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Chernin's uses labels of another color

Color on-demand labeling does not necessarily have to mean dedicated color printing hardware or costly color ribbon media. Chicago-based shoe retailer Chernin's Shoes has been producing color thermal labels since January with nothing more than a standard direct-thermal label printer.

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The color comes from the label itself. Chernin's uses new Thermacolor labelstock from Standard Register (Chicago, IL). A type of direct-thermal media, this label is activated by heat from the thermal printhead. Thermal-transfer printheads consist of a single row of tiny pins that span the width of the print media. Unlike dot-matrix impact printers, thermal-transfer printheads are stationary, and do not reciprocate back and forth. They transmit only heat, either through a ribbon, in the case of thermal-transfer, or directly onto the media, in direct-thermal. But unlike direct-thermal media, which is restricted just to the color black, a Thermacolor label can incorporate up to five colors. Chernin's uses three-red, blue and black. During label manufacturing, Standard Register creates colored stripes in the areas where Chernin's wants colored type or graphics to appear. Those color areas are then rendered "invisible" in the proprietary label manufacturing process. Direct-thermal heat transfer onto the invisible colored stripes then activates their respective colors. The unprinted area of the label remains white, though it is possible to see very faint outlines of the "unexposed" colored areas. However, in day to day use, this residual background doesn't seem to be a problem for Chernin's. There are two distinct applications for the colored labels at Chernin's, and both are in the receiving section of the company's distribution center in Chicago. One consists of labeling individual boxes of shoes to make identification easier. The other consists of applying "indicator" labels to cases of incoming shoes that tell warehouse personnel whether to store cases in the warehouse or ship them directly to stores. For the shoebox application, a series of labels are batch-printed on a standard direct-thermal/ thermal-transfer printer so that they can be hand-applied to individual shoeboxes during the receiving process. Each shoe box receives two of the 2"W x 11/2"H labels. One contains a style number in red; a code in blue that indicates shoe color, size and width; and Chernin's own bar code (representing the SKU number) in black. The second label has "Chernin's Shoes" in black; a SKU number in blue; and the price in black. The colors help workers in the warehouse quickly match the right label with the right product. "We'll open the cases of shoes, and we'll start with a stack of labels. We'll pull out a shoe and say, okay, I've got a size 5 shoe in my hand, I need to find the size 5 label," explains Guy Thier, VP of MIS, who coordinated this project. "Since the size is a different color from the style," he continues, "it's just easier to pick up visually, and faster to apply. Also, the label colors are what the customer in the store is going to use to identify the merchandise." The second application, consisting of labeling incoming cases, uses the same label stock. Incoming cases that are to be shipped directly to stores receive a label with the word "CROSSDOCK" in blue. Crossdocking refers to the distribution center practice of receiving merchandise in one door and shipping it out the other without any interim storage. In contrast, inventory that's to be temporarily stored in the warehouse receives a label with the word "SURPLUS" in red. The colors are extremely helpful in making sure the right case is shipped to the correct destination. With the previous labels, the two types of inventory would occasionally be confused, resulting in misshipments. "I'd say we went from probably 90 percent accuracy in case movement to 98 percent," Thier estimates. While he admits that the label is 40% more expensive than Chernin's previous label stock, the payoff is in increased inventory accuracy. The only downside is that the labels have a short shelf life. After five or six months, the unexposed colors slowly begin to activate and the exposed colors begin to fade. At press time, product has been in the stores about six months and the fading hasn't been a serious problem. But Thier is keeping an eye on the labels. If the scannability of the bar codes becomes compromised, he is considering using a separate conventionally printed label just for the bar code. Overall though, he's pleased with the performance of the label and feels the upcharge is justified by speed of application and increased accuracy: "Innacurate inventory is too costly to even guess at."

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