UK school uniform supplier warns of Covid-related shortages | Retail industry

Families are being warned of potential school uniform shortages as the supply of blazers and PE kits is interrupted by coronavirus-related production and transport delays.

The school uniform market is the latest to be hit as the flow of goods into UK retailers is affected by disruption in overseas factories and a shortage of shipping containers, together with the fallout from Brexit.

The specialist retailer School Uniform Direct, which supplies more than 100 UK schools, has written to thousands of customers urging them to place their orders by the end of this month, so it can “resolve any major setbacks with stock”.

Alex Gani, a director of the London-based family clothing firm, said its suppliers had told it they were “experiencing major production interruptions”.

He said: “This is for several reasons, from shipping and container shortages to lockdown and restricted working conditions in manufacturing countries.”

School Uniform Direct placed orders as far back as last autumn for this year’s back-to-school season but although 70% of deliveries had arrived on time, it was proving difficult to predict when the remainder would arrive, Gani said.

“A lot of our production is done here in the UK; it is the more technical stuff that tends to be made in places like India or Bangladesh,” Gani said.

A holdup at any stage means the “whole chain ends up having the problem”, he said, with the squeeze most acute for harder-to-sew pieces, such as blazers and trousers, as well as sportswear made out of specialist technical fabrics.

Gani described the situation as a perfect storm, with problems caused by the pandemic being overlaid by shipping companies offloading containers at mainland European ports to avoid any hold-ups at UK customs. Other retailers would also be experiencing similar problems, he suggested.

Some schoolwear lines, including pinafore dresses, trousers and cotton jumpers, were sold out in a number of sizes on Marks & Spencer’s website.

The retailer is a major player in the market, and the gaps are thought to be down to its 20% off back-to-school promotion rather than a wider problem with its supply chain. It is thought to be experiencing minimal delays of about a week on stock deliveries.

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Many families delay purchasing school uniforms until the last minute for financial reasons or to avoid being caught out by a summer growth spurt. Research by the Schoolwear Association estimates that the average cost of compulsory uniform items for a child starting secondary school is roughly £100.

Matthew Easter, the co-chair of the Schoolwear Association, said manufacturers and retailers in every sector were facing supply chain challenges, and the specialist industry had “not been immune”. Toys, garden furniture and household appliances are among the problem areas highlighted in recent months.

However, with the vast majority of stock in place, Easter said the industry was confident it would be able to “clothe children as normal in time for the new school year”. The organisation has encouraged its members to “maintain good communication with schools and parents in the event of slight delays in stock becoming available”.

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