Dressed for Success

Retailers navigate the fine line between brand identity and ease of operations.

Dressed for Success

April 2024   minute read

By: Shannon Carroll

A uniform might seem simple: Give each team member a couple shirts, and you’re done. But retailers are finding new ways to use uniforms for messaging and to keep team members happy.

For example, at the height of the pandemic, Lonnie McQuirter, the operator of 36 Lyn Refuel Station in Minneapolis and a NACS board member, gave his team members t-shirts that read “The whole world is short staffed right now. Be kind to those who showed up.”

Corner Store, a three-location retailer in Texas, stresses its hometown ties in its branding. Team members wear t-shirts that proudly say “Where Local Matters!”

Larger retailers have to figure out solutions that work across many locations and that limit the operational burden of making sure every new team member has an appropriate uniform.

At TXB Stores, the uniform policy strikes a balance between practicality, self-expression and branding. Its employees wear an image-less or textless black shirt in any style of their choosing and any bottoms that aren’t athletic or scrub pants—generally jeans (without too much distressing or too many holes), khakis or dress pants.

Nathan Graham, TXB’s director of human resources, said that when the retailer rebranded from Kwik Chek a few years ago, TXB decided to take the “Target approach” and have employees wear a singular, recognizable color. In TXB’s case: black. The change came partially after the organization heard comments from employees that the uniforms weren’t their favorite color or didn’t fit right. Graham said the company thought, “What if we just let them wear their own shirt?”

“We would offer a men’s shirt and a women’s shirt, but they wouldn’t all fit the same,” he said. “This way, you’re able to go get the shirt that you like, that fits you best and that you feel most comfortable in, and it really allows people to do what they want to do.”

He added that the new uniform policy has helped because people feel good when they think they look good. Employees are more comfortable and are happier. They don’t have a reason to say things such as “Oh, my shirt was dirty” and show up in something that doesn’t adhere to employee guidelines. And employees are more willing to follow the retailer’s uniform guidelines because they’re easy to adhere to.

Redefining Uniformity

TXB still provides employees ways to wear the retailer’s branding via aprons, hats and visors, all of which are optional (except for foodservice employees, for whom a hat or visor is mandated). Employees similarly can purchase TXB shirts—which are also black—from the retailer’s website for under $10.

While most employees wear a black polo shirt to work, the attire can run the gamut. Graham said, “We’ve got some managers and assistants out there, and even some of our hourly workers, who are wearing a straight button-down, dress-type shirt daily. That’s what they feel comfortable in. That’s what they want to wear.”

The “what they want to wear” aspect has been a huge part of TXB’s approach—especially after what used to be the case with its uniform.

At one point, the retailer had purple shirts, and found there were a number of people who didn’t want to wear the color. Graham said there were employees who, as a result, wouldn’t show up wearing their work uniform. It could be a challenge for managers to send people home for uniform infractions, so team members sometimes worked while not wearing the purple shirt.

The retailer also lets employees have plenty of fun with their nametags, which can be personalized however they want. They’re inspired by chalkboards and at the bottom say “We Are Texas Born.” While the retailer supplies employees with a white chalk pen, Graham said several managers have brought in lots of different colors.

“You wouldn’t believe the name tags we see out there,” he said.

People draw designs with the employee’s name or with some more general artwork. Some employees’ name tags have butterflies and ladybugs and other things that can give a glimpse into who the employee is.

“It’s really taken off as an individuality piece,” he said. “It’s been really neat to see.”

Graham added that TXB is considering allowing employees to wear some of the more fun, branded shirts that the retailer sells, including one that, in big letters, says “We Are Texas Born” and another that says “This Is Not My First Rodeo.”

Of course, no solution will be best for every single team member. Graham said he has heard from some employees who prefer a uniform. He said one such person, a year or two ago, told him, “I don’t feel like part of the team because I don’t have a uniform.” He noted that these employees can order TXB-branded shirts.

Chef’s whites elevate the Wally’s experience—for both customers and employees.

Elevating the Experience

Wally’s, on the other hand, has a uniform:a polo shirt (in a variety of colors) and

khaki pants.

Andy Strom, the retailer’s chief experience officer, said that’s partially because “first impressions are everything, and knowing who to find if you need help within the store is extremely important.”

The retailer wanted to find a way to highlight its made-on-site food. Enter white chef jackets for the foodservice workers. The idea started as the brainchild of executive chef Lute Cain, who came to Wally’s with long-term experience with myriad country clubs.

“Employees are more comfortable and are happier.”

“As we’ve grown as a company, 50-plus percent of our inside sales is from the food that we’ve prepared in our kitchens,” Cain said. “So we implemented a policy that every foodservice team member wears a chef coat so guests know who is working on the food. By distinguishing team members by uniform, guests know it is not a maintenance person who has been out on the gas pumps in their polo and now they’re making your sandwiches. It’s the same with a bathroom attendant or a cashier.”

He added, “We wanted to make sure that everybody understood that we do, 100%, put a lot of effort into our food.”

One of the reasons for the switch to the chef jackets was because, as Cain said, a number of Wally’s foodservice team members come from big restaurants and country clubs, so the retailer “wants to make sure people know that they are trained chefs.” The switch has been a huge hit, he said, because those employees who have spent a lot of time in the culinary field enjoy putting on their “whites.”

Cain said the coats are also improving customer experience. He’s found that, with foodservice workers in chef coats, customers are more likely to request a special kind of sandwich with modifications because the people behind the counter look more like trained experts—which they are.

He was taught that “you work like you dress,” so if the appearance of the uniform is lacking, workers aren’t “going to perform to the highest level.” Plus, he added that when foodservice employees are in their chef whites, things just look cleaner.

The change also helps with recruitment, especially from local culinary colleges. Cain said it helps those individuals “understand there’s more to Wally’s than just a gas station.”

Before TXB made the switch to its policy of any appropriate black shirt, it had to face an age-old industry question: When do you provide new hires with store uniforms?

“We were providing polos for every employee,” Graham said, “and with the turnover that we know is in our industry, that can get expensive.”

The then-uniforms—branded polos—were around $15 apiece, so TXB developed a “new-hire shirt,” which was very basic with just the retailer’s logo on it. Managers kept the shirts in stock at each location, so when an employee was hired, they were handed two shirts that cost less than $6 each.

“Being able to give them that t-shirt on day one helped them feel like they were part of the team,” Graham said.

He added that the new-hire shirts also cut costs and helped people identify new employees. When area managers would pop into a store and see an employee with this specific shirt, they knew to make it a point to check in with the employee and introduce themselves.

Under this policy, when employees got to 60 days with TXB, they were given the polo shirts.

Always Adjusting

Wally’s looked at overhauling its uniforms with what Strom called “grandiose uniform plans,” but that process was derailed by Covid and supply chain issues. Before then, though, the retailer was playing around with expanding on its base concept—it’s loosely based on an ’80s family road trip—and was looking at having employees wear classic cardigan sweaters with a big emblazoned “W.”

“We’re always making adjustments,” Strom said, “but we’re very focused on optimization and repeatability as we work toward opening our two new locations in Kansas City and Indianapolis and just continuing to grow the business. The focus is on scalability and just keeping the experience consistent, but we’re always adapting, we’re always changing and keeping things fresh as we continue to build.”

Another retailer that has streamlined its uniform policy is Love’s, which has designed its policy to help customers easily identify team members and to “make it easier to know which team member can serve them best in what area,” as Lauren Daniels, the retailer’s media relations specialist, said.

For the most part, employees wear red or black polo shirts, although more colors can be ordered on the company’s store website. Other guidelines—such as non-slip shoes, steel-toed boots and hair nets—vary across different parts of the store and “ensure the health and safety of all parties.”

Daniels said, “As a 60-year-old company, you can imagine there have been several iterations of uniforms spanning back decades. When Tom Love opened the first Love’s in 1964, he worked hard to understand the industry and implement best practices to make the location successful. As the years went on and additional locations opened, adding uniforms became a way to standardize locations and help customers identify the friendly faces Love’s is known for.”

Shannon Carroll

Shannon Carroll

Shannon is a contract writer/editor for NACS. Outside work, you can find her reading—or yelling at the sports on her TV.

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