Importance of Product Identification

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.

Selling to department stores pt.1
Fulfillment centers pt.1
Fulfillment centers pt.2
Importance of Product Identification pt. 2

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  1. Kathleen says:

    This is a great post Miracle. It really falls in line behind the whole lean manufacturing school of visual identification. Ideally, someone should be able to sort the product if it were encased within a dark, solid colored plastic bag -or a cardboard box for that matter. I don’t mean to sound like such a sycophant (altho folks here know how much we argue) but I’m looking forward to your solutions for retail readiness. No wonder DEs have such a hard time getting into the more established stores.

  2. Melissa Brown says:

    This is very interesting and I’m looking forward to reading your other posts.

    What standards would you like to see all manufacturers meet in the way of product identification and packaging? What, if anything, do you see them doing that could be eliminated?

    Could you address what “sustainable” and “green” D-Es who want to avoid using plastics, adhesives, etc. could do to make their tags attractive to retailers?

  3. MW says:

    I was “supposed to” finish the second part, which would include some photos of example labels. But that won’t happen today.

    But you asked a great question that I wanted to address.

    I have seen “green” designers use recycled paper printed with soy ink. How do I know? It says so right on the hangtag. Those hangtags seem to have a certain value with the consumer.

    As far as avoiding the plastics, I am not too sure. You need *something* to protect a product from moisture during shipping. But not just moisture, one of the wierdest experiences I had was when the “handling” of a package caused the product to be “bruised” while the box was perfectly intact, so there is need for some type of protective packaging. And it wasn’t a re-packaged package either (if a box falls apart in transit, the couriers will re-package it).

    Let’s say you don’t want to use polybags for each individual item, would placing all items in a shipment inside one big polybag (made of recyclable plastic) be good enough? I don’t know of any alternatives, but I do know that it’s just risky to ship textile based products with no protection at all.

    The individually bagged products aren’t an absolute necessity, I am sure there are plenty of retailers who HATE to unwrap individually bagged items, so everybody won’t be happy, either way you do it. But the reason a lot of companies bag everything is because warehouse-storage environments are often incredibly dusty (no matter how hard you try), it reduces the incidence of *hands* handling and touching the garment, and items are individually bagged to keep them clean and make them easier to pull out of a bin to pack for shipping (i.e. a folded item would have to be carefully picked up so that you don’t unfold it).

  4. christy fisher says:

    I understand the pain of not being able to inventory in stock. Unfortunately many young designers are self taught, or taught by schools who do not teach merchandising skills.
    It is unfortunate..
    But in order not to HATE “them”..may I suggest a solution from your end:
    Use your OWN purchase order forms and have ALL stipulations written on that form. If the designer/company does not comply, then you will not accept the order.
    When I have dealt with majors in the past (Macys, Burdine’s, Dillard’s, Disney World) they ALL used their own forms and each company had different sets of rules for their shipping/inventory situations…and they went as far as to say ON THEIR PURCHASE ORDER that they were not required to PAY if the order was not in compliance to their shipping terms. Each box had to have specific routing numbers on the outside and specific paperwork on the inside.(Some purchase orders had 2 additional attached pages of “rules”)
    It was a real pain on MY end, but we complied with each company in order to get the $$$orders$$$.
    If you are ordering large enough quantity, you can even write your own “rules” as far as “no website addresses are to be displayed on non-removable tags”, etc (I saw in another post that this is another “problem” for you).
    We have also sent stock to one boutique in Florida who wants us to leave out our label (not the fiber content..the nametag) so they can sew in their own store labels.

  5. MW says:

    But in order not to HATE “them”..may I suggest a solution from your end:
    Use your OWN purchase order forms and have ALL stipulations written on that form.

    Actually, Christy, I already do that. most companies don’t even follow the stipulation:

    Bill to this address (send invoice to this address) and ship to this address (packing slip only).

    I cannot even begin to tell you how many companies:

    1- don’t send invoices to the billing address
    2- include credit card receipts in the shipment even though it specifies packing slip only

    The statement “I hate you” was meant to be tongue in cheek and not taken literally.

    (I saw in another post that this is another “problem” for you)

    Actually it’s not a problem for me.

  6. Jenny says:

    Miracle, I have a question. This may be a little off topic and probably reveals my naivety, but here goes.

    Do retailers want to add their own hanging price tag or should our tags provide an area to put their price on?

  7. MW says:


    You will always have some retailers who have their own store hangtags, but so many retailers use the hangtags already on the garment. It makes it easy if the style # and the size are already on the hangtag and they just fill in the price because a lot of retailers will use the manufacturer’s item # (yours) to track inventory if it’s on the hangtag.

  8. Freight and warehouse chargebacks

    Chargebacks are a fine or penalty that a retailer will levy against the vendor (you). If you are assessed a chargeback, the fee is deducted from what they owe you on the invoice. Chargebacks can be assessed for reasons such…

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