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Counting Cloths: Tracking Linen Inventory Napkin photo by Ev Thomas, barcode image by Upton Park / © Getty images

Counting Cloths: Tracking Linen Inventory

Linen rental experts share various techniques and new technologies for tracking their inventory

Face it--even hip bare wooden tables can all start to look alike. And that's why linen is an event rental essential. But how do linen rental pros keep track of this valuable asset? There are about as many answers to this question as there are colors of linen.

On the low end of technology is the linen inventory management system that one company, who prefers to remain anonymous, refers to as "on a wing and a prayer!" Why the casual approach? Usually it's because the cost of each piece of linen—in most cases—is low, making rental operators think carefully about investing a costly tracking system.

SO WHERE IS IT? Ironically, many linen rental operators know more about the status of their linen when it's outside their facility rather than when it's inside. And that's a problem, because operators can't forecast and fill orders if they don’t know what clean linen will be available and when.

"Most of our knowledge of linen location when outside of our warehouse is known," explains Robert Hughes, CERP, manager with Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Over the Top Rental Linens. "Inside our operation requires more human involvement to determine if last-minute orders can be filled. For instance, is the item dirty and in the laundry to be processed, stored in the warehouse, on a truck being returned, or in shipment back from an out-of-state customer?"

So Where Is It? Combining Computers and Staff Labor

Reno, Nev.-based Creative Coverings combines staff labor and computers to manage inventory, explains Nancy Stoltz, director of marketing and design.

All the company's linens are tagged with a label identifying size. "Dirty storage is the hardest area to determine your inventory," she explains. "When the linens are returned from a client, they are counted manually and recorded. Once counted, they are then separated by color and size and placed into containers. When you have hundreds of different colors, styles and sizes, this can lead to having thousands of different containers. The key is to have those containers sorted and organized so that when you need to find a certain size, color and style of linen, you know exactly where to go to find it."

As for determining future availability of linens, "that is where the software becomes invaluable," Stoltz explains. "It is able to determine when the linens are scheduled to leave our warehouse, arrive with the client and get returned to our warehouse. It knows the amount of a certain cloth that is with a client, so it is able to always tell us what is available to rent."

Stoltz says that computers systems need to be complemented with the human touch. "Software can give you the theoretical level of inventory that is available at any given time," she says. "When you are dealing with so many variables in the rental business with regards to having linens returned on time, in good condition, with nothing missing and nothing extra, we believe that having manual counts and manual review of the linens for quality control, we can give our clients a higher, more accurate level of service."

Betting on Barcodes

RAISING THE BARCODE Management at Pittsburgh-based Mosaic uses a barcode system for its linen. "The system captures details including size and fabric type," explains owner Susie Perelman. "The barcodes are used during dry cleaning to generate the sticker labels, which go on the bags, and to generate cost information on the cleaning."

As a result, "We predict where the linens are through the inventory system--when it is out, when it is back and when it is expected to be clean and back on the shelves," Perelman explains. "This system works and is a very accurate predictor."

While the barcode system offers many answers, it doesn't offer all the answers.

"We do not currently have the ability to sequentially barcode each cloth, though I tried to do this last year," Perelman says. "I bought the scanners, bought the labels and the machine to heat-seal them into the cloths and even developed the software to integrate this system into my inventory system. However, to try to do this for the volume of linens we have already existing was far too labor-intensive than we could take on--the costs outweighed the benefits. Not only would we have to physically put the label in the cloth, but we then would have to assign the information to the correlating data in the inventory system. I would love to know the age of each fabric and how many uses it gets, but we just could not make it work."

Cashing in on RFID Chips

CASHING IN ON CHIPS The team at Nashville, Tenn.-based Graceful Tables has used a sophisticated RFID (radio frequency identification) system to track its linen. Each item is assigned a specific code, which is programmed into a coin-sized "chip." That chip then records the life of that item, from the time it enters inventory until it is retired. "The use of chipping gives us 'real-time' inventory and identifies for us color and size, when the item was purchased, how many times it is used, where and when it was used, and when it was returned," explains Jo Dermid, CPCE, vice president of sales. As the product is scanned to be returned to inventory, a label is printed and attached to the product sleeve. "That printed label can be easily read by the fulfillment staff as they are pulling an order and the set-up staff as they are laying out the product in the venue," she adds. "The efficiency and accuracy of performing these two functions increases significantly due to the labeling process and can be performed by personnel with varying degrees of training."

The RFID chipping system is expensive, Dermid says, more so if you add it later than if you chip from Day One. But it saves both time and money: "From receipt of product to return to inventory the process is shortened and made more accurate than if counted by hand," she says. "Since the product is matched to each contract by computer, there is 99.99 percent accuracy of product shipped and in product returned. This eliminates the need to over-ship and enables us to check linen back into the warehouse within hours of receiving it on the dock. Missing linen can be more easily found when the time between use and return is shortened, and the number of personnel needed to receive linen is also decreased."

THE FUTURE OF FABRIC "There is experimentation going on now that will imbed threads into fabric so that fabric can be traced from origin to manufacture," Dermid notes. "This will lead I think, eventually to using similar kinds of threads, which can be programmed as the chips now are, for inventory control and identification purposes."

"The implications of this new technology go way beyond tablecloths and extend to tenting, fabric walls, draping, projection fabrics, apparel, interior design, and the military," Dermid adds. "We are just now on the precipice of a new era in textiles and that will translate to tabletop design, as well as all other facets of our lives that embrace the use of textiles."

See the full story in the March-April issue of Special Events. Not a subscriber? We can fix that—just click here. 

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