Are your school’s exclusive buying arrangements a good deal, or are you paying over the odds for uniforms and stationery?

Uniforms were once seen mainly in intermediate, secondary and non-state schools. But state primary schools are now getting in on the act. So the costs are hitting families earlier and lasting longer.

Schools have their own financial pressures. They’re not funded sufficiently and must raise funds from the school community. So they turn to parents and businesses for support through school galas and sponsorships – and deals with uniform and stationery suppliers.

Uniforms

School boards of trustees are responsible for choosing the uniform and deciding on any agreements with suppliers.

Schools often enter into exclusive arrangements for school uniforms.
Schools often enter into exclusive arrangements for school uniforms.

The board also decides whether the school will sell the uniform directly to students through its own shop – with or without a mark-up – or have one or more outside suppliers and retailers do this (“exclusive” vs “shared” retailing).

Schools often enter into exclusive arrangements for school uniforms (and stationery), because they feel this ensures more consistent quality, lower prices and perhaps some form of rebate or sponsorship. However, parents can feel this removes their right to choose the retailer and control their costs.

According to David Bunnell from NZ Uniforms, one of the larger suppliers, the most important issues for school boards are ease of delivery, quality and price. Rebates and sponsorships from the supplier are not key drivers – just an extra “nice to have”. But those rebates and sponsorships are influences in some schools, especially when they mean “free” sports uniforms and extra money for the school coffers.

"Branding" makes schools identifiable

“Branding” has become important to schools: they have to attract business, often from overseas students, and they want to be identifiable in the community.

Some schools bring in designers to create uniforms that showcase the school “brand”. A plain polo shirt is a rarity – it’ll usually have the school logo on it and cost anywhere from $25 to $50. And the more customised the uniform the greater the cost.

But is this customisation being done at the parents’ and sometimes the taxpayers’ expense? Just stumping up for several school-branded polo shirts for a still-growing primary school child can be a struggle for some parents. The Ministry of Social Development told us that in the 2013 March quarter Work and Income gave out $4.1 million in hardship grants for school uniforms and school stationery.

In a survey of parents with school-aged children undertaken by The Warehouse in 2012, nearly half the parents said the back-to-school period was a costly time of year. 10 percent said it was the most costly time of year. And if you have no choice of provider because of exclusive deals for uniforms and stationery, you can’t do much to reduce the pain.

The Warehouse’s Chief Executive, Mark Powell, believes the pendulum has swung too far in favour of customisation of uniforms. School identity is important but it’s a matter of degree he says: “there should be a more sensible middle way that allows for elements of school uniforms to be generic and readily available from multiple retailers.” He suggests plain trousers, shirts and socks that could be bought anywhere. The Warehouse obviously has a vested interest in this issue but Mark Powell also strongly believes parents should have a choice in where they spend their dollars.

SchoolTex is a specialist school-uniform company owned by The Postie Group Limited. It sells to over 600 primary and secondary schools through The Postie outlets. Trevor Chetty, SchoolTex’s National Sales Manager, says it has no issue with being a shared supplier because this “gives parents choice, invites competition, keeps prices competitive and allows suppliers to be consistent”.

SchoolTex also runs a rebate scheme for participating schools. The schools can spend their rebates on whatever they like.

Stationery

The stationery list can be another costly battleground. The easiest option is to go online to the recommended supplier, fill in the school name, your child’s year and subjects, and buy everything on the pre-filled list. Or you can purchase the ready-made pack directly from the school or designated supplier – although this may include items you already have or don’t need.

A more cost-effective option is to get hold of the stationery list (not always an easy task), crop out items that aren’t needed, and trek around looking for the best deal. Some schools make it difficult to get hold of a printed stationery list in the hope you’ll use the supplier they recommend or designate. There’s a reason for that – they’ve made a deal that benefits the school with rebates or rewards.

Retail reward schemes

OfficeMax claims just over 400 of the country’s 2500 schools registered their stationery lists in its MySchool programme in 2012. So far schools have received more than $1.4 million in rewards through this programme since 2008. But OfficeMax doesn’t require schools to sign up to an exclusive deal. Its view is that schools choose a preferred supplier because they want materials to be consistent and offer good value, and because a supplier’s knowledge of what’s available helps them build their stationery list.

Warehouse Stationery (owned by The Warehouse) is strongly opposed to exclusive deals for stationery, for the same reason its parent company is opposed to exclusivity in uniforms: because this removes freedom of choice. Warehouse Stationery’s Caroline Clarke has told us of schools asking for their stationery list to be removed from its website because they have an exclusive arrangement elsewhere.

Suppliers like OfficeMax and Warehouse Stationery also encourage parents to spend with them year-round by offering “reward points” for a nominated school. The school can redeem those points to buy their own stationery, or vouchers they can use as they like. Warehouse Stationery says its scheme works well in low-income areas where school fundraising is a problem.

What happens to reward points?

But what do parents expect when they take part in these rewards schemes? Are they thinking of the rewards being used for paper and pens in the classroom – or for the admin staff’s staplers? Does the school tell parents how the rewards have been spent … or even if they have been spent? A school may be eligible for rewards from one supplier, thanks to your spending as a parent; but because it’s arranged to buy its office supplies from elsewhere it’s not taking up those rewards. So your “donation by stealth” isn’t helping your child’s school at all.

Warehouse Stationery has been running its Support your School programme for three-and-a-half years. It says 92 percent of schools are involved. Around half of these have active accounts: the school also buys from Warehouse Stationery. The remainder have accounts that collect points but the school may not be using them because it’s not a customer. Warehouse Stationery contacts these schools a couple of times a year to let them know they’ve accrued points.

Exclusive deals

Phil Harding, the National President of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation, says stationery and uniform deals are “very attractive to schools, because they streamline something that is not a school’s core business, they save running around by parents, and they usually provide good value”. However, the federation’s view is that these deals shouldn’t be compulsory – and that this should always be communicated to parents.

While exclusive deals are unfair to competing suppliers as well as to parents who struggle to afford expensive uniforms and stationery, they aren’t illegal as long as they comply with the Commerce Act.

Commerce Commission guide

The Commerce Commission, which enforces the Act, has received a number of complaints in the past few years about the costs of stationery and uniforms. But there have been no prosecutions, either because the commission considered the Act wasn’t broken or because the complaint failed to meet the commission’s “enforcement criteria”.

It has also issued “procurement guidelines” for schools. These provide guidance on how the Commerce Act applies to exclusive arrangements for school uniforms, school stationery, and electronic items such as tablets or laptops. They were issued in 2008 and were updated in June 2013.

In the 2008 guidelines the commission stated that it “found that while exclusive arrangements can provide benefits for schools, they also reduce parental choice and might result in higher prices. There is commonly also a lack of transparency in many supply agreements.”

The guidelines recommend that schools make sure the supplier-selection process is transparent and that parents are informed of:

  • the reasons for entering into an exclusive arrangement
  • the process followed for selecting the supplier
  • the reasons for choosing the supplier
  • the terms and conditions of the arrangement
  • the steps taken by the school to ensure the chosen supplier’s prices result in a net benefit to the school
  • what the financial benefits are and how they benefit the school.

Government resists calls to prevent exclusive deals

Education authorities in the UK require schools’ governing bodies to make sure uniforms are widely available through multiple outlets rather than from an expensive sole supplier. But our Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, has resisted calls to step in and prevent exclusive deals here. She sees this as being the responsibility of the schools’ boards of trustees.

Our view

  • Schools should run efficiently and without waste and duplication. Parents should be able to do the same when it comes to back-to-school costs.
  • Schools and their boards should ensure they’re giving parents the best deal. We expect schools to teach the values of honesty and transparency; we should also expect them to put these values into practice by providing full information about their exclusive deals, and how they’re spending rebates and rewards.
  • If you’re concerned about the price of your school’s uniforms or stationery, believe you’re not given enough choice about where you can buy these, or think that the benefits of supply agreements haven’t been communicated adequately, raise the matter with your school’s board of trustees. You can also speak or write to the school principal, or to the PTA or parents’ association.
  • School boards are elected by parents! Stand for the board or make sure there are candidates that you feel represent your interests.
  • Don’t be afraid to question how your money is being spent – especially if you’re not given any choice about where you spend it.

Report by Kate Sluka.