WEYMOUTH, MA-Work’N Gear, a new store brand, reinvents its 20-year-old forerunner to aggressively target the $12-billion work wear apparel and footwear market. Two years ago, in a bankruptcy transaction, Anthony DiPaolo acquired the neglected Wearguard chain of approximately 60 uniform catalog-based stores that had been bought by Casual Male in 1991.

Since 2002, DiPaolo obtained equity financing from Boston-based Bain Capital and Walnut Group in New York and began rebuilding the company from the ground up: New management team, distribution capabilities, marketing strategies, expanded merchandise and merchandising techniques, logo, store format, and, most of all, “new attitude,” he says.

Built on the Wearguard foundation, Work’N Gear begins as the largest retail chain serving its niche. “But, October 11 (2004) marked the emergence of Work’N Gear as the destination for work wear apparel and footwear,” Phyllis Wasserman, chief marketing officer, tells GSR. DiPaolo, who is previously credited with elevating Herman Survivors, a boot company, into a national brand, hired Design Forum in Dayton, OH to develop a store format, which was unveiled at the company’s flagship location in Dedham, MA. It is the prototype for all 66 locations, now concentrated from Chicago to the east coast.

“Since its renovation, the Dedham location has exceeded our expectations,” Wasserman says. A second renovation opened in the Boston market Christmas week. All 66 units and all subsequent stores will conform to the 6,500-sf format. “Renovations of all 66 will not be completed in 2005,” she says, “but will begin in the Boston, Philadelphia, and New York/Northern New Jersey markets.”

Additional stores are also planned, “but I honestly don’t know when or where,” she says. “Our first priority is to fill in the existing network. We have a strong marketing campaign, and it is most efficient to apply it to stores within the same markets.”

The previous Wearguard units range in size from about 3,000 sf to 6,000 sf, she says, located primarily in strip centers or ‘hybrid’ malls that have some component of indoor and outdoor stores. “We are also having success in lifestyle centers,” she adds. There are no plans to close existing units, but, as some stores are renovated, they may relocate to larger spaces within the same centers.

The most notable design element of the prototype format is “three brand towers, which are also changing rooms, located along a serpentine pattern throughout the space,” she explains. “They are functional showcases with large graphics that also serve as category markers.”

The three prominent categories are: “work wear with universal styling that many people now use for casual wear; serious tech work wear of really durable material for serious trades people, and women’s work wear consisting primarily of healthcare and food service apparel.” The first two areas are to the left of the store entryway on dark wood flooring, and the third is on flooring of lighter wood. Footwear, from heavy-duty work boots to more casual styles, including clogs, is at the back of the store.

Wasserman points out that work wear, from heavy duty overalls to medical scrubs, has become fashionable. The Work’N Gear merchandise mix is an assemblage of upper-end, branded work apparel from such suppliers as Carhartt, Dickies, Cherokee, Chippewa, Helly Hansen, Timberland Pro, Woolrich and Merrill.

B2B is a strong component of the company’s business strategy. At both the corporate level and individual stores, Work’N Gear cultivates a business of providing local, regional and national companies with personalized work wear in the hospitality, healthcare, construction and manufacturing industries, among others. Typically, these client-companies provide their area employees with business voucher cards for purchasing uniforms and other work gear at Work’N Gear stores.

In confirmation of the growth of corporate work wear business, Orlando, FL-based Primedia Inc. launched “Modern Uniforms,” a magazine devoted to the national uniform apparel market in February 2004. “Nearly one in four Americans wears a uniform to work each day,” says Marty Maleska, president and CEO of Primedia Business Information. “A recent boom in the service industry has opened up the apparel sales market (in this field),” he adds.

Beyond uniforms, however, “the entire work wear business is growing and expanding, both among serious trades people and more universally,” Wasserman says. She and DiPaolo contend that a growing number of people are choosing this type of apparel and footwear as casual wear for recreation and play. Work’N Gear’s objective is to bring together this growing, but currently fragmented business.

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