Are Uniforms in Retail Good or Bad?

Worker and contractor reading blueprints in home improvement store
Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

One of my biggest frustrations is walking into a retail store and not being able to tell who are the employees and who are the customers. It bothered me so much, that I decided to find out if it was just me or if others felt the same way and if they did, how did that impact the customer experience in the store?

So we conducted our own study and found that indeed — by a mile — customers preferred employees in uniform. Granted in some cases, the uniform was as simple as a nametag, but only if the employee was wearing gear you could get in the store. In fact, there was a huge impact on customer experience. We got tons of stories of people's frustrations with not being able to find an employee — only to discover there was an employee; they just could not tell from the way he or she was dressed. 

Many retailers make the mistake with millennial employees thinking they need to let them "express their individuality." The problem is, while this may be good for the employee, it impacts the customer experience and customer experience is the most important part of your store. 

The bottom line, employees' appearance, and a proper uniform has an impact on the purchase decision. Statistically, customers are more likely to buy from an employee in uniform. Granted the uniform has to be neat, pressed and clean, of course. Side Note: Although, not part of our original scope, we also discovered that a bad uniform also had an impact on employee turnover.  If the employee was embarrassed by the uniform, they would look for another job. 

5 Best Practices for Retail Uniforms in Your Store

1. Consistency. You must be very descriptive in your dress code. If jeans are okay, then what type of jean? Do you want dress jeans in a darker shade or are faded jeans okay? Can they be"bedazzled" or do they need to stay traditional? The more specific you are, the more constancy you will have in your look. PLUS, the easier it is to manage. You do not want to implement a dress code only to spend 30 minutes of your day "interpreting" whether or not the jeans or pants or skirts the employees are wearing are in "code." 

2. Identifiable. Great looks must be easily identifiable to the customer. In other words, a uniform is only good if it is easily seen as a uniform. Many apparel retailers require the employees to dress in the clothes sold in the store. This is actually a great idea. However, you must have a name tag or other identifier that this person works in the store. 

3. Comfortable. Too many stores ignore this fact. If it is not comfortable to wear and work in, then the employees will hate it. And when they hate it, it impacts their mental state which ultimately impacts the customer experience. I worked in a retail store one time that had a shirt that was so stiff and "starchy" that it scraped along your arm. I could not wait to take it off. And I never wore it outside the store. Would have been nice marketing the store for me to wear it out, don't you think?

4. Fit. Make sure the uniform you have chosen fits a plethora of body shapes and sizes. The look on the "model" is one thing, but on your employees is quite another. We call this the "mannequin principle" — looks great on the mannequin, but when I try them on...

5. Stylish. I feel bad for the employees at In and Out Burger who have to wear such an ugly hat. I know that it is a tribute to the original store, but those hats were much nicer. Consider that your employees want to be proud of where they work. Employees are very proud of their appearance. Please make sure they can be proud of wearing your uniform. Think of it this way, when your employees go somewhere to get lunch, are they embarrassed by the uniform they are wearing? Talk to your employees about the uniform. Letting them be involved in the choice is a great motivator for them. 

Sure, employees are not always excited when asked to wear a uniform, but the truth is, if you do a great job of award and recognition, they will quickly see how the uniform helps improve their performance.