Avoid the Straitjacket: What To Watch For With Uniform Companies

Adam Wright Newsletter Nearly every dealership participates in some form of uniform program for their employees. A majority of managers do an admirable job monitoring and controlling their departmental costs. Unfortunately, when dealing with uniform companies this often requires morphing into the Invoice Patrol. We all know the drill – former employees stay on for weeks after departing. Lost replacement charges materialize for hundreds of dollars. Phantom floor mats appear on the bill. Soap and air fresheners show up on the restroom walls but never get serviced.

These things happen because of the structure of the rental garment industry and the standard business practices they follow. Their profits rely heavily on generating additional fees, adding on various auxiliary products and perpetually performing price increases. Competition between the big dogs – Cintas, Aramark, Unifirst, G&K – is intense and puts the squeeze on their margins. They rely on their service reps (the delivery driver you know and love) to add products and charges whenever possible. Here are some helpful tips to avoid getting blindsided by the bus.

  1. Everything is negotiable. Not a single product they offer – shirts, pants, floor mats, shop towels, you name it – has a set price. It’s virtually indistinguishable from the Shady’s Used Car Corner Lot. The price is whatever the rep can convince you to pay.
  2. Read your contract. The most common mistake a manager makes is not knowing his or her contract. Where is it? Do you know? The uniform providers know that contracts get lost and never read. If you don’t have a copy get one. Call them up and keep calling until it arrives. Read it. Know what was agreed to. Dispute unexpected and uncommunicated price increases. Refuse to pay additional charges. Read up on how to get out if the service is bad or the term is ending. Most have automatic renewals that will hold up in court if the uniform provider decides to push the issue. The same goes for early termination. Uniform contracts are watertight and if your store is a big enough account for them they may sue to enforce it.
  3. Ready to sign or renew? You hold all the cards. Before the contract is signed they are desperate for your business. Given this fact, don’t make a rushed decision. Encourage competition. This will take very little of your time – two or three calls will chum the water and get the sharks’ attention. Play them off of each other to get the best deal. Look for a shorter duration, lower weekly price, no price increases for the length of term, no or very limited lost replacement charges, and no “set-up” or “make-up” fees. And in the case of a renewal – get your team all new uniforms. Don’t settle for less.
  4. Watch out for “ADDS.” Just like we run spiff programs and contests for service consultants, so do the uniform companies for their delivery teams. This is when your floor gets covered in mats and every advisor suddenly has a new anti-fatigue “bubble” mat at his/her desk. Beware the “trial” offer – the driver puts down a few mats or a soap dispenser in the back ladies’ restroom for “free” and then regular charges start up a week or two later. These contests get pushed hard and can be worth hundreds of dollars to the rep, so keep an eye out when they roll your way (typically) once every quarter.
  5. Don’t be the passive customer. Let’s face it – there is plenty to do. One of the last things we need to spend time on is policing a weekly uniform invoice. There is a certain convenience factor to letting it run on auto-pilot. Don’t let this be your store. Their most profitable accounts are those with no one watching. If necessary, delegate the weekly task of meeting with the driver and signing the invoice to a trusted subordinate. In some cases a signed invoice is acceptance of a price increase or other changes. All of the major players in the uniform industry have a limited time frame to reject those changes, so remain vigilant.
  6. Meet your service rep. A standard five-year uniform contract can easily be worth a total of $50,000 or more. How many customers bought their new car without driving it first? Not many. Ask to meet the guy or gal who is going to be in charge of delivery to your store. Find out how long he or she has been with the company. Take ten minutes to talk with him/her and get a feel for his/her personality. Five years can feel like a prison sentence if the delivery rep is less than stellar.

Always keep in mind that the negotiating power is in your hands. If you take time to read the fine print, compare all aspects of the deal, and follow the steps above, you won’t get burned!


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