Before I was a retailer, I felt incredibly sorry for DEs who were raked over the coals with department store chargebacks. It seemed so unfair to be hit with all these penalties over hangtags, hangers, packaging and the like by these big, huge, bad department stores.
Once I became a retailer, I understood. Boy do I understand.
The apparel industry is just an incredibly disjointed industry. There are no standards, there’s no common ground, no regulations on product packaging or identification. If you go into a grocery store, every product has a UPC code. It has the product name and the weight or volume in imperial and metric units; it’s standardization. Even for people who sell bath and body products, there are packaging and labeling regulations about the ingredients and the unit of measure. I think you get my drift. But the apparel industry, well, it’s just whatever you want to do.
I’m not saying that there haven’t been problems with department store chargebacks but here’s where we get to the meat of the issue. As a retailer, I buy from many different manufacturers. The companies who are the best at product identification are -without exception- the ones who sell to department stores. They have adapted to the requirements. Their product hangtags and outer packaging show the style number, name, color and size. In addition, sizes are sometimes color coded for better visual identification (lean manufacturing relies heavily on visual identification). They also have a UPC code although that’s not essential for a DE who doesn’t sell to department stores.
It seems that any other company is just a mish-mash. Some have hangtags with style codes on them but no color or size. Some have style codes and size, some with color and then, there are those lovely companies that send you a product with nothing on it. At all.
I hate you.
When you are dealing with a small retail operation where the owner/buyer/product unpacker are the same person, it may not be as critical of an issue. We still will have an incredibly difficult time matching style to item when counting and verifying wholesale price, but it can be done. But as an operation grows, it becomes a nightmare.
I feel that your products should be identified in such a way that any person can match an item with the invoice without being familiar with the product line. In addition, size should be visible without having to unfold the garment to look at the inside size label! I once had a very unpleasant experience sorting hundreds of pairs of jeans by size (this was for a friend’s sample sale) and we had to look inside every single pair to see what size they were.
Oh, the agony.
In addition to making life easier for people like me, it also makes it easier for you as a DE. As you grow, you should be able to have people assist you with shipping and thus proper product identification is crucial. A person unfamiliar with your merchandise should be able to pack an order because your products are appropriately identified. Not only is this conducive to obtaining assistance but it reduces errors.
On a business level, I recently had to make a transition. And that transition (trust me, it will be an entire blog entry or two) required me to orient new people to the products that I sell. I had taken for granted just how challenging product identification is in this industry. Since I can identify every single item by sight, I overlooked the ways in which this could be difficult for someone else. Let me give you some examples:
Similar styles in different fabrics can often be indistinguishable.
Folded garments can be indistinguishable. For example if a tee shirt is folded, you can visually identify the difference between a crew neck and a v neck but not between a short sleeve and a long sleeve. Do you know the agony of receiving a shipment and having to partially unfold all those perfectly folded items just to separate two different styles?
Sizes, of course. I shouldn’t have to unfold the items to see which items are small, medium, large, etc. Confusingly similar prints should also be distinguished. The list goes on, but these are first that come to mind.
So, as I’m understanding the difficulties involved with product identification, I’m realizing that more than ever, I am going to have to focus buying with companies whose products are easier to work with. Everything is money and sometimes having to pay the labor for someone to use an excess amount of time identifying products is not worth it, especially if brand X makes a good enough replacement and has better product identification.
My next post will itemize the information you must have and how it should be displayed. I’ll include photos of sample product identification that I think are successful to reduce problems in stocking and order fulfillment.