The shop at a university’s students’ union is guaranteed a good-sized audience in need of branded items. We talk to Sheffield Students’ Union to find out what they look for when choosing a garment supplier

There are, according to the National Union of Students (NUS), more than 600 students’ unions (SUs) in the UK. The SU at the University of Sheffield has been voted number one in The Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey for the past seven years, so it’s fair to say the staff really do know exactly what the students want – whether it’s what beer to offer in the bar or which hoodie is going to sell.

Business manager, Adam Sleeman is responsible for both the online and bricks-and-mortar shops at Sheffield Students’ Union (SSU). For the uninitiated, most students’ unions are part of the NUS and are given a list of preferred suppliers from NUS Services Ltd (NUSSL). “As part of the NUSSL agreement there are three main suppliers and we tend to go to them first,” explains Adam. “If they don’t have what I’m after, or if they’re not as competitive as somebody else, then I’m allowed to go elsewhere.”

Some unions will stick religiously to the three approved suppliers, others might choose to sell only Fairtrade products, while yet others will work as Adam does at Sheffield. A few universities such as Oxford, says Adam, will outsource their entire range.

He tends to have three types of ranges – budget, mid-range and premium – with the budget items being brought in periodically simply to freshen up the store. Much like Aldi, once they are gone, they are gone.

While the main suppliers decorate the garments with the various Sheffield Uni logos and designs, members of any of the more than 300 societies usually want to buy items with their names, roles in the society and slogans on as well. This personalisation is done by Vortex, explains Adam: “It was a relationship developed before I joined. We work extremely well together so it’s one I’m happy to continue.”

Given the market, his basis for choosing clothes is straightforward: “I try to follow high street fashion, although that can be extremely difficult given what’s available. Most people just try and sell me a plain hoodie with a large logo on it. Anytime I find something [fashionable] then I jump on it. I struggle significantly to get any sort of denim… For example, I couldn’t find anyone who would make me some chino shorts for the summer, or denim shorts, or skorts. These are just not available through NUSSL and there are no plans to introduce them either.”

The union’s current online offering includes a wide range of T-shirts, sweats and hoodies, plus a collection of shorts and lounge pants, baseball jackets, ties, scarves and graduation teddy bears. There is also a seven-strong collection of event memorabilia – ranging from key rings and button badges to phone covers, phone stands and earphones – that celebrates one of SSU’s most popular club nights: Pop Tarts.

For garment decorators wishing to approach unions, Adam advises first of all seeking approval from NUSSL: otherwise, just contact the students’ unions directly and arrange to meet the retail manager. “If the product’s right and there’s a market for it, then they should be fine,” he comments.