For the UK garment rental industry there is good news and bad news. The good news is that with a sharpening of focus and maximising the potential of business from existing customers, business opportunities can be increased.

The bad news is that preoccupation with cutting prices to win volume remains a stumbling block to the development of that business growth.

A Textile Services Association working party has taken a long, hard look at the workwear rental picture and its final report has just been published and circulated to TSA members.

Accurate feel

Chairman of the working party, John Walters, of Brooks Service Group plc, says “The research has given us an accurate feel for the current market situation. It has provided a good indication of areas having workwear rental growth potential.” The TSA’s working party was set up in the autumn of 1999 to examine the size of the workwear market in the UK. The aim was: ‘To identify the workwear market size by the potential number of wearers.’ A market research company was used to investigate the current penetration of workwear rental, direct purchase workwear and home laundered workwear per industry sector as well as identifying barriers to workwear provision in general, and, more specifically, workwear rental.

Eight industry sectors were identified as key market places for workwear. The comprehensive report compiled shows the types of workwear provided across the different sectors, the average number of garments supplied, how often garments are replaced, methods of laundering, reasons for providing workwear and advantages and disadvantages of providing workwear.

Views collected by LCN indicate that a key to improving the business position of UK garment renters is the upgrading of the clothes they offer.

Notable is the way in which some European workwear fabric producers remain firmly committed innovators, examining garment end-user problems and their needs and delivering appropriate solutions.

These producers would like more rental companies to be receptive to such assistance.

While many renters are reluctant to modify their services and processes where high-temperature washing, tunnel finishing and heavy-load compaction are prevalent, there are signs of some fresh thinking.

Rob Rabaiotti, Klopman’s European workwear product manager identifies an increasing tendency among renters to take a more flexible approach. This involves the businesses not just presenting themselves as renters and launderers but as providers of work garment services that more closely align with a greater variety of market needs.

Such businesses should be willing to become involved with direct sales and garment rental without laundering. The value of widening the customer base cannot be over estimated.

In mainstream garment renting and laundering, the service cost to the customer is still a huge issue and prices generally remain depressed. An uplift of prices from a chronically depressed position is extremely difficult to achieve, Mr Rabaiotti points out. Improvements are only likely to be realised in the longer term.

The current scene in the workwear rental arena is of competitors fighting each other with tiny per-item profitability. From the ongoing battles, it is likely that ‘super’ companies will emerge, ones that will be able to offer new levels of efficiency. Over time, added value could be provided for more rental customers, and stronger launderer/customer ‘partnerships’ created.

Mr Rabaiotti believes growth will continue among smaller independent laundry companies offering a service to a local or niche market.

Such independents already have a track record of success with higher priced service provision for a number of sectors including the food industry.

The garment rental industry across Europe is still very conservative in the way in which it approaches new products, preferring to opt for tried and tested fabrics.

However, a more adventurous approach may be increasingly adopted, especially if demand grows for wearer-friendly work apparel. This clothing tends to have a softer finish, and to be more fashionable in appearance. It must, of course, be fully laundry processable.

Looking ahead five years, the shape of the UK garment rental industry will have altered as a result of more acquisitions and consolidation in the laundering area, Mr Rabaiotti says. Those smaller independents not swallowed by the giants are likely to have further strengthened their position.

Also in five years, there will be greater use of wearer-friendly fabrics, a development driven by the textile manufacturers, Mr Rabaiotti says.

Klopman underlines the significance of the challenge faced in providing fabrics that can be industrially laundered and yet have the right wearer appeal incorporated. This involves the introduction of colours that are more fashionable but are still able to resist fading, and of new fabric constructions.

Peter Cook, managing director of Peco International, UK agent for textiles including those of Lauffenmühle, maintains that European working practices legislation, often widely regarded as a pain, can be a catalyst for workwear rental growth. For example, it can direct how protective wear should be provided and maintained.

A strong argument can often be made that only skilled launderers are able to satisfactorily maintain special clothing such as high visibility and fire-protection garments.

High-visibility garments are sometimes viewed by the companies and organisations using them as being semi-disposable because, it is believed, they cannot be satisfactorily cleaned. Expensive coveralls or breathable outerwear may be discarded well before the end of the garmentsí lives.

Careful, professional laundering can ensure that levels of retro-reflection and luminance are maintained on garments which are subjected to the soiling and staining of dirty working environments. Laundering chemistry and process procedures designed for the specialist wear have to be used if high visibility properties are not to be reduced.

Mr Cook says that a variety of opportunities are still arising for renters to offer added value in their service provision and, through this, build better business.

He points to how, in Germany, one of the large laundry companies has specified from Lauffenmühle a polyester/cotton fabric which has fine ringspun yarns in both the warp and weft and is smoother, stronger and significantly more expensive than basic polyester/cotton.

The fabric is particularly durable, and its good appearance is well maintained throughout its service life. The added value qualities of this fabric are appreciated by the laundry company and customers it serves. The fabric is for general workwear use and is available in 215 gsm and 245 gsm forms.

This type of fabric could be 10% or more higher in price than the cost of basic ones.

Lauffenmühle has introduced an inherently anti-bacterial workwear fabric which has huge potential for healthcare and food processing sectors. The fabric prevents bacterial growth without incorporating any ‘toxic’ anti-bacterial chemistry.

Linen, one of the oldest fabric types, is known for its characteristic look, strength and absorbency. Lauffenmühle has developed a blend incorporating linen that is completely practical as well as being distinctly different.

Mr Cook believes workwear renters need to maintain a wider view, recognising more fully how their area of specialist service provision and the corporate wear supply sector should come closer together if both are to maximise the potential for business flows between them.