a uniform approach to marketing

Enhancing employee image can help operators create a unique niche in the market.

After consumers’ positive reactions to its “I’m Lovin’ It” advertising campaign, it was rumored that McDonald’s was in talks with some of the world’s best-known clothing labels&—Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’ Sean John line, Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. and Giorgio Armani to name a few—to upgrade its restaurant staff uniforms to something more befitting the MTV generation.

While Bill Whitman, McDonald’s USA spokesman, said the talks were “purely exploratory,” the fashion makeover for roughly 30,000 McDonald’s employees could cost up to $80 million. But it’s a price the hamburger chain has been seriously considering.

“Our crew, in many respects, are ambassadors of our brand, and we want their attire to be consistent with that,” said Whitman.

Image-conscious businesses have discovered that when individual pieces of clothing are combined into an employee uniform, the cohesive look can have a strategically positive impact on customer perceptions. Indications are that uniforms project a professional, knowledgeable appearance. As an added practical benefit, uniforms make employees easier for customers in need of assistance to find.

When Sheetz Inc. (Altoona, Pa.) redesigned its corporate logo, it decided to give its uniforms an upgrade as well. According to Kerry Ray, human resources specialist for employer relations and recruitment, associates are given the choice between bright green, maroon and black polo shirts to wear in the store, replete with an apron if they are working behind the foodservice counter. Managers and assistant managers are differentiated from associates by wearing black button down shirts.

Even small details in a uniform’s design and color can have a profound impact on the way a company’s image is perceived. For example, if a uniform begins to show wear and tear, customers could begin to question the quality of services or products they’re purchasing.

“Most c-store operations typically use the least expensive uniform they can find,” said Tim Mossberg, president of TLM Industries, a uniform manufacturer whose operations are based in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. “Part of the reason is high turnover—for every 10 new hires only one or two have staying power, which means employers could potentially lose out on $40 to $50 in uniforms. From that perspective, going with a less expensive uniform-makes sense. But we’ve seen a shift in the last couple of years where chains are trying to beef up and increase their image.”

Body Conscious
Companies rarely have the female form in mind when buying “unisex” uniforms, which are usually men’s polo shirts and attire, Mossberg said. He credits c-store operators that take their female employees into consideration when they’re redesigning uniforms.

Spectrum Stores is one of those companies. The West Point, Ga.-based retailer has worked with TLM Industries for 12 years and it redesigns uniforms every three years. Revitalizing the look of the uniforms created a more cohesive look and increased employee morale.

“We offered the polo shirt for so long, but we had a number of ladies who felt uncomfortable wearing it,” said Bob Holcomb, Spectrum’s vice president of human resources. “We wanted them to feel comfortable so we designed a smock from employee input.”

One of the caveats to the new uniform option was that it had no pockets. The smocks matched the polo shirts and featured embroidered logos and finished collars (see picture). Spectrum provided employees with the option of choosing two or three shirts to start—be it smock or polo or a combination of the two—and the company absorbed the cost. As the uniforms begin to show wear, Spectrum replaces them at no cost to employees.

“We approach it like a baseball team,” said Holcomb. “If you look sharp, you play sharp. We budgeted for each store in an overhead account so we could replace the shirts for [our employees].”

Spectrum received strong positive feedback from its employees, said Holcomb, who added the revitalized uniforms made employees feel like they were part of a team.

“Nothing sets us apart from the guy down the street,” he said. “It’s the people in your stores that set you apart, and we wanted to make them stand out.”

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