A smart exporter in uniform

A smart exporter in uniform

Uniforms have become much more colourful and subtle, reflecting the changing positions of carers and health workers in our society. Scott Sharkey of Matrix Uniforms explains how this shift has meant new streams of international business

Matrix Uniforms have supplied an extensive variety of customers in the Healthcare market for thirteen years now and we have seen various changes take place in this time. For many years, our customers ordered primarily ‘traditional’ healthcare styles, using different colours to identify staff in various positions, royal blue for care staff, navy blue for nurses and so on. Traditional colours were dominant for uniforms. The market has been changing though. In recent years, our healthcare customers have split into various ‘groups’ with the more classic styles still popular but many customers shifting to more modern styling and brighter colours for their staff uniforms.

In August 2006, one of our oldest customers, a care institution of over 100 years old, split their uniform ordering by department. They were extremely conventional and had only come out of the traditional nurses dresses, hats and belts a couple of years before. They made the decision that for their residential and palliative care units, they would continue with a classic uniform style, however they moved away from conventional nursing colours and personalised their own bespoke colour scheme to reflect their strong brand, visual look and feel over their home.

In their dementia unit, they altered their uniforms completely. We designed them a uniform from scratch which was visually much softer; a wrap-over style tunic in a colourful fabric. From this area, they removed rank colours and issued only the one style of tunic. With a few tweaks, this has continued and it works extremely well for them and blends with the air of homeliness they have created.

Since then, the numbers of colourful and bespoke garments we produce continues to grow year on year along with demand. While this was primarily common among dementia and neuro-rehabilitation centres, this trend has continued to grow into nursing agencies, care homes and several of our largest public sector customers. Even certain branches of the NHS are changing with one large PCT in London dressed in our purple and black tunics. Staff are more involved than ever before in their own uniform selection.

Our company focus has always been on total customer satisfaction, both before during and after sale. We work hard to understand the demands our garments will face in the working environment. This has been key to our growth and our experiences reflect that customers want the right product, at the right price, right away.

E-commerce is ever expanding with customers increasingly expectant of fast deliveries and accurate communication. We have a unique ability to meet our customers’ demands both for bespoke orders and in supplying modern, consistent stock as we manufacture here, in the United Kingdom.

Having a tight control over our production means we can offer consistency of colours, sizing and styles in our range of garments. Our manufacturing base in the United Kingdom allows us to create a bespoke order in as little as ten working days, as opposed to the 10-14 weeks more commonly associated with imported garments. Rather than importing from the Far East we can restock quickly and effectively, ensuring our customers can receive orders when they need them. Demand has also rapidly grown for our bespoke uniform collection over the past four years.

Now we are building our expertise when it comes to exporting. What sparked our desire to export was the volume of orders and enquiries we received through our web store, despite stating clearly we did not ship overseas. Using Google Analytics, a free tool which shows in-depth information about people visiting your website, we were able to establish that approximately 20% of our web traffic came from international sources. Ultimately we asked the question: ‘Well, why is it that we do not ship overseas?’

The inquiries were extremely interesting as it seems healthcare uniforms users around the world, especially in Scandinavia, Ireland, Australia and mainland Europe, were experiencing similar problems to our domestic users, with a limited colour range and longer lead times for bespoke uniforms.

The first step was a free tuition seminar from Scottish Development International, who provide a Smart Exporter course to get companies on the first step of the export ladder. This helped us understand if exporting was a viable option for us and if
so, what timescales we would require to get up and running, what the costs involved were and which countries would be suitable for us to target.

Our SDI account manager spent time understanding our needs and the experts at SDI undertook the research required to help us determine the answers to those key questions.
Less than nine months later we have clear goals for international expansion, a staged development strategy in place, and we supply over 30 countries worldwide and have our first international distributor. Our journey into exporting has been mind bogglingly fast, it has been an eye-opening experience.

Putting international shipping information on our website was enough to get the ball rolling and within weeks we were shipping parcels all over the world on a reactive basis, a great first step for any business looking to build an operation overseas as it is available 24 hours a day. However, a complete redesign of our website allowed us to create a flexible ordering system that would take into account shipping cost, duties, taxes, VAT validation and multi-currency support. It now provides information to our customers all over the world.

The advice I would give any business looking to export is simply to take the first step, do not be daunted by the abundance of information which you will face both on and off line. It is about focusing your attention and creating an efficient solution, picking the product or products you feel most suited to fill an international gap. We continue to find that international business is not enormously different from domestic and have faced similar challenges. Having a team of experts at SDI is an enormous helping hand.

Taking the plunge is definitely the key to success and we are now starting the second phase of our international strategy development.