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Retailers benefit from rise in uniform sales

August 15, 1997

PARAMUS, N.J. (AP) _ It was the day Jennifer Smith dreaded all year.

``My kids wear uniforms to school, so I had to drag them to this crowded, stuffy specialty store,″ said the mother of two. ``They hated it. I hated it. But we had no other place to go.″

That was until Smith found similar blouses and dresses at her local J.C. Penney store. Now she pays $9.99 for the same shirt that used to cost her $20, and back-to-school shopping is not only bearable _ it’s even pleasant.

With the new school year starting, many parents are finding uniforms in the places they’ve always shopped for everything else. Department stores, discounters and even catalogs are now selling those pleated skirts and white polos that used to be a hassle to buy.

As more schools turn to dress codes, retailers are reaping the benefits. Back-to-school sales, which have waned in recent years, are getting a big lift from uniforms.

Lands’ End introduced a school uniform catalog in March, after its research showed 8 percent of all public schools had uniforms and 15 percent more may soon implement a dress code.

``We were seeing a dramatic increase in the number of schools that are turning to uniform policies,″ said Michael Grasee, director of school uniforms at Dodgeville, Wis.-based Lands’ End. ``When almost one in four students could be wearing uniforms, that’s big business.″

Parents can get a standard navy blazer for $75, polo shirts for $16, chinos for $24 and blouses for $20. The uniform catalog, which mirrors much of Lands’ End’s standard wares, will soon be available two or three times a year.

For years, uniforms were mostly found in parochial schools, where children donned pleated skirts, white shirts and navy pants and ties.

In 1994, Long Beach, Calif., became the nation’s first public school system to require uniforms for its 60,000 elementary and middle school students.

Success was immediate in Long Beach. Suspensions fell dramatically and fights were slashed in half. Students again focused on school, rather than competing over clothing and athletic shoes.

While critics charged that uniforms destroy creativity, that didn’t stop school districts around the country from implementing their own policies. Many use dress codes, which require students to wear a specific style or color of clothing.

``Each school is different, but lots are looking for comfortable, classic clothes for their students,″ said Stacie McCabe, senior marketing assistant at Target discount stores, a division of Dayton Hudson Corp.

Target works with local school districts to coordinate uniforms. Videos and brochures tell schools of available merchandise. Bulk orders can also be placed.

``The uniform part of our business is up dramatically,″ McCabe said. ``We think demand will triple over the next five years.″

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