This August, Righteous will reach a big milestone in business success. Our CEO, Alyson Salz, reflects on the journey from humble beginnings in 1989, to where we are now:
Every business has their nice polished origin story about the glorious vision that was the germ of their successful enterprise. It makes for nice PR pieces and shows how the early passion and hard work created a straight line to success.
But, what if the actual story has a lot more twists and turns, mistakes, and continual transformation? Then it would be our origin story. That’s the one I’m telling today. Because when you have 30 years in the rearview mirror it makes it a lot less painful to recount the really bone-headed things you do while trying to be successful. Like taking any business you can get, working through holidays, missing your kid’s award assembly, or downplaying the incredible contributions of your team members.
Our genesis was not a glorious vision or a heartfelt passion of this one thing that we had to do.
Instead, we had two super practical, non-sexy reasons to start our business: First, my husband Rick was an independent rep for Geiger Bros., a nationwide promotional product distributor. The back office there kept making mistakes in his orders. So, he had to keep making apologies to his customers. That wasn’t super fun. Second, we genuinely wanted to be able to buy T-shirts at low prices so we could provide greater value to our customers. No business license, no wholesale shirts.
We were in college, with lots of friends who needed T-shirts for their youth groups, mission trips, and summer camps. So, we started as true middlemen, taking orders, getting the garments and bringing them to local printers.
Those were the days before widespread computer use or the internet. Invoices were all written by hand in little carbon copy books. Stencils were made with great rolls of rubylith
that we hand-cut with Exacto blades. Our film had to be shot and reshot by a local blueprint shop to get reverse or knock-out images. I remember one job that required the precise placement of thousands of dots by hand on our film separations. There is no way anyone would do those things today.
It took us over three years to get our first computer and laser printer. I wish you could see the joy on our faces as we curved text into an arc, as if we had just done some monumental thing. We played with that Corel Draw program for hours on end, and sometimes created really ridiculous font contortions just because we could.
Eventually we moved from our home-made equipment (don’t ever take your dining room table and turn it into a printing press), to factory-made manual presses, to automatic screen print machines, to many embroidery machines, and technology transformations later; growing from our home (OK, garage – where else would a genuine screen-printing operation start?) to larger and larger manufacturing spaces, eventually owning our own building. Our M.O. is to find the new, the better, the next thing; to keep improving and transforming, so we never take anything for granted or stagnate.
If you find yourself hankering for an entrepreneurial foray or just want to think that way, there are a few insights we have picked up along the way.
- Hire the best people you can afford. Cheap ones are always the most expensive in the long-run.
- Adopt new technology sooner rather than later, even if its not perfect yet. You’ll stay way ahead of the curve.
- Always do what you say you are going to do. Nothing kills trust like going back on your word.
- Try things. Make mistakes. Apologize. Retool. Try again. Life is more fun this way.
- You never know what you are capable of unless you risk and try.
- Learning is never done. Stop growing, you start dying. Life is about continual transformation.
It’s been 30 years since we got our first business license – the week we got engaged- and it’s been a crazy adventure ever since. Entrepreneurship will form you, teach you, discipline you, grow you and make you think differently (way differently) from how you did when you started…..and that’s a good thing.
Here’s to many more years of working alongside amazing team members, and serving awesome customers.
Today, curiosity is one of our core values. We dig deep to uncover the underlying reasons why a challenge or issue is happening, or why a client wants a particular solution. But that wasn’t always the case. There was a time when we gave the customer what they asked for without asking, “Why?”—and it cost both us and our clients.
Success can turn to failure when you don’t ask, “Why?”
A few years ago, a client was upgrading some of their locations to a new, modern restaurant environment. As part of the upgrade, we produced some stylish uniforms that fit the vibe and feel of the remodeled locations. The employees loved the gear. The client was happy. All was well in the world.
Then the client placed a large order for more of the new uniforms. We didn’t ask, “Why?” We just filled the order, as our client requested. What we didn’t know is that they had decided to roll out the same uniforms to the rest of their stores. This included all the existing stores that hadn’t yet been remodeled. It seemed like a no-brainer to the client. Everyone loved the new uniform so far, so why not share it with all the employees? But it wasn’t as simple as that.
The same uniform that was received with joy in one restaurant, was seen as too modern and didn’t fit the older workforce at some of the more established locations. Pretty soon it started creating hiring challenges. The corporate office was receiving negative feedback. That hurt our sales and our client’s employee morale.
A missed opportunity to share our expertise
When we noticed the change, we immediately asked, “Why?” We recognized that our role as a consultant is to ask better questions, to dig deeper, to find out why the customer is requesting something. We missed the opportunity to share our expertise before the misstep happened by not asking, “Why?” upfront. It doesn’t serve either of us to just take requests at face value and roll with it. We know a lot about handling employee uniform programs, most of it from the wise and unforgiving educator—experience.
Ask 5 Whys
I don’t know who said it, but it’s been repeated often enough that it’s worth including here: Ask 5 Whys. Each answer allows you to dig a little deeper, to find ground truth before you move forward with a decision. It uncovers biases and limited perspectives. It sheds light on your motives. Here is an example:
- Why do you want new employee uniforms? Because I want all my employees to look more professional and put together.
- Why do you want them to look that way? Because it makes it a better experience for the customer.
- Why is that important? Because we care about our customers and want to serve them well.
- Why is that important? Because it demonstrates that we care about them, so we show up as a team.
- Why does that matter? Because people are important and they are the reason we exist as a business.
It’s a simple exercise but it demonstrates why a new uniform program is needed and how it directly relates to your service to your patrons. I hope you find asking, “Why?” as valuable as we have. I promise it will get you to think more deeply about the reason behind a desire or initiative.
If you have a consumer brand, you can likely sell merchandise. Let me back up. If you are in the funeral industry it may be a steeper climb to get the general public to wear your stuff, but for most other brands, you have a pretty good shot at connecting with an audience. And, if your product or service is in the “fun” category, it is a no-brainer.
So, based on our experience, here are the top things you need to do.
#1 – Brand loyalty
Think in terms of your biggest fans. Don’t try to create gear that everyone will love. There is no such thing. Even if you were selling sunshine, you would still find folks who didn’t want it. What do your loyal customers want? Base this off how they live, what they eat, where they live, their psychographics, and behaviors. Go for the smallest niche possible that hits the target for your most loyal fans. To borrow a paraphrase from Seth Godin – people like us do or buy things like this.
#2 – Start small
Choose just a handful of products that are sure bets. When starting, this is not the time to get overly excited about all the possible things you could sell. You need to prove you have an audience, and with a small batch of carefully curated products, you can prove your case. First-timers tend to do a product mix like this – One T-shirt, One Cap, One small item like a bottle opener or koozie, One Hoodie, and one Drinkware item. With that mix, you have three non-sized items and two that require stocking size ranges. This keeps it simple and easy.
#3 – A price range for every budget
An easy rule of thumb is something under $5, around $10, around $20, and then build upwards in $10 increments. This gives the casual collector something to buy as well as your die-hard fan who can’t wait to get your new hoodie or tech gadget. To really supercharge your product set, offer in combos or kits. Repackage two things that together give a higher perceived value. An old standby is the cap/shirt combo. Let’s say they both retail for $20 but you have them combo packed at $35. That second item is an easy add-on sale and created goodwill while making you a profit. This is also a great way to clear out low performing stock. Pair with a winner and move more merch.
#4 – Effective displays
A great display wins the day so don’t forget to make it work for you. Stack neatly, arrange merchandise by color and size, include shelf-talkers or signage that tells buyers what it is and what it costs. People don’t like to ask for a price to make it easy for them to buy. Sloppy shelves underperform and tell the patron that this is an undervalued area. Rotate merchandise regularly to keep it looking fresh, and keep shelves fairly full – this is a Goldilocks measurement: not too full and not too sparse. Both extremes are put-offs to guests.
#5 – Touchpoints
Use all your touchpoints to create more sales opportunities. This includes having your staff wear the gear to help promote it and offering them incentives to move merch. Then, add your merch to your rewards or loyalty program so that your best fans can access it with their points accrual. Some people will use merch awards as gifts for friends and family to spread the brand love far and wide. Tie in merch with your seasonal special and LTOs – maybe a koozie for tailgate season, a bottle opener for spring training, a crazy tie for Father’s Day, and a fun socks for holiday gift-giving.
#6 – More than just a logo
Your logo is lovely, but not what attracts most people to your business, so use it minimally as a supporting cast member. Instead focus on phrases, sayings, quotes, designs, and artwork that resonate with your fans in meaningful ways – to them. They buy branded gear in spite of the logo on it, not usually because of it. OK, if you are Louis Vuitton or Nike, you will get logo buyers, but most other brands are not so fortunate to play it easy. Gear has the ability to create emotional connections with your fans. Speak to their interests, humor style, lifestyle, and behaviors.
Two more things to keep in mind – The best retail merchandise programs use both Design and Strategy at the outset. This is not a random shot in the dark to attract buyers and loyal fans. All of this works best when created with clear objectives and goals in mind. Do you want to connect with your loyal patrons in more meaningful and tangible ways; is it to make money; or, do you want to strictly increase brand awareness by using your unpaid brand ambassadors? It may be a mix, but whatever it is, know why you are undertaking a merch program.
Lastly, if you want to start a new merchandise program or optimize the one you have, then call us. We’ve been doing this for years and make it easy for you to succeed in sales.
When it comes to Uniforms, companies that like to give their employees some choice in what they wear to work face a double-edged sword. Employees usually love the freedom of getting to choose the shirt, pants or skirt that fits them best. But management then finds themselves policing the dress code—which is a pain point for both the leadership and the employees who struggle to interpret the rules.
Recently, I got an email from a CEO of a large restaurant chain asking me to meet with his team. The problem? They had dress guidelines rather than uniforms, and people were showing up looking less than professional. This CEO was reaping the advantage of not having to invest in uniforms, but struggling with the aftermath of individual interpretation of those pesky guidelines.
Freedom of choice without the risk
For this client, we delivered an online system where each team member can order what they want to wear to work. So employees still have a choice. Lots of choices, in fact.
Our solution included a range of garments for each specific role within the restaurant. Then, we provided multiple decoration techniques. Now, each employee can choose the garment that suits their personal style and body type, then custom design it to fit their own personal expression. This is a high value for Millennials. They want to look uniform without uniformity. Between garments and decoration of their brand images, the employees have dozens of options available to them, and they are using them.
The upside for the restaurant chain?
- There’s no cost for the company
- Leadership is relieved of the hassle of monitoring wardrobe choices
- There is no apparel inventory obligation
A company of thousands of employees gets what they want when they want it, and all without the added cost of carrying a stock of uniform inventory.
A fun solution to a common problem
Some people know how to dress; others don’t. It’s always a mixed bag. With this online system, the employees are having fun designing a shirt that expresses what they love about the restaurant’s brand. The corporate team has jumped in too, with their own collection of office-appropriate apparel that can be ordered one-off, with the brands and designs that suit their tastes. One person wants basic apparel, and another person wants higher-end name brands. When it is produced on demand, one at a time, they can all get what they want. And look great, too.
Recently, I was talking with a restaurant owner who was in the process of reinventing their brand. Their new brand identity reflected the lively and playful atmosphere of their restaurant. But there was one thing that was holding them back from reinventing their brand: thousands of dated uniforms. With enough polo shirts in inventory to last more than a year, their employees would be rocking the old brand uniforms for the foreseeable future.
I’ve seen it before. At one time, it was not unusual to design a new uniform look and then let it run for years. And that meant purchasing in large quantities and storing those uniforms for months on end. Same polo, same apron, same cap. But not anymore. Brands today want fresh, or as the French say “au courant.”
Don’t let your uniform inventory hold you back
Another restaurant owner—and Righteous client—took a different approach. They, too, were ready for a brand refresh and found themselves with a ton of shirts from a previous supplier. But rather than wait to rebrand until they went through the inventory (or the old uniforms came back in style again!), they decided to cut their losses and start fresh. It doesn’t happen overnight, of course. During the transition process, we helped them identify what was repurposable from the old uniforms, and turned that into money savings. The items that couldn’t be salvaged were donated to an overseas ministry for people who just needed nice new shirts to wear. Win-win.
Moving forward, this client will maintain a shorter-term uniform inventory (no more than 6 months or so). That’s because we can fulfill orders, when needed, at costs that are competitive. Which means lower storage costs, less stale inventory, and the freedom to create uniforms that remain fresh and on-brand as the restaurant evolves.
Out with the old
How you make a transition from a restaurant that carries a lot of uniform inventory to a more nimble brand, with new uniforms takes some planning. We recommend starting the process several months in advance of fully launching your new uniform. During that time, you draw down the old pieces while bringing in the new. When you follow the strategy of allowing a crossover period when both the old and the new uniforms can be worn, the pressures of a major change are lessened. But you’ll need to provide a hard stop date after which the old is no longer allowed on premises.
Don’t get me wrong: Franchisees and GMs will complain. They always do. It’s OK. Change is hard. But it’s for the good of the brand, the company, the employees and ultimately, your customers. You see, your brand is not about you; it’s about the people you serve and the people who serve the people you serve. Your employees are the embodiment of your brand, and you need to treat them as well as you treat your customers. Getting a routine refresh on your uniforms shows you care.
Break free and rebrand
So, what’s holding you back from the changes you need to make to stay fresh and relevant? If you are a restaurant concept, the answer may very well be your uniform inventory. But as we’ve shown our clients, excess inventory doesn’t have to slow you down. And once you’ve made the change and have your new uniforms on the floor, you can enjoy the flexibility and affordability of placing smaller uniform orders, when needed.
At the end of the day, people matter. What your people wear matters; how they feel about themselves while wearing it matters. So, at the beginning of the day, they need great clothing that they want to put on. That’s what you get to provide—an investment in helping people show up more confidently and more prepared to energetically serve your guests and customers.