Appearance policies have come under fire recently yet they are a key component of retail store aesthetics. Sara McCorquodale investigates the purpose of such policies and how best to communicate them.
The denim hotpants, the scoop-necked striped T-shirt, the casually dishevelled hair. The way she wears it all with simple black pumps and green eye-shadow – it truly is a sartorial triumph.
It might sound like a description of a nightclubber, but is actually the uniform an American Apparel sales assistant decided on for her Saturday shift in the Oxford Circus store last week. Her friendly manner made customers comfortable to browse, but her outfit had them reaching for their wallets.
When it comes to selling a brand and its underlying ethos, the importance of staff uniforms cannot be underestimated. It is the job of the front line to meet and greet customers, new and regular, every day. And although stock is what they walk away with in their hand, it is the image of these team members that remains in their head.
If retailers’ staff image hadn’t been on the agenda before, it has certainly become one in recent months. The issue hit the headlines in August when Riam Dean, a former Abercrombie & Fitch sales assistant, won a wrongful dismissal case against the US chain. According to the retailer, the 22-year-old – who worked in the retailer’s flagship Savile Row store – did not fit in with its look policy because of the cardigan she wore to cover her prosthetic arm. Dean, who was born without a left forearm, was awarded £9,000 after an employment tribunal ruled in her favour.
In addition to this case, American Apparel was forced to release a statement in August defending itself against accusations it screened potential staff for beauty. Creative director Marsha Brady said: “We do screen, but not for beauty. What we look for is personal style. We carry year round basics that are easy to understand and pretty much sell themselves as basics. But to really showcase the fashionability of our products, we have to rely on the way our in-store employees style themselves with our clothes.”
She added: “We see applicants who don’t have quite what we’re looking for in retail but are recommended for modelling all the time. Every new hire contributes to our brand perception and it’s very important to the success of the company to take it seriously.”
Scratch the surface
Although these incidents resulted in bad publicity for Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel, they highlighted how significant staff appearance is to retailers. Sales assistants are not just there to man the shopfloor – they also sell the lifestyle behind the brand.
As a result, more and more UK retailers have implemented look policies to ensure the employee aesthetic mirrors that of the company. Law firm Nabarro partner Julie Quinn says: “Look policies are increasingly common, particularly with retailers. We tend to follow the US, and the big US retail companies all have them.
“The benefits of having a policy are clear as far as branding and image are concerned, but they have to be implemented very sensitively to avoid accusations of discrimination. Things like making male and female employees wear different uniforms or banning religious clothing and accessories tend to be controversial.
“There are certain areas that are headline grabbing and if an employee wants to claim discrimination they have to be able to slot their claim into areas such as sex, age or religion. For example, if you had a policy that stated: ‘Don’t dress like a grandad’, you’d be in trouble.”
Treading carefully is a must with regards to look policies, however, the effect of staff style is undeniable. Cranfield Management School professor of brand marketing Simon Knox says: “A brand isn’t a sum of its parts, it should be greater than a sum of its parts and if there’s a weak link it will be noticed.”
In times of economic trouble, Knox adds, staff aesthetic is more important than ever. He says: “Price is under a lot of pressure and a uniform has to be an embodiment of a brand’s principles. Consumers expect the person selling you the product to look the part and retailers want front line staff to represent their brand. People have a lot of choice and anything that results in a transaction has got to be adding value.”
Retailers’ approach to look policies and staff uniforms tend to be dependent on the products they are selling.
At Gap, staff wear clothes sold in store and the retailer has a look policy in place to ensure everyone is on brand. Human resources director Sandra Hailstone, says: “We encourage our sales associates to wear Gap clothes to inspire our customers and help them understand how to style them; it is also important we allow our sales associates to wear clothes they feel comfortable in and inspired to wear themselves.”
She continues: “We do not impose a staff uniform but we do have a set of guidelines that all associates adhere to.
“We believe it is very important our sales associates wear our ranges – there is no better reinforcement of the brand than the staff themselves wearing and talking about Gap clothes.”
Part of the brand
Karen Millen does not have an official look policy in place but does have guidelines on how staff should dress each season. Tracey Mann, retail director for the fashion retailer, says: “Our store team is encouraged to reflect the key looks we are focusing on for the season. The same looks will be represented in the windows and our catwalk section on our website. Pieces worn by the team will usually get a good sales response.”
Mann adds it is important the store teams represent the brand as they are directly communicating with customers. “The team’s appearance is all part of the brand experience and will be remembered by the customer. Perhaps it could make the customer try something they may not have otherwise.”
At New Look, management actively seeks out employees who have an interest in style during the hiring process. Head of retail operations Jo McWilliams says: “We only recruit people who are genuinely interested in clothes. This is integral to our recruitment criteria – our customers love fashion so our teams need to as well.”
Ted Baker’s approach gives staff more freedom with how they wear the clothes but they are still expected to embody a style that is identifiable with the brand. A spokesman says of staff uniform: “It is completely open to individual interpretation. We employ people who have a fantastic understanding of what looks good and what doesn’t and can deliver that by working with Ted’s collections.”
As Gap, Karen Millen, New Look and Ted Baker are fashion retailers it is unsurprising on-brand staff appearance is paramount. Store teams wear clothes designed by the retailer, and so showcasing the product is important to sales.
However, employees issued with a generic company uniform are also expected to display a certain aesthetic.
At Boots, employees’ uniforms are dependent on role, length of service and season. Management staff are free to wear their own suits and maternity uniforms are available to staff who are expecting.
A spokeswoman for the retailer says: “Our people are our ambassadors of the Boots brand and it is very important they convey a welcoming and professional image to deliver excellent customer care. The Boots UK uniform has a clean contemporary look with a healthcare led image that reminds us of who we are as an organisation.
“Our customers have high expectations of the service they receive from our store colleagues. This includes an expectation each store colleague looks welcoming and professional and is easily identifiable in store. We take great pride in our appearance.”
Meanwhile, Homebase consulted its staff in 2005 before changing the company-wide uniform. As 87% said they would prefer a more modern look, the retailer replaced the orange and green garb staff had previously been issued with, for black polo shirts and combats. The company has a look policy, outlined in employee handbooks.
A spokesman says: “The latest uniform was specifically asked for by colleagues to help them carry things around. This reinforces our DIY credentials to customers and was introduced along with the more practical zipped black fleeces, which replaced the less popular sweatshirts of the past.
“The current uniform has had a much greater impact than simply changing the way store colleagues look; it has had a positive impact on how Homebase store colleagues and the brand as a business are perceived by customers.”
Don’t look for trouble
So how does a manager implement a look policy on the shopfloor and avoid the repercussion of an employment tribunal appearance. It can be difficult to judge how far retailers can go without causing offence. For example, can a cosmetics retailer demand staff have clear skin? Quinn says: “You can approach it because if you are marketing a product promoting this, you need to be able to sell it. Similarly, if you are selling an anti-wrinkle face cream you might want a young person to work on that counter. If you were accused of discrimination in this case you need to be able to justify it, perhaps by saying that it is an occupational requirement.”
Discrimination claims can be avoided, provided store managers are trained in the retailer’s look policy and guidelines of what is, and is not, appropriate are clear.
Quinn says: “I would advise employers to treat people consistently. Managers are often left to make decisions on appearance and if an employee claims discrimination these decisions can have a huge impact on the brand. Because of this, I think it is a good idea for managers to have training if there is a look policy so they know the company’s stance and can justify their decisions.”
Look policies have borne the brunt of bad press but in many cases they are necessary to ensure the store aesthetic is cohesive. To an extent they protect the retailer if managers have to make decisions regarding their staff’s appearance. If it is company policy, a staff member is less likely to take criticism personally.