La Tavola is not your average mom & pop linen rental business. In fact, La Tavola stands among few providers of scale, servicing tens of thousands of weddings, social and corporate events a year to customers in nearly all 50 states. This requires a massive undertaking: the company operates a full processing facility and houses 25,000+ individual pieces of linen. RFID technology – chips sewn into each piece of linen, representing a unique stock keeping unit (SKU) – has made this possible, and has been instrumental in the company’s path to success.
Based in Napa, La Tavola has emerged as a leader in specialty linen rentals, a niche market that has gained enormous momentum over the past decade. The company was founded in 2007 by two husband-and-wife entrepreneurs – dubbed “Fine Linen’s First Couple” – who had prior success with other event rental ventures. Based in Napa, the company exploded (during a recessionary period!) and continues to exhibit impressive growth. Table linens (think fancy table cloths and napkins) have become increasingly important for events, and fundamental demand remains the primary driver for success. The company was acquired by a PE firm in 2015.
La Tavola offers tablecloths, napkins and ancillary products to rent for various events. Napa headquarters serves as its central distribution facility, where linens are sewn, laundered and either delivered locally by truck or shipped. Product is returned (either picked up or shipped back), sorted/counted, laundered and placed back into inventory. Breadth of inventory is key for customers, and the company offers thousands of SKUs with unique colors, patterns, textures and sizes. Since linen cloth is a significant expense, inventory management is imperative for profitability.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is the “wireless use of electromagnetic fields to transfer data through tags…[which] carry electronically stored information…to identify and track [items] automatically.” RFID chips are also used in other capacities, such as with companion animals and livestock tracking. In La Tavola’s case, RFID chips are sewn into each linen and matched with a unique SKU code. These RFID chips enable seamless tracking throughout all parts of the rental process, as opposed to manual bar code scanning or counting, which is done by many smaller providers. Specifically, linens that are outbound pass through a scanner, which assigns the RFID codes to a customer order using the inventory management system. Upon return, soiled linens pass through a different scanner, and are marked as returned in the system. Lastly, once laundered, the linens are bagged, passed through a third scanner and placed back into inventory. With three levels of tracking, the company knows precisely where each linen is and can plan accordingly.
1) Minimizes human error. Prior to RFID tracking, finding and selecting the correct linens proved to be difficult. Using chips with exact identifiers enables the precise and efficient selection of linens.
2) Significant reduction in losses. Linens lost by customers represented a large expenditure for La Tavola. RFID chips address this by enabling automatic, accurate identification of items missing from an order upon return; La Tavola is then able to recover costs from customers.
3) Ensures a premium, competitive service offering. Fast, reliable and flexible service (imagine table linens arriving late to a wedding!) is imperative. RFID chips eliminated many manual components of La Tavola’s prior process, thereby reducing labor, doubling processing speed and enabling the company to meet last minute requests.
4) Inventory management and associated costs. The actual purchase of linens is a significant expenditure. Using RFID technology, La Tavola keeps a close watch on turnover and inventory trends, enabling better purchasing and strategic decisions (La Tavola strives to rationalize its product offering and get rid of inefficient, low-turnover SKUs) and leads to cost reduction.
5) Scalability. The investment in RFID technology has set La Tavola apart from the myriad of local providers that aren’t able to reach the same scale. La Tavola’s breadth of product and quality of service – all bolstered by RFID chips – has supported the company’s growth into a leading, national linen rental company.
There is plenty of opportunity to further integrate technology into its operations, thereby augmenting La Tavola’s edge against competitors. First, a mobile app could facilitate seamless linen ordering. Second, given the design aspect of events, the ability for consumers to “vote” or provide design input through digital means could help with inventory expansion decisions. Lastly, technology could improve the logistics of pick-ups for completed orders. For example, instead of having three fixed scanners in the facility, the company should explore smaller scanners to place on its trucks to complete scanning prior to arriving at the facility.
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Pictures: latavolalinen.com, accessed November 2016.