Dusky pink, cable-knit, acrylic pullover with hideously unflattering nylon navy blue A-line pleated skirt - that was the worst of the uniforms I was forced to wear as a teenager for one in a long line of Saturday jobs. I hated that one even more than the man-sized whites and hand-me-down hairnet ensemble for the sandwich factory job.
But wearing a uniform need not be a horrific experience for employees. Make your staff uniform a good one and employees will wear it with pride, helping to make that all-important first impression a positive one.
Chris and Sue Sharrinton, who run a Spar store in Helston, Cornwall, know that investing in a good-looking uniform is just as important as having a good-looking store. "It's a sizeable investment, but one that's vital," says Chris. "When you're providing a complete uniform for 25 members of staff and they all have to have two sets each, the initial outlay is quite high - ours was about £2,500. But it's no more than buying a new fridge or flooring - it's all part and parcel of the fixtures and fittings and overall image. It's an ongoing investment as well. Stuff wears out - we've just had to get new blouses - but it's no more than the ongoing cost of maintaining equipment."
Chris adds that many independent retailers fail to realise the benefits of a decent uniform. "A lot of people think that a uniform is just a polo shirt, but staff aren't always going to be standing behind the counter. They'll be out on the shopfloor, too. I think the independent trade lets itself down here. Staff might wear the same shirts but they'll all then have different trousers and shoes. You wouldn't have staff at a major multiple looking like that."
Chris believes there are other advantages, too. "A good uniform is important for the image of the store and it makes the customer more aware of who to contact if they have a problem. It also gives staff a feeling of belonging. We came up with our uniform in conjunction with the staff. That's important because they are the people who have to wear it. We put together three or four options and had a mannequin parade and asked them which they liked best.
"The staff had to be happy with the choices. If the uniform was uncomfortable and hideous, no one would want to wear it."
Customer reaction to the uniform has been as good as the staff's, too. "The shoppers like it - it gives them the sense that if the staff are smart, the store is smart. If the sales staff are in scruffy trainers and jeans, the overall impression is that the store is of that ilk. It was very important that we gave customers the right impression from day one."
Dee Sedani, who runs the Londis-branded News R Us store in Etwall, Derbyshire, agrees: "If staff wear a professional uniform and act professionally, it makes the store look professional, which puts you in the upper league of convenience stores."
Dee sources his shirts from Londis, and has one outfit for winter and another for summer. Staff wear pale blue shirts during the summer and a rugby shirt and pullover for the winter. Londis-branded fleeces and bodywarmers are an option when it's really chilly, and everyone wears black trousers and shoes, which they buy themselves and claim back their cost from Dee.
One thing that Dee is adamant about is that he wears virtually the same as everyone else. "Managers and sales assistants should wear the same because you're all part of the same team. I do wear a tie but that's not just because I'm the manager - the male staff can wear a tie as well if they choose to."
Kishor Patel, who runs five Nisa Local stores in the Bedfordshire area, has another view, though. He believes that different uniforms for different levels of staff encourages aspiration and career progression. "In our larger stores especially, if the manager wears a shirt and tie it reinforces their authority," he says. "And if the supervisors wear a different-style top or jacket, it makes the junior level want to aspire to a higher position."
He also believes that a shirt and tie helps when dealing with difficult customers. "From the customer's viewpoint, a shirt and tie is a sign of authority and wearing it makes the staff feel more confident."
Kishor and his team also wear badges featuring their first name and job title. "It's very important - that's how customers get to know staff. When we first introduced the badges, we got a lot of employees coming into work saying they'd forgotten it, or their dog chewed it, so we have a policy where staff take off their badge at the end of the day and put it on a metal plate until they're next in."
While a uniform should look smart and professional, practicality ranks higher than fashion when it comes to dressing convenience store staff - something that TV's outspoken fashion duo Trinny and Susannah perhaps overlooked when they designed a uniform for Somerfield. The outfit was said to have been ditched because it was "too fussy and impractical", according to a report in the Daily Mail.
Helen Harker, head of design at uniform supplier Simon Jersey, says: "If you are choosing a uniform for fashion retailers then fashion does play a major role in the design, but if you are looking at convenience stores then the most important factors are brand image and practicality for the wearer. Durability is also important.
"We take our influences from the world of fashion and high street stores, and then develop garments that are fit for purpose. Shirts, blouses, polo shirts and fleeces are popular with retail outlets."
When choosing a uniform, considerations range from the outfit's flexibility in dealing with temperature changes across the year, to a style that suits a broad range of wearers. "Buyers must consider the age, size profile and general mix of wearers when deciding on styles of uniforms," says Harker. "Layering options can ensure staff are comfortable in all seasons. Job roles also need to be considered. When working with chiller cabinets a fleece is a good option. If staff are outside at all during their duties, accepting deliveries for example, then high-visibility garments may be considered."
The ability to cope with the erratic British weather was a prime consideration for Chris and Sue Sharrinton. "The problem is that you can have scorching hot weather some times, and freezing cold at others, so we knew we would need a number of layers," says Chris.
The Sharrintons plumped for a combination outfit comprising black trousers or skirt, green or black blouse or shirt, black waistcoat and black fleece, plus a tie for the gents. "It's all interchangeable, which allows people to wear as many layers as they want," says Chris.
"The uniform also had to be practical. It would be lovely to wear
sparkling white uniforms, but it wouldn't work."
Given that the pair have a large in-store food-to-go operation, Chris and Sue had separate considerations for staff who work with hot food. "We needed a more robust, chef-type jacket for the food-to-go staff. It needed to be very practical and, because it's a hot environment, it needed to be quite cool. And because you have to wear a hat and hairnet when dealing with hot food, we consulted everyone when deciding what sort of hat to go for."
Fashion and practical decisions aside, a uniform is the perfect opportunity to advertise your brand. An outfit in the business' brand colours, or bearing a visible logo, will identify the wearer as a worker from that store - both at work and when they're outside of the store on their way to and from work. Says Harker: "Brand image is essential and the uniform plays a vital role in reiterating the brand to the customer. Brand colours can be reflected in the clothing."
Like Dee Sedani's uniforms, which feature the Londis and National Lottery logos, the Sharrintons' have a small Spar logo embroidered on them. The garments come from a mix of workwear companies but the logos are embroidered locally.
Kishor Patel agrees that uniforms reinforce a store's branding. "When staff walk to work or back home, people will see that they work for the local store, and if they're wearing a clean, smart uniform, it creates a good impression."
So my advice is: if you're thinking about updating or investing in a new uniform, don't make it a dusky pink, cable-knit, acrylic pullover. Your staff will never forgive you.