In Focus: School Uniforms
August 4, 2015
At the beginning of each school year we receive a number of complaints which relate to school’s uniform policies. In particular decisions to only allow one retailer to exclusively supply uniforms. This can be frustrating for parents, who feel they are being charged excessive prices as they do not have the option to shop around to get the best value.
What does the law require?
Schools are allowed to individually decide their own uniform policy. However, the Department of Education advises that school communities discuss this policy and give parents a say as to the options made available to them.
Retailers and manufacturers of school uniforms must comply with competition law. For instance, competition law prohibits retailers from:
- fixing the price of school uniforms with other retailers;
- putting pressure on manufacturers of school uniforms to prevent them from supplying another retailer with the uniform;
It also prohibits manufacturers from:
- refusing to supply a retailer on grounds which are not objectively justified; e.g., they can refuse to supply someone because they have not paid their bills, but not because they wish to limit competition.
While exclusive supply agreements – such as those between a school and a retailer – involve some restriction of competition, they are not necessarily a breach of competition law. Such arrangements are often compatible with competition law as they can provide cost savings which benefit consumers. However, the responsibility is on the parties involved to demonstrate that this is the case.
Sellers of school uniform must also comply with consumer protection law. In particular with regards to the exchange of goods and refunds.
The CCPC’s work in the sector
In 2013, following a review of the sector, we issued a number of recommendations on this matter.
We strongly urge schools to allow a number of retailers to supply uniforms. This encourages retailers to compete and gives parents a choice around price, quality and convenience. If one exclusive retailer is considered necessary, we recommend that the retailer is chosen following a competitive tender, not on the basis of historical or established relationships. We also advise that these exclusive contracts are not awarded for unnecessarily long periods and are reviewed on a regular basis.
Another alternative to help parents benefit from competition is to change features of the uniform to make it cheaper, such as; the school can choose a generic uniform, available from multiple retailers, on which the school crest can be stitched.
We would encourage parents to engage with their principal and/or board of management regarding uniforms. This can be done individually or through a parents’ committee. The goal of any school uniform policy should be to ensure that reasonably priced and good-quality uniforms are available to all parents.
In May 2014, we received a complaint about anti-competitive behaviour in the school uniform market. The complaint related to a manufacturer refusing to supply a second retailer with a particular school’s uniform. Following our intervention the issue was resolved successfully, with the manufacturer agreeing to supply the retailer.