What have you got to lose? A look at garment loss at retail dry cleaning shops

That sinking feeling you get when you have spent the better part of the day carefully tagging, spotting, cleaning and pressing your customers’ clothes only to assemble the order to find one blouse is missing from their lot.

Where could it go?

You know you received it. The ticket says so. You go back to the tagging area and work your way through the processing areas and if lucky, you find the blouse has slipped behind the spotting table or left at the bottom of a basket.  Phew, disaster averted.  If you’re not that lucky, you start checking the completed lots, maybe the “9” was actually a “6” on the tag, and I misallocated the blouse?
Once you’ve quizzed the staff and they don’t recall seeing it, the sinking feeling turns into one of resignation of the inevitable to inform the customer.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately it should.

Lost items might account for up to 3 in every 100 pieces we process. Looking at the root causes of misplaced garments, let’s start from the beginning of the process.

When booking customer garments into your system, the simplest system is with a ticketing book with tear off tags. Hand written tickets show what garments have been received, a copy is handed over to the customer and the numbered “tags” are pinned to the garments.
As this is a slow system, during busy periods, the person on the till hands the customer their copy and puts the tags in the bag the clothes came in. Later, when the counter is less busy, tags are pinned to each garment. As there are only a fixed amount of tags per ticket, sometimes it is necessary, with larger lots, to use additional pre-printed paper tags to make up the difference. Some cleaners use prep-printed paper tags instead of the ones that come with the ticket books.

The problem with this manual system are threefold. The first issue is the lack of durability with paper based tags. If the tags disintegrate or is pulled of the safety pin/staple in modern day cleaning processes, there is no way of knowing who the garment belongs to. The second is mixing and matching tags. When piecing up, the tacit knowledge required to match up two sets of numbers, one from the ticket book tags and the other from the pre-printed tags, represents a memory challenge which may result in incorrect lot completion.
The third is the environment where the tags are attached. Space is always at a premium in a Retail unit. Usually tagging takes place at the counter. Unless a strict methodology of only tagging one lot at a time is adhered too, one lot gets mixed with another. The error is only discovered at the piecing up phase.

For those of us fortunate enough to have invested in an ePOS system, the “cash register” itself prints the tickets and the required number of tags, while the customer is still in the shop. Higher quality ePOS system allow you to enter descriptive of the garment (Manufacturer, type, i.e. trousers, colours, patterns, etc.), the due date and perhaps a bar code on the tags themselves, as well as keeping a “memory” of the lot. Provided the tags don’t come off during the washing processes, piecing up becomes very straightforward. Even if the odd tag does come off, matching the garment to the lot is still achieved by looking into the ePOS record for the customer.

Moving on to the inspection and spotting areas, it seems the major issue lies with the space we allocate. As previously stated, space is always at a premium. Items can drop down the side or back of a spotting station or be left behind when segregated for a more intense spotting session.

Garments are often segregated depending on wash processes (lights, darks, delicates, etc.) and/or promised delivery dates.  A plethora of baskets, bins, and trolleys are available in the market to hold these segregated batches.  How often do garments get left behind in the bottom of one of these containers?  Perhaps we “conveniently” place net bags at the bottom of the basket, for the person loading a washing or dry cleaning machine, to have to hand. Those same net bags end up hiding garments underneath them.

Rewashes and represses are an interesting area of loss. As we expect things to start at one end and finish at the other in a given time, anything that is delayed due to reprocessing, is wrongly identified as lost as it does not arrive at piecing up at the same time as the rest of the lot’s garments.  If one hasn’t set up quarantine rails to hold these items, they could be hanging anywhere.

At the piecing up area, the employee is under a time pressure to complete the lots in time for the customer to collect. If their fortunate, J hooks segregate lots as the printed tickets hang on a clip directing the piecing up.  If the J hooks are too close together, than there is the possibility of putting the garment in the wrong place. Split lots, offer their own challenges. Some of the items are on hangers, and the others folded. Using a manual system requires an in depth knowledge of how things work. Modern ePOS system can split the tickets at booking in, allowing the lots to be treated separately. This greatly reduces errors at this stage.

For those of us that have to physically move garments from the piecing up area to the bagging area, great care is required so one doesn’t pick up too many or too few hanging pieces during the move. With multiple piece lots, the bagger needs to ensure he is tying the correct items together during the polyrobe process. This mistake is a difficult one as it only comes to light when a customer gets his lot home and discovers too many or too few pieces.

Once packed, lots have their tickets attached with tape or staples. The tags are sometimes removed and either discarded or attached to the polyrobe. Should the ticket fall off due to the tape failing, care is needed to make sure it is attached to the particular lot it came off of.  Finally the customer hand over may be a stage whereby the incorrect lot is delivered or multiple lots are delivered.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list but areas where we can all study in greater detail to reduce the risk of Garment loss.
My recommendation is for a thorough examination of the processes and consideration given to upgrading our systems, space utilisation and processes to mitigate the chances of losing garments in the first place.

So how much is losing garments actually costing us as a business? The obvious answer is the amount of compensation we pay customers but this is only part of the whole amount. In addition to the compensation, will we lose a loyal customer? Will the unhappy customer tell others within the local community of their poor experience? Indeed, will they post a bad review on the numerous ratings systems now available on the internet?

Compensation hits our financial bottom line our net, not gross profitability. The lost man/woman hours searching for the garments, dealing with irate and disappointed customers as well as our hurt pride of not delivering the best service all lead to a significant issue in our business.

Sitting down and examining how much compensation has been paid over a quarter, or even the last year, will highlight how serious the issue might be.

Trade organisations have developed fair calculation methods of how much we should compensate customers for losses. The start point is the original purchase price. Not surprisingly, most customers don’t keep their clothes shopping receipts, so an amount of good faith is required during negotiations. Again, the records held in ePOS can help reinforce the good faith by providing a history of how many times the items was cleaned, over what time period, the manufacturer, etc.

When customers can see from their ePOS generated ticket, the name of their garment’s manufacturer, it becomes rather difficult for them to claim it is from an exclusive Italian boutique!

Developing a friendly and informed customer relationship is one of the keys to deal with lost garment compensation. We all know the difficulties in enforcing a “ten times cleaning value” contract term printed on the customer ticket. Would it make sense to print an A4 sheet of paper demonstrating your fair and reasonable compensation policy and hand/explain this to a customer with a potential loss?  Is now the time to consider joining/finding out more about the reconciliation and compensation schemes provided by trade organisations?
I have deliberately stayed away from attaching values to the losses we incur when garments are lost. That number will be unique to each business and this article is meant to highlight the issue for you to carry out a more depth financial analysis. If you find that you are getting it more or less right, then great. If not, I hope I have been able to shed some light on where it could be improved and how to better deal with it.