School uniform monopoly at Dublin school broken

Manufacturer refused to supply uniforms to second retailer after competitor’s representations

The Competition Authority intervened over a school uniform issue at a Dublin school. File photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

The Competition Authority intervened over a school uniform issue at a Dublin school. File photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

Fri, Aug 29, 2014, 14:37

The Competition Authority was forced to intervene this month to ensure parents at a Dublin school could obtain school uniforms from more than one supplier.

The school, which had a long-standing relationship with one retailer, had agreed to allow a second supplier provide uniforms to create price competition.

An order was placed with the Irish manufacturer of the garments but, following representations from the first retailer, it refused to supply the uniforms to the new business.

The Competition Authority, which has previously complained about the high cost of school uniforms, said the case “raised competition law concerns”, and it cited a wider pattern of schools “appointing one exclusive retailer to sell uniforms”.

Following its intervention, the manufacturer in question agreed to supply the complainant with the school uniform and to expedite the order. However, it is understood he lost out on a portion of the business for this school term.

The Competition Authority says it receives “dozens” of complaints from parents each year about the cost of uniforms, and their monopoly supply. It recommends that parents request that their school allows for a number of retailers to encourage price competition.

In the case of the Dublin school, which the authority declined to identify, it noted: “The manufacturer was initially willing to supply the complainant, however following representations from the first approved retailer, the manufacturer refused to supply the second retailer.

“Following the authority’s intervention, the manufacturer (i) agreed to supply the complainant with the school uniform in question, and (ii) agreed to expedite orders made in relation to the school in question.

“It is clear from information gathered in the course of this investigation that many schools have a policy of appointing a single retailer of school uniforms,” the authority added.

“Competition between retailers tends to result in lower prices and better quality. We would encourage schools, where possible, to allow a number of different retailers to supply their uniform. Or if a school chooses to appoint a single retailer, we recommend they choose that retailer through a competitive tender, and not on the basis of established or historic relationships.

“Ensuring the best value possible for hard-pressed parents and families is important, particularly at this expensive time of year.”

The authority said it was important to note that while exclusive supply arrangements by their nature, involved some restriction of competition, they did not necessarily involve a breach of competition law.

“Indeed, such arrangements are frequently compatible with competition law because they may create cost savings which benefit consumers. However, the onus is generally on the parties to such arrangements to show that they do, in fact, benefit consumers.”

It recommends that if a school chooses to establish an exclusive supply arrangement with a retailer:

lThe retailer is chosen by means of a competitive tender and not chosen on the basis of established or historic relationships;

lThe selection criteria should cover, among other things, quality, price, and level of service; and,

lThe arrangement is reviewed on a regular basis and is not awarded for an excessively long duration.

The authority said parents should use their influence with school principals and schools boards to ensure proper policies are in place.