Generation Tux Finds RFID Well Suited to Its Mission

By Claire Swedberg

The new online tuxedo-rental business, launched by Men's Wearhouse's founder, ensures that customers get what they ordered, thanks to UHF RFID tags that identify each garment's shipment, return and usage history.

When George Zimmer, the founder and former CEO of Men's Wearhouse, looked to launch a new men's formal wear rental company this year, he wanted to create something that would set his company apart from its competitors. The result is Generation Tux, which can provide tuxedo rentals to consumers without requiring them to ever leave their homes. For about $150, a customer can go online and order a tuxedo, a shirt, shoes, cuff links, and a cummerbund or belt, and have the ensemble delivered a week before it is needed. Zimmer worked with designers to create Generation Tux's own line of private label apparel. To automatically manage the items that are moving into and out of is warehouse, as well as provide an aesthetically pleasing suit without any visible labels like those normally seen on rental apparel, the company is incorporating a radio frequency identification tag into each garment.

Generation Tux is one of the first fully online tuxedo-wear companies, according to Matt Howland, the firm's CTO. "We decided to go big out of the gate," he says, so the company opened a Louisville, Ky., warehouse containing 30,000 suits, along with shirts, ties, shoes and accessories. Each pair of pants, as well as every jacket, shirt, tie and shoe, comes with a passive EPC ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tag incorporated into it in a discrete fashion, with the aim of making the tag largely invisible to users. Tags are attached inside the heels of shoes, or are sewn into pants seams and into the collars or cuffs of shirts and jackets.

A Generation Tux worker pushes a shipping box toward a tunnel reader, which captures the tag ID of every article of clothing packed, enabling the system to verify that the order has been correctly filled.

The RFID tag is intended to serve two purposes, Howland says: improve the suits' aesthetics by eliminating the need for bar-code labels, and make inventory and quality control management automatic by ensuring that the ordered items are available and delivered to each customer quickly.

The unique ID number encoded to each tag is linked to specific details about that item in the company's RFID-based software, provided by AscentERP, which served as the RFID deployment's systems integrator. The collected data is then forwarded to the Salesforce back-end management software, and thereby makes it possible to track each item's movement and location using RFID readers. Generation Tux declined to name the make and model of tags and readers being used.

The company took the RFID solution live last month, Howland says. The system works this way: shoppers first visit Generation Tux's website, organize their event, such as a wedding (indicating how many and what kinds of outfits will be needed), and select their suit or suits according to style and color. Then they have themselves measured. The system comes with online video tutorials to enable customers to collect their measurements at home, with the help of a friend and a measuring tape (Generation Tux will send one to customers if needed). They then place their order, indicating those measurements.

Generation Tux's workers receive the order and manually pick the items by entering the warehouse and visually identifying each piece. The company then packs the suit in a specialized box designed to keep it wrinkle-free.

At that time, the order is opened on the software and displayed on a screen at the packing station, and a worker moves the closed box through an RFID tunnel reader, which captures every tag's ID number and forwards that information to the software. The Salesforce software interprets the RFID tag read data and compares the boxed suit items with those ordered by the customer. If there is any discrepancy, such as the box containing the wrong size or color of an item, the software will display an alert, and the worker can then review the order to locate the error. The shipping label is then printed and placed on the box.

Matt Howland, Generation Tux's CTO

The data is stored in the software, and each item's status is updated to indicate that it has been packed for a customer. The Salesforce software also tracks each item's usage, since it retires any garment once it has been used 20 times. By capturing each tag's ID number at the time of packing, the company knows if a particular item should have been discarded and cannot be sent to another customer.

The boxes are typically then stacked and staged for shipping. When a truck backs into the loading dock, the boxes are pushed through a second tunnel reader, and the tags are again interrogated in order to confirm that the correct orders are being loaded onto the right trucks. The system then updates the status of those items as having been shipped.

If a customer receives his order and discovers a problem with the sizing—for instance, he measured his leg length incorrectly and the pants are thus too long—Generation Tux's sister company, zTailors, can dispatch a tailor to that person's location to adjust the item. Alternatively, another size can be sent as a replacement.

Once finished with the suit, the customer packs it back in the shipping box and drops it off at any United States Postal Service (USPS) or FedEx location. When the box arrives back at Generation Tux's Louisville facility, a worker pushes it through a third RFID reading station where the garments' RFID tags are read, and the system then determines if all items connected with that order have been received. If any are found to be missing, the software can identify that problem and the customer can be contacted.

When garments are dry-cleaned and pressed and are ready for another customer, they are stored in the warehouse once more. To track inventory within the warehouse, workers use a push a cart with an onboard RFID reader down each aisle.

George Zimmer, GenTux's founder and CEO

Initially, the company sampled a variety of RFID tags that would be best suited for the application, testing them by running them through the dry-cleaning process 50 times (despite the fact that garments are retired after 20 cleanings).

Because the company is new, it is unable to compare the benefits of the RFID technology against those of a typical tracking system—usually involving bar codes that are individually scanned as suits are shipped and received. However, Howland says, the elimination of the need to scan each garment's bar code meant that the company did not need to expend as much labor time on its packing and shipping processes. In addition, it can now be sure that errors are not made. Howland notes that the business doesn't allow for mistakes, since the suits must be received for scheduled functions and customers don't have a lot of time to wait for replacement or correction shipments.

In the future, Generation Tux may look into applying tags to smaller items, such as socks or the packaging of cuff links. However, there is no timeline for that goal yet.