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Specializing in medical uniforms paying off for TC’s

Jackson — TC’s Uniforms, which in 1990 occupied a 500-square-foot store connected to a service station and sold irregular clothing, now has a 7,000-square-foot location and expects to do $3 million in business this year.

The growth took place, according to Thomas Iupe, the president, because the original business was located near the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMC) and, as more and more medical employees came in looking for lab coats and scrub suits, the decision was made to specialize in medical uniforms.

“We have over 1,000 company-based customers and 20,000 to 25,000 walk-in and on-line customers,” Iupe said. “And, though about 70% of our business is medical sales, we also supply industry and restaurants.”

With its steady growth, TC’s has added diversification, as well as a second store in Vicksburg.
Monogramming has become an important part of TC’s business.

“We’ve got $150,000 worth of monogramming equipment,” Iupe said. “We can put logos on anything — knit, denim. We do corporate logos. Others subcontract for logos and have to send them out. Since we do our own, we can provide quicker turnover.”

TC’s does very few logos for individuals, Iupe added. And a customer can’t just come in and buy something with a logo off the rack.

“We can put monograms on 17 pieces at a time. And last Christmas we monogrammed almost 500 pieces a day.”

Many of those 500 pieces were from Bridgette’s Monograms and Gifts, which Iupe opened on North State State, a block from TC’s Duling Avenue location. Bridgette’s carries luggage, purses, bags and other merchandise that can be monogrammed.

In March of this year, Iupe opened Discount Uniforms and Monogramming at Vicksburg’s Factory Outlets. The store specializes in overruns of medical uniforms and school uniforms and sells at discount prices.

“I plan to open two more stores,” Iupe said. “One a year for the next two years. One in the south, the other in the north. I’m looking at locations and but I haven’t made a decision yet.”

TC’s stock has recently featured colorful scrubs and lab coats, some with ribbon trim, some with prints as diverse as rabbits, butterflies, even Elvis. But now, Iupe said, many customers in the medical field want more fashionable uniforms, particularly younger people.

“Uniforms have gone from whites to colors and prints to fashion. Younger nurses no longer want that typical medical look. They want fashion, such as pin stripes down the pants. We can supply anything they need.”

For someone opening a similar business, Iupe offered this advice: do a lot of research and understand that selling retail is one of the toughest areas of business.

The crucial thing is to have enough financial backing. “Someone trying to open a uniform store with only a $20,000 inventory, they’re not likely to succeed. They need $50,000 to $75,000 in inventory, plus sufficient working capital.”

Charles Iupe Sr. retired as a traveling salesman, got bored and opened the 500-square-foot store at a Conoco service station. He was selling irregular clothing made in Tupelo and Pontotoc, merchandise with which he was familiar from his days as a traveling salesman.

Thomas, the youngest of nine children, who went to Belhaven College, started working with his father. Because they were located within walking distance of UMC and people kept asking if they carried lab coats and scrubs, they added medical uniforms to their inventory.

“My father died and my mother backed me financially,” Iupe said. “I couldn’t have made it if my mother hadn’t helped.”

The medical uniform business took off and now accounts for almost three-fourths of TC’s sales. “Things have gone really great for the past seven or eight years. The medical field grew so rapidly and we’re in the Fondren area, near the medical center and St. Dominic’s.”

Iupe said that he has gone from a $20,000 inventory to a $300,000 to $400,000 inventory. Some businesses have standing orders and their employees, “just come in and pick up their uniforms when they need them.”

Many clinics now dress all their employees, including the business staff, in scrubs. It has also become common to see motel housekeepers and school cafeteria workers wearing scrubs.

Non-medical uniforms include those not only for industry, schools and maintenance staffs but for an array of clothing ranging from church ushers and choir robes to aprons, hats and coats for the restaurant industry.

Thomas comes from a family that is well-known in retailing in the greater Jackson area. J.S. Iupe’s in Ridgeland is owned by a cousin, Joe Iupe Jr. The store specializes in sports uniforms and clothing for Madison Central and Ridgeland High Schools and in clothing with business logos. Another cousin, Pat Iupe, owns a Ridgeland store specializing in women’s clothing. And Iupe’s mother is the daughter of Frank A. Thomas, whose wholesale company, recently closed by an uncle, was in business in downtown Jackson for more than 50 years.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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