The Carpenter Uniform & Promotional Product Story


Carpenter Uniform Company was founded in 1954. Through its expansion and moving to a new facility in 1974, two things have remained the same: its service to police, security, paramedics and other public safety personnel, and its tradition of family ownership. Bob Carpenter grew up in the business and learned many aspects of it from his parents. After earning his law degree and practicing for a few years, he returned to the family business in the late 1970s with a new interest; he wanted to expand into imprinted sportswear and screen-printing of promotional products. By 1981, there was enough equipment and business — printing mostly t-shirts, jackets and hats—to move that end of the business to its own building. Carpenter Promotions was created and located just a few blocks from Carpenter Uniform, and Bob had major control of its operation.

Shortly before Bob’s return to the family business, Dennis Gruss came to work for Morrie and Ruth Carpenter. Gruss, fresh out of college with a degree in business administration, caught the clothing bug from his work in a hometown retail clothing store.

Gruss says, “Mr. Carpenter made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I have been here since 1976 working with Bob, and I have seen a lot of changes.” Gruss quickly became like another son of Morrie and Ruth.

Bob laughs while he explains, “Dennis was the good son. Dennis always said ‘Yes, Mr. Carpenter.’ I always said ‘Well, why dad?’”

What started as a single company had become two related but very separate businesses. Two operators had become four. One location downtown had been moved to another that had grown into two. Plus, Carpenter Uniform bought out Metro, another uniform retail shop in Des Moines, adding to the product line and the warehouse demands. Carpenter Uniform Company and Carpenter Promotions were both enjoying separate success, and both of the younger managers were learning not only the business but also the service that went along with public safety uniforming.

“Dad retired in 1986, and he passed away in 1992. My mom just passed away last year in June, 2001, so Dennis and I have been running the store,” Bob says. “The way it worked out for a number of years was that I ran the promotional products business and Dennis worked exclusively in the uniform company.”

The necessary move in 2001 became a way to join the two separate companies back into a single unit. The new facility was larger than both of the other two combined. But it was a little more off the beaten path than the old location in downtown Des Moines.

Gruss explains how customizing the building helped every aspect of the company’s operation and the customer’s satisfaction. “We have the showroom right in the center of our building. As you drive into the parking lot, you come up to the entrance to the showroom, and we have a nice sign over it. About half of the store is taken up with public safety equipment and apparel, and the other half of the store is divided among postal, career apparel and industrial uniforms. We also have an area of the store set up for displaying our advertising specialty products and imprinted sportswear. We have a wonderful fitting area with four dressing rooms and a nice floor-to-ceiling mirror set that gives it a little privacy.”

The salespeople have desks along the front walls of the showroom. Because window displays would be ineffective, Carpenter and Gruss decided to put personnel at the windows to improve their workstations with natural light and views. As you walk into the store, salespeople are right there at the workstations ready to take orders and help customers find what they need.

Merchandise is set up on gondolas in the center of the showroom and on slot-walls around the perimeter. Many of the fixtures were bought in 1974 or were acquired when Carpenter bought Metro, but their versatility made them easy to update for the new store environment. A designer helped them get the right look and lighting to make it all come together. Now, everything can be moved and rearranged anytime the layout gets stale or new merchandise is added.

The layout surrounding the showroom is just as unique. With the showroom in the middle of the building, as Gruss explained, the warehouse wraps around part of it, making quick access to more merchandise.

Carpenter explains more. “We tried to situate merchandise on the showroom floor and in the warehouse so it would be easy for the salesperson waiting on the customer to get merchandise from the back room where it is stored. For example, the shoes are in the back of the store, and the shoe section of the warehouse is right behind it. I think it’s very important logistically to have the showroom floor near the merchandise in the warehouse. And just kitty-corner from the showroom is the alteration department.”

Even the new loading dock got some close attention. Now that trucks can drive right up and unload merchandise still on the pallets, it’s much easier to move whole pallets around the warehouse instead of moving individual shipping cartons by hand, as employees did in the old facility.

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