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Unraveling the Band Uniform Purchase

Josh Harris • Archives • May 10, 2012

While uniforms are an integral part of the pageantry of the marching band, they can also be a major headache for band directors. The immense cost alone makes uniform purchases something that must be planned with great care and consideration, and factors like design, durability, and maintenance only serve to further complicate the planning and buying process.

In order to uncover potentially helpful tips on funding and executing a performance apparel purchase, SBO reached out to five music educators who have recently acquired new band uniforms for their programs.

Funding

How do you go about financing uniform purchases? 

Shawn McAnear: In Cy-Fair ISD, the school district sets the process and the amount of the purchase. We are free to seek out whatever uniform design we wish from any company. The central administration will use past uniform expenses to craft a budget amount and either approve the expense as bid or ask us to remove items to lower the expense. We have been fortunate through two cycles to have our uniform approved without any changes from a finance standpoint. The school district supports this purchase as a capital outlay expense and is on a cycle of every ten years. With ten high schools in the district, basically one complete set of uniforms is purchased each year. We are fortunate that our band parent organization is not responsible for funding this expense, as outfitting our 250 member band was roughly $98,000.

Joe Bartell: We just purchased brand new uniforms this year. When we decided to make this purchase a couple of years ago, we started to set aside money from various fundraisers into a uniform account. We were able to raise the funds quickly because we host a running event in our city that brings in a great amount of revenue. Administration was not involved since it is our own booster group that made the purchase, plus our administration doesn’t like to get involved with those types of decisions. They allow me, the director, to have creative freedom over the design of the new uniform.

Raymond Thomas: We also save money through the boosters. When I got to this school, there wasn’t much in the way of savings. However, we were able to save five, six, or seven thousand dollars each year, and put that money away. By the time we got to the point where we really needed new uniforms, we were able to go out and get them. That system works.

I have also taught at schools where the Board of Education bought the uniforms, which is a very different situation. Now I’m in a district that has five high schools, so there’s just no funding for uniforms. I also worked at another school that had to take out a loan to purchase uniforms. Every school that I’ve worked at has been a little bit different. I think the plan of saving money is the best way to go because then you’re ready to make the purchase when you need to.

Susie Marin: Prior to committing to the purchase of new uniforms, a series of meetings were held first at the school site with our principal and then at the district with the assistant superintendant of business services. Since our district supplies half the money for the purchase of new uniforms, we had to have approval at that level before we began our fundraising campaign. Because of the financial difficulties many California schools are facing, we had to plan two years in advance so the money could be put into the district’s budget.

In our case, money was raised and then donated to the district for the purchase of the uniforms. So the district is responsible for the contract and payments. The uniforms become the property of the district, not the boosters. Normally we are allotted new uniforms every seven years, but this is dependant on the boosters’ ability to put forth half the costs of the new uniforms. We waited 10 years since our last uniform purchase this time around due to the economy and financial difficulties.

The boosters set up an aggressive fundraising program to raise our half of the funds for the uniforms. Some of the fundraisers included working concessions at the Rose Bowl, a menudo cook off, a silent auction, car washes, and a letter writing campaign for donations. The challenge was to raise funds for the uniforms while also raising funds for our operational budget. The boosters had to submit our half of the funds in full before the contact would be signed and the order placed with uniform company.

We have committed to putting money into a savings account every year until our next purchase to help keep us on schedule and to make the whole process less stressful.

Marla Weber: The school pays for all of our uniforms. It’s a fixed cost, just like football uniforms and everything else.

The Purchase

What is the typical process you go through when choosing a design and selecting a manufacturer/supplier?

Marla Weber: We are fortunate to have a uniform manufacturer here in our town, and we like to keep our business local so we go with them. Our staff works with their designers. Our main concern is getting the most uniform for our buck. We try to push for three different looking uniforms coming from one main outfit. So, for example, we have a breast plate that can be worn one way for one look, reversed for a second look, and removed for a third.

Shawn McAnear: We are fortunate to have a great working relationship with the uniform company we use. In our opinion, they are the leading designer of marching band uniforms in the country. With that said, over the last two cycles, they were the only company that we discussed our design ideas with. Upon getting district approval to proceed, we will meet with a designer from the company to discuss our likes/dislikes and our vision for the uniform. From there, they will do a sketch and the process begins. Because we are very picky, we went through three redesigns of the uniform to find the one that fit our group. This took place over several weeks until we had a uniform that everyone was excited about having for the next ten years. While the initial designs were great, given that we keep them for ten years, we have to stay a little more traditional as to not have a dated look down the road.

Susie Marin: I started researching designs first by picking out uniforms I liked. I would go to shows or watch DCI and Bands of America and see colors, coat designs, and shakos that I liked. I would then ask colleagues who designed their uniforms, what they liked about their uniforms, how expensive they were, what the care was like, and so on. I then narrowed down my manufacturer choices and visited booths at my state conference and at Midwest. I made appointments with designers and sales representatives to see fabrics and care options first hand.

It was important to me when choosing a manufacturer that the design be cutting edge, use modern fabrics, the cut of the uniform be more athletic and free moving, I want options for machine washing parts of the uniform, and that the company be well established. Price was somewhat of a concern, but getting what I wanted in the uniform was the big issue.

Reliable delivery was very important. I wanted to get what I requested and match the sample I had received. I didn’t want any surprises on delivery; I wanted to make sure colors in the sample were the same as the delivered product.

The company we went with did a great job of showing me options; they designed many uniforms to my requests. They let me know my construction and accessories options, as well (plumes, special fabrics, buttons, et cetera). They were great through our manufacturing process. They gave us realistic delivery dates and even in the touchy delivery stage they gave me weekly updates. They were in constant contact during our final completion and delivery.

Joe Bartell: I would have to say the biggest aspect that was considered was the price. We wanted to get a uniform that was durable, would stand the test of time, but was of good quality. I submitted requests to a couple different uniform manufacturers, met with their sales reps, and ultimately decided on who we went with because they could provide the design options we wanted with the price we were able to spend. The biggest aid in choosing a design is actually going to regular band competitions. While we are waiting around for awards or while we are unloading/loading the trailer I am always checking out the other uniforms. You develop a taste for what you like and what you don’t. I brought those ideas to the table, met with the rep from the uniform company, and with a little creative guidance from the professionals, we were able to come up with a product that I, and all the invested parties, loved.

Raymond Thomas: I spoke with all my colleagues who had recently bought uniforms or who had a uniform that they were happy with. I asked them who they have bought uniforms from. I looked at the styles that were being produced that we liked, and then I spoke with every company about quality, design, how the uniform is produced, and the kinds of options they offered in terms of materials and every other thing. Once we started sorting through the companies in that sense, we narrowed it down to two companies and started talking to representatives about specific designs. From there, we evaluated the designs we got back and looked into each company’s customer service. When we contacted these companies, some of them came to our school and brought a bunch of product to show us. Other companies weren’t that interested in doing that. Customer service comes to play in anything but it really came into play at that stage in the process.

Tips

Do you have any advice for teachers who may not have experience with this process?

Marla Weber: Find someone who is really knowledgeable in the area of uniforms and has been in the business for a long time. Sit down with them before you start the process, and ask as many questions on what you should be looking for. One of the main things is to always look into the future. Over the years, colors don’t stay the same, so if you see your band growing at any point in the near future, it’s best to get more than you need because matching colors – with fabrics and dyes – might be a problem when you try to order more.

Joe Bartell: The biggest advice I can offer is to look around and really figure out what is out there that you like and don’t like. I would also suggest going into the design meeting with an open mind. When I created our uniforms, I had in my head exactly what I thought the new uniforms would look like. After talking to the rep and listening to his input, I realized that some of the aspects I wanted wouldn’t look good in person, were too expensive, couldn’t actually be made how I had envisioned it, or were just bad design. These reps really know what they are doing, and if you let them help you in the process, work with them and maybe compromise on some of what you thought were “must haves,” then you will come out of the process with a really good looking uniform.

The other bit of advice that I would share with teachers is that they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. Call around and talk to other directors, exchange emails with the uniform reps, and get some input on the design of the uniform. Just because you solicit input doesn’t mean you have to take it. But, you never know who might suggest something that turns out to be an amazing idea. After all, you are going to have to live with these uniforms for many years, so you want to make sure that it is something you are happy with, and something that will make your band look great!

Susie Marin: When designing a uniform, get input from students, parents, and faculty. Present people with multiple drawings and take a vote of which design they like best. Ask questions what they like and dislike about the designs. Have a sample or multiple samples made. Have kids wear them and don’t be afraid to make changes!

You can save money in a new uniform by using a stock shako and pants and put your money into a nice coat and plumes. Ask your sales rep for money saving ideas, like do you really need new shako boxes or plume cases? Can these items be bought second hand? Also look into selling your old uniforms to bring in a little extra cash.

Shawn McAnear: Find a company that you are comfortable working with. We have had a relationship with the company we use since 1999. This is key to being happy with the design and the overall uniform. In addition, do not settle for a design that is not what you want just because it may be the designer’s vision. Utilize their expertise along with your vision to design a uniform you are excited about for many years to come.

Raymond Thomas: Start early – I would suggest a year and a half out from when you want to buy. Also, order early. If you want your uniforms on a particular date, order at least six months in advance. Uniform companies will tell you that, too, but they’re right.

It is really important to feel comfortable with the representatives of the uniform company. The reps need to be there not only when you’re buying, but also afterwards to take care of anything you might need. That actually ruled out a few companies that we were considering – we heard that they had really poor customer service after the uniforms had arrived. That can be problematic, especially if the uniform quality is an issue. Right now, if I called my rep today and told him that I had a problem, he would take care of that today. I know that about him. We had to do some fill-ins; as soon as I called, the process started right away, and we got our fill-ins no problem.

Also consider the “extras.” Some companies will take you to their plant, other companies will send a designer or manager to your school, and others will set up a meeting with one of their major designers. Take advantage of any of that, if you can. When we sat down with some of the big designers from companies, not only did that help me in other areas, it was a true education for me. Even if you don’t go with a particular company, they might help teach you about something you may want to do in the future – maybe haven’t even considered yet.

 

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