to succeed long term, however, Wal-Mart will need to implement clear regulations regarding how the Polos should fit, what type of khakis are appropriate, how clean/pressed the apparel needs to be, etc. Without clear definition and of how the uniform should appear when worn, I fear that the whole idea could backlash.

Ciri Raynor Fenzel, Founder & Principal Consultant, BREATHE

Uniforms can convey a message more clearly and more focused that even the physical plant. It is a good move for Wal-Mart to continue to upgrade with a new store format and to send that message to their customers with their main points of contact.

Look at UPS with the guy in brown which became an entire advertising campaign. Appearance counts.

Charlie Moro, President, CFS Consulting Group, LLC

Having an associate uniform "look" will help shoppers recognize Wal-Mart associates who can offer advice and assistance to aid in the shopping experience, so that's a positive. Now, the key is, all associates who are more easily recognized need to be prepared to "serve the shopper" with advice and helpful service.

Wal-Mart used to be very focused on "the #1 priority" of personalized shopper service. They had a rule that if you were within 20 feet of a shopper, you would ask them how you could help. Moving to uniforms along with "reinstituting" that policy will improve what has slipped in many stores; helpful, friendly, personalized service by store associates who really show they care about their customers.

Dan Nelson, CEO, Leadership Resources

Wow, this topic really got the RW community talking! I admit I feel a need to chime in too. To me, the re-uniforming of Wal-Mart staff is ultimately about showing respect - for both associates and customers.

For associates, it's high time they were allowed the self perception that they are not walking billboards for a corporate slogan. Those blue vests with the white lettering on the back are not designed to make a worker feel important. An employee who has self-respect is a better service provider.

For shoppers, a better-dressed staff person is an exemplar of the company's service standards. We like to deal with competent, clean, well-turned out professionals. Those blue vests and smocks sent some other kind of message.

As for the dress code itself it should respect freedom of choice, under a thematic umbrella. I envision a khaki vest for all - with a 2" yellow and black smiley face logo embroidered at the top center of the back and the employee's ID badge clipped to the front chest pocket. Slacks should be employee's choice of khaki, navy or black twill, and Polos should be a choice of several coordinated solid colors, with the Wal-Mart logo embroidered on the sleeve.

And yes, the company should provide associates with at least one set of uniform clothing. It's a matter of respect.

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James Tenser, Principal, VSN Strategies

Uniforms have a number of advantages, starting with making it easier for shoppers to identify employees. I hardly think a polo shirt alone is going to transform a Wal-Mart into a yuppie paradise, but it's not going to hurt it either.

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Ryan Mathews, Founder, ceo, Black Monk Consulting

I don't think this will improve Wal-Mart's image much. Someone mentioned UPS has built its brand around it's uniform. That's fine and dandy, but UPS doesn't hire Wal-Mart quality employees. It reminds me of those TV shows where homeless men are always wearing suits. Does wearing a suit really make them look better? This isn't Costco, it's Wal-Mart. The anti-Wal-Mart movement has made the blue smock the nation's symbol of underachievement. Wal-Mart hasn't helped much by not replacing them, forcing employees to wear old worn out ones for years on end. The tacky bling, pins, and extra large name badges don't help either.

My favorite shirt is a Trader Joe's employee shirt. When I wear it out in public I get lots of compliments and people ask where I got it. To me that says a lot about a company when wearing one of their shirts makes you feel like the king of the prom.

David Livingston, Principal, DJL Research

I like the idea mainly because I think this will be a significantly upgraded look from the vest/jackets associates currently wear. They really harken back to the Wal-Mart days of old and Wal-Mart should be way past that, at least in terms of associates' appearance. As far as identifying employees versus customers, customers don't wear employee badges do they?

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Al McClain, CEO, Founder, RetailWire.com

This is an excellent idea! There is bound to be backlash on employees having to buy their own khaki's on primarily minimum wage, but this is a natural step in Wal-Mart's continual evolution. Best Buy has experienced double-digit growth in stores where merchandise and associates reflect the trade area demographic. Areas that tailor to one of their key segments named "Barry" (high income, wants the absolute best that technology has to offer) greet these prized customers in dress clothes versus the traditional tan and blue ensemble. It works.

Bill Akins, VP Business Development, Rockfish Interactive

It seems like everyone is falling in behind the idea of the Wal-Mart polo and khaki uniform. Of course it seems like all of those in support are not those who would be required to wear the "uniform." As someone who has worked in retail from the stockman level on up for over 30 years, I find the whole uniform idea childish. Certainly a name badge is needed, but if I or anyone else wanted to wear a uniform, we would join the military, the Yankees or a marching band.

Where should we stop with this uniform idea? Maybe all bankers should be required to wear blue pinstriped suits everyday with the same color shirt and same pattern tie...maybe every real estate agent should be required to wear a lime colored polo with teal pants so we can identify them...and maybe everyone who works in any government job should wear the fluorescent shirts so preferred by our roadside workers. I certainly agree that in almost all establishments better customer service is needed and quicker response is needed to customers needs. Unfortunately, retail seems to take the brunt of the criticism in this area...how many times do you walk into a bank and there is one line open and 7 people walking or sitting around behind the counter? How many hours do you sit waiting to be seen at the doctor, dentist, etc?

The real problem is two-fold; most retail establishments do not hire enough co-workers to make excellent customer service a reality. To be able to do this it would require them to raise prices to cover the payroll cost. Also, we need to use the current technology to our advantage and get out of the dark ages. A simple system would be to have each coworker carry a pager with a code specific to their department or area. In each department, there could be 1-2 stations whereby pressing a button would summon the coworker to that location. That way, if the coworker was in another aisle they could respond promptly. The problem with this is that in this world of instant gratification we will have to learn the old fashioned art of patience...that coworkers cannot be in 5 places with 5 customers at the same time.

'dcm107'

For Wal-Mart, splitting the difference might be the best bet. Use a vest, but upgrade the quality/appearance of the vest.

While Wal-Mart is trying to upgrade its image, and a uniform outfit does lend to that approach, overall, I think it raises more problems than it solves. It certainly raises a lot of employee issues. The vest idea works and could be enhanced simply by improving the vest.

Kenneth A. Grady, General Counsel and Secretary, Wolverine World Wide, Inc.

I see this as a good thing (as Martha would say). Most retail stores are looking at ways to improve customer service. First, the shopper will be able to tell who is working or who is shopping. It makes the associate feel like part of a team. I have worked at Sears for 35 years, and they went to uniforms a few years back. Everyone complained at first, but soon realized it is more cost effective to associates, to know what they are wearing and what they have in their closets. They were offered discounts on their uniforms. I think it is a better look, for not a lot of bucks.

Anonymous

I think the uniform itself will be a positive, but I think we've missed the point. One of Wal-Mart's greatest weaknesses has been the ability for their associates to actually answer questions/help shoppers! We've heard repeatedly that the associates cannot even direct shoppers to the right aisles, or don't know how to deal with more complex issues. Until Wal-Mart deals with this, it won't really matter how the associate is dressed -- they will still be perceived as having serious issues with customer service (albeit better dressed!)

'chluch'

Might there be some connection between this story and one a few days ago about Wal-Mart increasing the number of part-time staff? Maybe this is a way for managers to recognise staff or staff to recognise one another. Or maybe it's another way (by charging even those working only a few hours a week for their uniform) to get rid of the lowest paid? From a corporate perspective, I think uniforms make a great deal of sense but encouraging staff to keep them in good condition and looking clean and neat may not be quite so easy. If that doesn't happen, they might as well not have bothered.

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Bernice Hurst, Contributing Editor, RetailWire

Well, this certainly explains one of this past week's head-scratchers for me. Touring the new Sam's prototype in Rogers/Bentonville, I noticed armies of Wal-Mart people walking the store in blue shirts and khakis...I also saw vests on a few so wasn't quite sure what was "up." My initial reaction was that everyone looked put-together and that it was easy to visually separate the wheat from the chaff for my information-gathering...that is, I could instantly separate those who worked for Wal-Mart from the multitudes of vendors and local politicians who have descended on the store this week - ha! My second reaction? Is the visual connection to Best Buy intentional in CE (where much of the bustling activity was focused)? Either way, I think this is a smart move that does help Wal-Mart get away from its blue-collar image and project a more service-oriented message to customers and associates. It says "You will be working with customers" rather than "You will be stocking shelves."

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Carol Spieckerman, President, newmarketbuilders

When was the last time any of you wore a smock?

The last time I wore a smock I was in my grade school art class. This is an overdue update to an outdated uniform. "The Smock" has identified the Wal-Mart associate for many years and itself has been updated several times. As with each of the previous changes it was a seamless transition for both shoppers and associates.

Smocks are a hold out from the halcyon days of the discount store and as Wal-Mart continues to transform itself, this update is over due.

I believe that the larger number of associates will applaud the change from the far from fashionable smocks and embrace the more updated, yet casual, polo and khaki uniform. Feeling good about how you look enhances ones confidence and self value, this can only be good for both retailer and customers.

Goodbye smocks and thanks for the memories!

Charles P. Walsh, President, OmniQuest Resources, Inc

Uniforms in school, uniforms in the military, uniforms in every fast food and quick serve restaurant. The reason all of these people-intensive companies have uniforms is that it makes a difference. It helps their employees or students stand out, develops a sense of belonging and creates a team feeling for each of the members who "participates" through the wearing of the uniform. Uniforms have worked for years, and Wal-Mart has had a uniform before (the blue vest).

Now that they are taking this to the next level, it will increase customer service because of the awareness it creates as well as the ability for their associates to more easily be recognized in the store. This is a win/win for Wal-Mart, no matter what the uniform looks like.

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Kai Clarke, President, Kowa Optimed, Inc.

Shoppers need to quickly identify store staff. And retailers don't want to have staff dress code disputes based on individual fashion and taste. The great advantage of the Wal-Mart "May I help you?" vests: shoppers don't wear them. The disadvantage of the blue polo/khaki outfit: many shoppers dress similarly. When I wear a blue oxford shirt with a striped silk tie in a retail store or an airport people stop me and ask for help.

Mark Lilien, Consultant, Retail Technology Group

All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players.... Uniform is costume. Ask any costume designer about the importance of wardrobe and they will tell you all sorts of psychological communication cues that get transmitted. Not to mention the way the actor responds to how they are dressed. It can completely transform a person. It's a critical piece of the retail puzzle that is often overlooked or underestimated in terms of its importance for both the employee and the shopper.

Rochelle Newman-Carrasco, Chief Hispanic Strategist, Walton Isaacson

For practical and logistical reasons, I think the vests are the best answer. Just make the employees stand out from shoppers. As Bill Cosby pointed out in a comedy album 40 years ago, we won The Revolution because at the start of the war, the settlers won the toss of the coin. "Okay, British call 'heads,' but it's tails. What are you gonna do there, settlers? ... Okay, the settlers say that during the war they can wear any color clothes they want to, shoot from behind rocks and trees and everywhere, and say your team must wear red and march in a straight line."

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Warren Thayer, Editor & Managing Partner, Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer

I agree with the thought that if the employee is not upgraded, then the shirt won't mean much to the customer. And whatever happened to, "we keep costs down to give you the best price"? Polo may not cost more but they are perceived as more expensive. I agree that there will be a lot of customers asking other customers where the automotive department is. I do not shop at Penney's when I am wearing a dress shirt and tie because I do not go there to answer customer questions.

'YOURBOYS'

Effective branding is the cohesive communication of a brand statement throughout every single touch point the consumer has with the brand. Store employees are a significantly important touch point. As the Genie says in Aladdin..."what is this smock telling me"?

The uniforms are an example of the WM's understanding that making a different brand connection requires that all the moving parts be aligned in that direction. And they are doing it right. The greatest danger in making a new connection with consumers is breaking the old one. Polos and khakis are probably not going to scare anyone away. By themselves, they aren't going to create the brand connection desired either. As an element in a comprehensive "hearts and minds" approach.... kudos.

WM did not become the biggest without being very good at running a business. Yes, some things are outside previous core competencies, and others may require a learning curve process. The branding shift in process may have fits and starts, but getting something like uniforms right, and this early, is a good sign.

Don Delzell, Managing Director, Retail Advantage

GREAT idea! Sure - work out what the color should be and so on (I don't thing Wal-Mart will be confused with Best Buy), but this would do several things to elevate the experience of Wal-Mart. First, and I don't mean to be unkind, many employees in these big box stores look and dress like they should be unloading a truck. And unless you catch the badge you really don't know who works there. So a sharp uniform well kept will improve the image, and I believe the attitude, of employees.

For this to have the impact it should you can't have everyone picking out any pair of khaki-ish pants they've got lying around, they actually have to be the same. Be like telling a police officer "Just wear something blue."

Now if employees are paid as poorly as the press makes out, for goodness sake Wal-Mart should provide two sets of uniforms for each employee. They'll make up the cost in better performance in a week. It will take a day's pay or two to get the outfits if employees pay for it themselves. And won't that fuel enthusiasm for the uniform idea!

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Ian Percy, President, The Ian Percy Corporation

I believe that, one way or another, the uniform needs to be improved and associates still need to recognized as associates.

Improving the appearance of the vest, as already suggested, would help. But I also think the standards for what associates wear under the vest need upgrading.

If the blue shirt is problematic because it's too common, use a "Wal-Mart Yellow" shirt with blue logo. If associates also need to be recognizable from behind, put a small logo on the back.

If khaki-colored slacks will show the dirt too easily, go with "Wal-Mart dark blue" pants.

Better buy the employees at least their first shirt and pair of slacks. That's expensive, but so is another public relations fiasco.

Linden Lauve, Manager of Marketing Research, Cargill

The people saying this uniform won't work obviously have never shopped Target. It is the exact same uniform, just blue instead of red.

That said, I wonder if we will reach the point where a vest/smock is a point of differentiation to make a retailer stand out from all the polo shirt/khaki pant stores....

'mfbenson'

I have just read all these comments and some make sense but others have made me laugh. Nearly all must have been made by those who have never worked at Wal-Mart. True, the uniform will have a visual effect on the shoppers but what will they actually see? An associate putting out freight in dirty clothes, a deli worked with food stains on their pants and shirt because they can't wear an apron (that's what they have been told, no more aprons!), a garden center associate dirty from watering plants and moving dirty outside merchandise around or a maintenance worker dirty from mopping and waxing the floors. Sure, the cashiers and customer service associates will look nice, but most of the others won't. The smocks and vests may be outdated but they serve as a buffer from all the dirty jobs that must be done on a daily basis. Those making these decisions need to walk in the associates shoes because it's easy to sit in that chair at the top of the ladder and think that your ideas are for the best!

'1cynda'

The uniform does not make the associate. The associate makes the uniform. It does not matter if you wear blue, black or khaki pants - if they are in good condition, clean and wrinkle free. People need to take a little pride in themselves. Also, most Wal-Mart associates do not want to buy the uniforms, only to have the company change their minds about what kind of uniform they want. Kind of like their signing colors. Maybe they should ask their floor associates what will work for them. They are the ones who will be affected.

'1472'

It's all about presentation and, in my opinion, the uniform seals the deal. I've been a strong proponent for more than 15 years that professionalism of the staff (and the staff's appearance) is essential to the success of the retail operation. Isn't it ironic that Wal-Mart continues to 'break new ground' in areas once dominated by small, entrepreneurial retail operators? And then we wonder why Wal-Mart is such a dominant retail force.

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Dave Wendland, Vice President, Hamacher Resource Group

I am a associate at Wal-Mart and I'm all for the new dress code. Customers can recognize us easily. Some associates in our store wear the blue and khakis and we enjoy them. It's more professional and neater. We have to change with the time, not just the company.

Donna Peters, department manager, Wal-Mart

In my opinion, the uniform of a store is the first representation of your store in the customers' eyes. When a customer walks into store, they do not recognise sales persons but they do recognise the uniform. I would rather say that a good uniform works like a bridge between customers and your store. Your uniform leaves an impression on the valued customer--if it's good, the impression is good but if it's bad or not good looking, you end up losing sales.

By introducing a new uniform, Wal-Mart, in my opinion, has re-energised its staff. The vibrant colours will give their staff not only a good look but a feeling of pride.

Anuj Sharma, GM ( Retail Operation), PC Mangal Vasan

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