Why school uniforms are so expensive and how to alleviate some of the cost

With the majority of schools now back in session, a lot of Kiwi kids have begun their perhaps dreaded return to learning.

But if they've had a summer growth spurt or are starting a new school, buying a uniform will be a hefty cost facing parents.

Uniforms can cost anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars right up to the thousands, making them a significant investment for families. 

The vast majority of New Zealand schools require uniforms to be worn, with some needing both summer and winter options as well as a PE kit. The cost mounts up quickly, even before considering other back to school essentials like stationery.

But why do families have to spend a small fortune to get uniforms and why is there such a difference between what schools charge for them?

It's a year-long issue that plagues parents. One look at online forums shows the hundreds of seething families who are angry at the amount they have to fork out for shirts, shorts, skirts, hats, and jerseys.

One Reddit user says it cost them $238 for a couple of shirts, shorts, a hat, and a fleece. Another parent says their daughter's high school summer uniform was $1000 - and that was before buying the kilt that cost an extra "few hundred" dollars. 

Other parents found some of the financial burdens eased after they purchased uniforms through second-hand shops or found a good deal in neighbourhood Facebook groups.

Why uniform prices differ

But there are reasons why uniform prices vary, especially between age groups.

David Bunnell, CEO of NZ Uniforms, which manufactures uniforms for many schools and clubs throughout New Zealand, told Newshub that some school uniforms can be more expensive than others and a lot of it depends on the child's age. For example, primary and intermediate school uniforms tend to be cheaper since many uniforms are polo shirts and shorts, which are less expensive to make.

Whereas it's at the high school level that uniforms become more complex. At this stage, schools tend to offer more sophisticated uniforms, such as tailored shirts, blazers, and skirts - all of which require more work to make. There's also a move towards more bespoke fabrics and custom styles.

Other additions like bespoke colours, stripes, and high stitch counts for embroidered garments can also increase prices. But generally, Bunnell says embellishments don't add a lot to the cost of a garment since most are reasonably straightforward and aren't too expensive to produce.

He says it's the market that determines the sale price of uniform items and shops do their best to keep the cost down.

"I think most schools, most retailers are probably asking the same thing, and that is, 'What is the lowest price point that we can achieve given the cost structure'," he says.

"And there's always that balance that it's got to be competitive with the market, otherwise everybody tends to get upset if they feel they are paying more for a similar garment than a different school of a similar quality of garment."

From Bunnell's experience talking to parents on the shop floor, he says most favour a school uniform for their children. There's a minority that doesn't, with cost often cited as the reason.

"But it's hard to imagine why cost would be cited, from my perspective, because uniforms are recyclable and they're very sustainable," he says.

"I'm on the floor every day talking to parents, and if a parent's sending their student to school, let's say they're going to high school, and they've got siblings or cousins or neighbours or friends, it's not unusual that they're actually handed uniforms or they've purchased uniforms through the second-hand market."

School uniform and schoolbag hanging on hook against wall
Photo credit: Getty Images

From that perspective, he says that it lessens the price because they're using what's already out in the market and then they just top it up with any other items they need.

"In terms of price point, there's actually been very little movement over the years of the cost of school uniforms. If you look at what you were paying for a polo shirt or a blouse five or 10 years ago to what you're paying now, it's probably very similar," Bunnell says.

"There's the cost of school uniforms and the voice that they may be expensive, but as I say, that's got to be balanced against other opportunities that uniforms offer as well

"Your typical polo shirt for a primary school student, that polo shirt will last for a long time and it should certainly last past a year or two, and then it can be resold or recycled. It's going to get 200 washes this year and it's going to be worn for 200 days, and that's a lot of days for a $35 polo shirt."

Bunnell encourages parents to look for uniform savings schemes that allow them to contribute to a fund throughout the year so the financial burden isn't as heavy when it comes to the start of the school year.

Cherie Taylor-Patel, the national president of the New Zealand Principals' Federation, told Newshub that schools are self-managing and boards make their own decisions about uniforms in consultation with parents. She says schools always want the cost of uniforms to be as cheap as possible for parents while making sure they're still high quality and don't wear out too quickly.

"Most school uniform production companies may offer schools special discounts on account of scale - and if they are the sole provider of the uniform for the school - to keep the retail price to parents low. In some schools, parents can order uniforms online, directly from the supplier, so prices are close to the wholesale price," Taylor-Patel says.

"Most schools do not use uniforms to create funds for the school. Generally, the markup of uniforms is set to cover the administration costs related to the purchase and delivery of uniforms. In some instances, schools will have a mark up designed to generate funds, but the mark up varies from community to community."

Like Bunnell, she encourages parents to look for second-hand items or suggests parents get funds for uniforms through Work and Income which is then paid back through the year.

Commerce Commission warns against unfair price hikes

If schools try to increase their prices unreasonably to make a few extra dollars off parents, they could be in for a nasty surprise.

The Commerce Commission says schools are prohibited from "misleading and deceptive conduct and false representations" under the Fair Trading Act. High prices and mark-ups are allowed, but schools must be able to explain the cost.

"If a school gives a reason for a price increase, such as the increase being due to the rising cost of material, it must be true or they risk breaching the law," a spokesperson tells Newshub.

"Consumers should ask for the reason a price has increased and if they are concerned the reason that is given is not true they should let us know by filling out the complaint form on our website."

The restrictive trade practice provisions of the Commerce Act also don't prohibit high prices or mark-ups, instead they're in place to stop anti-competitive conduct.

In looking at the potential benefits of an exclusive arrangement when selling a uniform - which is where it can only be purchased from one supplier or retailer - schools should think about:

  • any financial benefits the school gets, such as rebates, sponsorship or gifts, and the school's plans for using these benefits
  • the extent to which these financial benefits may be funded by higher prices to parents.

Schools that have a contract with a uniform supplier, they're encouraged to:

  • conduct competitive tenders at least every three years
  • consider whether having two or more suppliers would have a larger benefit than just one
  • choose suppliers based on objective criteria
  • fully inform parents of the reasons they are in an exclusive arrangement
  • be clear about the process for choosing a supplier and any financial benefit the school is receiving from the supplier.

The Commerce Commission adds schools should ensure that the school and its community benefit overall and they take into consideration the price parents must ultimately pay for uniforms.