Page last updated at 22:53 GMT, Thursday, 28 August 2008 23:53 UK

The school uniform price war

By Kevin Peachey
Consumer affairs reporter, BBC News

Grange Hill characters
Uniforms made occasional storylines on Grange Hill

When buying school uniforms for their children ahead of the new term, most mums will agree with Siobhan Freegard's "wear then tear" theory.

"My children have not managed to grow out of their uniforms before they have worn them out or left them on the bus," says the mother-of-three.

That makes cost the primary issue for Siobhan as she spends the next few days buying jumpers, shirts and trousers for Sean, 12, Aisling, eight, and Aran, five.

But she is all too aware that she might already be too late for the best deals and the most painless process.

"The shopping experience is so much easier if you do it online, buying trousers with an adjustable waistband so they fit," she says.

But online orders are now unlikely to arrive in time and patience may be required to find the correct colours among the cheapest deals.

Meanwhile, Asda's much-publicised 4 uniform sold out over a week ago, before parents like Siobhan got into their buying stride.

Blazer glory

Recent inflation statistics revealed that the costs of household staples such as bread and cheese have been rising in recent months.

It is great news for parents that they can kit the kids out for school on a shoestring budget without worrying that their new uniform will be in tatters by the end of the first week
Jess Ross, Which?

Domestic fuel and petrol prices have also squeezed the family budget, so it is no surprise that parents have welcomed a price war between some major retailers over school uniforms.

Siobhan, co-founder of parenting networking website Netmums, is expecting to spend around 150 buying sets of clothes, PE kits and shoes for her trio.

She is delighted that the monopoly enjoyed by some stores with exclusive marketing deals with particular schools has been broken and the supermarkets have entered the fray.

Test results released by the consumer group Which? suggest that uniforms that cost less were not necessarily short on quality.

"It is great news for parents that they can kit the kids out for school on a shoestring budget without worrying that their new uniform will be in tatters by the end of the first week," says Jess Ross, editor of the Which? website.

"More expensive school clothes might well be more comfortable, but that does not mean they'll be more durable."

Price war

The Which? survey of Sainsbury, Marks & Spencer, Asda and Tesco uniforms found that no retailer swept the board during examinations of quality and durability.

Asda - 1.75 (for ages three to 12)
Tesco - 2 (ages three to 16)
Sainsbury - 2.50 (ages three to 12)

For the last few years, the supermarkets have been competing on price.

This year Asda stole a march by offering the 4 uniform for all ages, rather than a budget range simply for the youngest pupils, according to retail analyst Maureen Hinton, of Verdict Research.

Even if the best deals are now gone, most parents will be able to come away with change from 10 when buying a sweatshirt, trousers or skirt, and polo shirt ensemble.

For example, a sweatshirt for a three to 12-year-old from any of Sainsbury's, Tesco or Asda will usually cost parents no more than 2.50.

Meanwhile, retailers such as M&S have also promoted style, including full-page adverts showing off one particular style of trousers for girls.

Vital market

Retailers see the school uniform market as a key battleground in price wars, says Ms Hinton of Verdict, which is publishing its UK schoolwear report in September.

School road sign
Most parents are hit with uniform costs soon after holiday spending

Over the last four years or so, supermarkets have been prepared to take a hit over profits to tempt food shopping families to the clothing section with cheap uniform deals.

Parents still demand that these uniforms wear and wash well, she says, which in turn might encourage them to buy other clothes.

"It is just another way of getting consumer loyalty from parents," says Ms Hinton.

She adds that there is still room for some clever price promotions and, with parents always feeling hard-pressed financially, these price wars are likely to continue at the start of term for years to come.

But with retailers under such scrutiny regarding their ethical policies, they are highly unlikely to cut corners when sourcing their materials and labour, she says.

Exclusive deals

A recent report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research suggested the cost of sending a child to school in the UK has risen to 1,077 a year.

School uniforms (266 per child) was second to meals (388) in the price list, with sports kits third (207).

The use of uniforms is justified but prohibitive charging for them is not, according to the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF).

Uniforms instil pride and identity, as well as encouraging good behaviour and discipline, the department says.

But no uniform should be so expensive that families feel unable to apply to, or attend, the school of their choice.

Schools or retailers with exclusive contracts with suppliers could face legal action under the Competition Act. Instead uniforms should be widely available in high street stores and on the internet.

Advice from the department also suggests to governors to include light colours or reflective materials in the uniform and encourage youngsters to cycle or walk to school.

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