Puan Noor Azizah Bte Sarmat, or fondly known as Puan Nora, is the diminutive owner of Light Rhythm Sdn Bhd – a franchisee of Outpost Uniform – the largest chain of school co-curriculum uniform and camping equipment retailer in Malaysia. At the same time, Outpost Uniform is the only retailer that has been certified by the Ministry of Education and authorised by selected uniform bodies. Along with her team of staff, Puan Nora has been the pivotal figure in driving sales through innovative marketing and clever public relations to become among the top contributors for Outpost Uniform.
Tell us one main reason why you opted to become an Outpost franchisee?
There are three main reasons for this. First, we saw the opportunity to fill the high and consistent demand for co-curriculum uniforms. This came about following the Education Ministry’s directive in 1997, that all school students must participate in co-curriculum activities for the purpose of character building, with participation in uniform bodies as a main option. Various new uniform bodies were formed and introduced in schools, such as Police Cadet, Youth Military Cadet (KRS), St. John Ambulance and Fire Brigade Cadet. Second, the product range is not limited to only uniforms but encompasses camping equipment, martial arts equipment and also accessories for members of the Police, Army, RELA and even the Prison Department, where the need is all year round. Third, I observed that our Outpost franchisor frequently undertakes continuous improvements and development programmes to stay ahead of the competition which gave us the assurance and trust on the Outpost business.
Where are your sales derived from? Who generally are your Outpost customers?
A major portion of my sales comes from walk-in customers at my retail outlet complemented by bulk orders. My core products consist of co-curriculum uniform and accessories for uniform bodies like the Malaysian Red Crescent Society, The Scouts Association, St. John Ambulance, Pergerakan Puteri Islam, National Civil Defence Cadet Corp and Military Youth Cadet among others. Our walk-in customers comprise school students, parents, school teachers, uniform body association members and officers, camping enthusiasts, martial art students, Police and RELA, to name a few. Due to the nature of my business, customers tend to spend longer time at my outlet while waiting for their children to try out our uniform or seek advice about technical aspects of our products. More than just a place producing uniforms, my outlet is a hot spot where customers meet and share their thoughts and experiences. I am proud of the fact that my outlet plays an important role in building healthy relationships among our customers.
Bulk orders come mainly from schools where I often get orders for co-curriculum school uniforms and camping equipment. I am pleased to mention here that I have developed and maintained a strong working relationship with many schools management and teacher advisors, where I am happy to offer personalised advice and service including taking measurement for uniforms. it is hard work, but the satisfaction gained from seeing the results of our work, is worth it. The business is not a sit-and-wait for customers type of business. I use my ability to influence my outlet sales performance by putting in extra efforts through effective marketing activities.
Are Outpost franchisees required to solicit business from schools and organisations, and if so, wouldn’t franchisees be competing with each other for business?
The franchisor grants us a wide territory to operate our business where we are expected to be mobile and do our own marketing over this designated area. For instance, my assigned territory is the whole district of Johor Bahru which covers the area of Tebrau, Tampoi and Skudai. The nearest Outpost outlet is about 40 minutes drive away from my outlet. In fact, that particular Outpost franchisee and I assist each other or work together on promotional events that benefit each other’s outlets. So there is only collaboration rather than unhealthy competition.
Are Outpost franchisees required to carry out local advertising and promotion? How does Outpost support in your efforts?
Franchisees are responsible for all localised advertising and promotions. Marketing efforts to schools and organisations enable us to build network, personal rapport and create awareness about our business. Besides in-store promotions, we organise promotional activities that involve our customer community. One such promotional activity is the annual Outpost Trophy Uniform Bodies Marching Competition, which attracts various teams from schools around Johor Bahru. Outpost headquarters in turn provides support in terms of design of promotional materials, ideas and advice for us to conduct our localised advertising and promotion. Outpost headquarters focuses on overall brand building by running various advertising campaigns in radio and television as well as promotions via online media.
How do you target your customers in your marketing efforts?
Our customers’ profiles are very unique in a sense that they are grouped in specific locations. For instance, to promote our co-curriculum uniform, we only need to visit schools, to access the student population that averages 800 students per school. For our camping equipment, our targets are the universities and colleges, as they have active outdoor clubs. At the same time, the uniform bodies in school as well as the school management itself allocate annual budgets to purchase camping equipment as part of their co-curricular activities. For martial arts uniform, we have the martial arts academies and even the school martial arts instructors purchasing from us on behalf of their students. We promote our outlet to the various police stations and district RELA offices, where their members are very receptive towards us, as we provide convenience and choices for them.
Why are your customers receptive towards you, considering that there could be others who may be doing the same thing that you do, i.e. making uniforms?
What set us apart from our competitors from the beginning are our exceptional personalised and follow-up services, as well as our product quality. We value customer satisfaction very highly. On top of this, our appointment as the sole authorised St. John Ambulance Malaysia uniform retailer and the only uniform retailer to have received the official certification from the Ministry of Education, Royal Malaysian Police, Civil Defence Department this year has affirmed Outpost as the No. 1 co-curriculum uniform provider.
How long did it take you to recover your Return on Investment (ROI)?
I became an Outpost franchisee in 2007. It took me approximately three years to recover my ROI.
What are the challenges that you are facing now?
The main challenge at present is to meet and maintain the standard requirements in terms of product knowledge and customer service level following the official certification of Outpost outlets by the various uniform bodies. With the official certification, we are now deemed as a reference centre for the uniforms, and we have a role to educate our customers on the correct co-curriculum uniform protocol. Another challenge is the management of retail staff where I have to constantly look into ways to retain, train and motivate my staff to provide excellent level of customer service at all times.
What is the most important advice you would like to offer other potential Outpost franchisees?
A potential franchisee must be ready to give full commitment to the business, in terms of time and effort. The potential franchisee must truly believe and understand the products, business model and direction of Outpost for him or her to directly influence the level of sales at the outlet by way of marketing activities to schools and organisations. I am confident that with the guidance from the Outpost management, any franchisee can achieve success through hard work.