How to Create a Retail Dress Code Policy

Customers Prefer Employees in Uniform

Retail dress code
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Recent studies have found that customers prefer employees in uniform. Or at least in a unified dress code. So, if we are focused on customer experience, then having a dress code policy is important. However, if you make a list of the least favorite things for employees, they would say dress code. 

Employees, especially the Millennial and Generation Z employees, often see dress codes as an invasion on their personal expression or private space.

So be prepared for a not so warm welcome from your employees when you implement this policy. Before we get to writing your policy, let's talk about implementing it. Now, this may seem backwards to you, but read on and it will make sense. 

Four Tips for Implementing Your Policy 

  • Involve the employees in the process. Whenever you sit down to establish the new dress code policy, have your employees participate in creating it. First, this will lessen (not make it go away) the resistance to the change. After all, the employees had a voice in the creation of the policy. Second, it will help you uncover potential potholes in the road to implementation. For example, in one project we worked on, the owners wanted the employees to wear aprons. They picked out a cool denim apron with leather straps. However, when the employee put it on, it was too cumbersome to complete their tasks for their job. They looked great, but the apron was so heavy and the employees did a lot of up and down movement. Several of the employees commented that "if they would have asked us, we would have told them these wouldn't work. And the retailer would have benefited from knowing that before he paid to have the store logo embroidered on all of the aprons. (By the way, I tell this story because it was the last time I trusted the owner's opinion without consulting the employees—lesson learned for me as well.) 
  • Involve the customer in the process. Consider that your most important job is to maintain the customer experience in the store. So, invite some of your best customers to give you their opinion. You will be amazed how well this will work for you. Granted, sometimes you get some off the wall suggestions from the "overly helpful" customers, but the fact that they are included builds a bond with you and them and the word will spread. In one project I led, we actually sent a survey to the customers of the store asking them which look they liked better A or B. It was a really fun campaign that generated lots of buzz. Customers came in wanting to see if the look they voted for won. This actually created traffic in the store—what a bonus! 
  • Explain the why before the what. When you are ready to roll out this new policy, take time to share the "why" before you ever tell them "what" the new dress code will be. Employees deserve to know why, plus like tip #1 above, it helps reduce the resistance to the idea in the first place. No one likes change—especially retail employees. 
  • Use visuals. A picture is worth a thousand words they say and they are right. On one project we did for a client, we actually had a photo shoot of the right and wrong way to dress at work. We had a lot of fun with it. When the photo shoot was over, we created a wall display in the break room. We bought frames and made a "family" story on the wall. (Think of the wall of family pictures in your house.) We had the "get it" family and the "don't get it family (actual names). This idea was a tremendous help in maintaining the dress code and it also created some fun in the implementation of it all. We used the actual employees in the photos, so they were part of the whole process from designing the policy to implementing it—worked great. 

10 Tips for Creating a Retail Dress Code

  1. Must be comfortable. The number one complaint or pushback I hear from employees is about the comfort of the uniform. Sure, some are simply complaining about the comfort when what they really want is for the whole idea to go away, but most are expressing genuine concern. In retail, there is a lot of movement. Employees are lifting boxes, stocking shelves, moving items and carrying merchandise for the customers. Your uniform should be accommodating to the work life of the employee. Remember, my apron story? In one of my retail jobs, we implemented a uniform. It looked awesome on the models. But when the pants came in, they were stiff and not comfortable. Even I complained about them. Procurement found a "cheaper" pant that had the same look and color. Big mistake. 
  1. Must be unisex. By this, I mean it must be achievable for both men and women in your store. Often times, uniforms are chosen that look great on men, but not for women. For example, polo shirts. These are a common uniform item, but if you are not careful on your sourcing, it may look horrible on the women. Remember, an employee that is embarrassed by the uniform will perform poorly for the customer and the store. Their embarrassment (or uncomfortableness) will affect their attitude which effects behavior which in turn affects the customer experience
  2. Must accommodate legitimate religious needs and disability or medical conditions of employees. This is the sticky one and another reason why tip 5 below is such a good idea. The truth is, a retailer can make any rule they want for dress code at their store as long as it is not discriminitory in any way or does not allow for accommodation when required by law. One other bit of advice here, if you know you are going to have employees working for you who will need this accommodation, consider a policy that blends or looks natural with the accommodation and not an obvious "this person is doing it wrong" visual. It makes the employee feel uncomfortable as well. 
  1. Must not focus on a couple of employees. Often times, the impitice to write a dress code policy is based on one or two employees who annoy you as the small business owner. You wan to fix those employees so you create a uniform for all. Your employees can see right through this and you will have a mutiny on your hands. 
  2. Keep it loose. The biggest mistake a retailer can make is creating a dress code policy that is too strict. The more strict it is, the more difficult it is to implement. Consider that you don't want a policy that takes a lot of your time to check and maintain. For example, many retail companies allow their employees to wear jeans. "Jeans" is a very broad term, but jeans is a good policy since it is part of your employees current wardrobe. However, make sure you are specific on what type of jeans will work. No holes, or patches or sequins or faded patterns for example. 
  3. Stay away from terms like business casual. This may seem incongruent with tip 5, but the truth is, no one really knows what business casual is! It has more interpretations and iterations than any other dress code I know. For some, business casual means jeans with your dress shirt. For others, it means no tie with your suit. Give specific direction to your employees and stay away from terms used on invitations to events. 
  4. Show examples. In continuing with the thought from tip 6, your dress code policy should have specific examples of what you mean for all parts. Best practice would be to include pictures as well so there is no room for miscommunication or wrong interpretation. You may not want to go as far as we did with the picture wall, but I would encourage visual examples. 
  5. Involve a broad audience. In the implementation tips, I talked about including the customer and the employee as tips to help with the roll out. But remember, that only works if they are involved in the creation of the dress code or uniform.
  6. Consider grooming. A uniform cannot just be about the shirt or shoes. It must also address hair, makeup, tattoos, etc. Is it okay to limit tattoos and piercings? Yes. In some retail environments, these types of personal expression are actually a plus and add to the ambiance of the store. But in others, they are a detractor. Spell these things out in your dress code clearly.  
  7. Consider the cost. Think long term with your dress code. For example, in my shoe stores, we wore a uniform shirt that was typically worn by employees in an auto garage. It was kitschy and trendy for sure. We embroidered the name of the employee above the pocket of each shirt. They looked great. But if the employee left, then we had three shirts with Matt on the front. The choice was to either advertise for another Matt to work in the store, or change our process. We switched to putting an oval patch with the name embroidered it on the shirt. This allowed us to remove the patch and reuse the shirt if needed. Perhaps you are not supplying a uniform, but you do want to control the clothes the retailers wear. Consider the cost to the employee as well. Resist dress codes that require the employee to buy all new clothes. 

Other Things to Consider

  • If you are supplying a uniform. have rules for care and maintenance of the clothes. You would be surprised how many employees treat their personal clothes much different than their uniform. Consider how you drive a rental car versus your own.
  • Have rules about "wear" of the uniform. For example, if your employees are wearing polo shirts, you may have a retailer who wants to roll the ends of the sleeve up as part of a look. If you do not spell this out in the policy, then it is okay. And if this is okay, so is all the other creative ideas your employees will conjure up. 
  • Exempt employees may have separate rules in your state from nonexempt based on the laws. Consult these laws before you roll out your policy.