RFID Tags Protecting Hotel Towels

The stealing of hotel towels isn’t a big problem in the scheme of world problems, but it can be expensive for hotels. Sure, we have moral prohibitions against stealing—that’ll prevent most people from stealing the towels. Many hotels put their name or logo on the towels. That works as a reputational societal security system; most people don’t want their friends to see obviously stolen hotel towels in their bathrooms. Sometimes, though, this has the opposite effect: making towels and other items into souvenirs of the hotel and thus more desirable to steal. It’s against the law to steal hotel towels, of course, but with the exception of large-scale thefts, the crime will never be prosecuted. (This might be different in third world countries. In 2010, someone was sentenced to three months in jail for stealing two towels from a Nigerian hotel.) The result is that more towels are stolen than hotels want. And for expensive resort hotels, those towels are expensive to replace.

The only thing left for hotels to do is take security into their own hands. One system that has become increasingly common is to set prices for towels and other items—this is particularly common with bathrobes—and charge the guest for them if they disappear from the rooms. This works with some things, but it’s too easy for the hotel to lose track of how many towels a guest has in his room, especially if piles of them are available at the pool.

A more recent system, still not widespread, is to embed washable RFID chips into the towels and track them that way. The one data point I have for this is an anonymous Hawaii hotel that claims they’ve reduced towel theft from 4,000 a month to 750, saving $16,000 in replacement costs monthly.

Assuming the RFID tags are relatively inexpensive and don’t wear out too quickly, that’s a pretty good security trade-off.

Posted on May 11, 2011 at 11:01 AM72 Comments


Eric Thomas Black May 11, 2011 11:16 AM

So how does this work? Do they let people know about the system ahead of time as a deterrent? Or does someone show up at your home asking for the towel back?

Matthew May 11, 2011 11:18 AM

Actually, the hotel need not even spend the money for the RFID tags. They could get the benefit of having the tags by simply displaying a sign that cautions the hotel guest that the towels ‘may’ contain RFID tags and that theft will be prosecuted to the ‘fullest extent of the law’ or other such verbiage.

Ralph B May 11, 2011 11:26 AM

Most RFIDs can be destroyed with a few seconds in a microwave oven. Coincidentally, many hotel rooms now come equipped with a microwave oven.

Mailman May 11, 2011 11:29 AM

I’m interested to know exactly how those RFID chips work on towels and how resistant they are to laundry detergent, bleach and hot water.
I guess I’ll just steal a few of those RFID towels in a hotel to conduct some experiments.

John May 11, 2011 11:29 AM

I’ve not stayed in hotel with microwave ovens in the room.

I think the embedding of washable RFID tags makes sense. the hotel have signs up and add any you take away to your bill. You then get to explain that on your expense claim.

Hendrik Boom May 11, 2011 11:32 AM

Then there are hotels who prominently place logos on their towels expecting them to be taken home to advertise the hotel.

MarkH May 11, 2011 11:40 AM

I always thought the disincentive to steal hotel towels, was that most of them are about as soft and fluffy as burlap.

NobodySpecial May 11, 2011 11:48 AM

@Eric – I imagine something like the detector gates in stores. Together with a carefully worded suggestion that “sir may have made a small mistake in sir’s packing”

Although the expensive resort hotel don’t want you to steal towels – they also don’t want you to never visit there again and post bad reviews about them over the web. So having security wrestle you to the ground in the lobby is probably not an option.

scared May 11, 2011 12:12 PM

My wife takes great pleasure in stealing the spare roll of toilet paper when we check out from a hotel room. I’m pretty sure she’s doing it to annoy me. Soon she’ll have to bring a $8 roll of aluminum foil to wrap the $0.25 roll in.

moo May 11, 2011 12:32 PM

To those saying that you can rip off or destroy the RFID tags..

That gains you nothing. They use the tags to know that they put towels A,B,C and D in your room. If they don’t get back towels A,B,C and D then they will just charge you for the missing ones. Its not like tagged merchandise at a retail store, because they can easily track whose room each towel was assigned to.

BF Skinner May 11, 2011 1:29 PM

@MarkH “are about as soft and fluffy as burlap.”

You need to start staying at a better class of establishment. If you lack sufficient motivation take your handheld UV lamp and shine it around. It’ll make the higher per night cost reasonable.

@ May 11, 2011 1:33 PM

@Hendrik Boom

That’d be interesting to fully embrace: Include the cost of the towels in the room rates, and encourage the guests to take them home.

Alternatively, embed something in the towel that shows the text “I am a towel thief” when washed with ordinary home detergent.

Kyle Wiens May 11, 2011 1:53 PM

The concept is interesting, but the data is suspect.

There’s no way that a hotel is losing 14,000 towels per month. Let’s run the math: if a large hotel has 500 rooms, each guest stays an average of three nights (probably low for Hawaii), and the hotel has 100% occupancy then that means each and every guest is stealing .8 towels (4000/(500*30/3)). Even with completely rampant towel theft, I don’t think there’s any way that (on average) every guest is stealing a towel.

EH May 11, 2011 1:59 PM

“If you lack sufficient motivation take your handheld UV lamp and shine it around. ”

Step 1: Get a handheld UV lamp
Step 2: Take it with you on vacation?

JM May 11, 2011 2:14 PM

@Kyle Wiens. It’s 4,000 towels per month (not 14,000). Maybe it’s every fourth guest stealing a towel or two?

Guy May 11, 2011 2:19 PM


The scheme that I had in mind was that you and another guest would collude to steal one room’s worth of towels (let’s say two). You destroy the RFID tags on both sets, but return one set. Now the hotel has a complete set of ‘legacy’ towels that both you and your co-conspirator can claim is your set of towels.

The hotel’s response would be to charge you the same whether the towel disappears or the RFID tag is disabled.

An alternative is to rip the RFIDs and attach them to another towel. If the attachment is good, the tag won’t go loose and the two towels will become one until a hand audit is performed. Even better is if it is impossible to determine whether your RFID is the original or the stowaway.

Lastly, just steal from the cleaning lady’s cart.

Doug Coulter May 11, 2011 2:45 PM

Even in pretty high class, or would that be merely high dollar, places, it’s rare to find a towel that would replace my favorite one, which I generally bring with me. Every good hitchhiker knows where their towel is, after all.

You’d think that their margin was such that a cheap towel (you don’t think they pay even walmart retail prices do you?) wouldn’t matter all that much since many charge what would be a month’s rent most places to stay a weekend. Gheesh. Given the cheapness of the buildings and rooms and so on, I’d think it’d be in the noise. Oh, some intern is trying to justify their pay, I get it.

Not that I take towels, for souvenirs or otherwise. They’re just not that good! Space (to store things) is the final frontier around here anyway.

qman May 11, 2011 2:47 PM

“Sure, we have moral prohibitions against stealing — that’ll prevent most people from stealing the towels.”


TS May 11, 2011 3:00 PM

I think there’s probably a good number of people who use the towels to wrap up fragile gifts for the return trip. Sea shells, bottles of alcohol, a painted tchochke whose paint is rubbing off, wet items, dirty items, all sorts of random stuff.

At least for the average hotels with cheap white towels.

Petréa Mitchell May 11, 2011 3:53 PM

If 3,250 towels saved = $16,000, that’s some sweet profit for the hotels selling their towels. This means they cost the hotel $5, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a hotel selling them for less than $20…

Sang May 11, 2011 3:53 PM

This story reminds of a sauna in South Korea that supposedly cut their towel thefts by over 90% by adding the words “this is stolen” in big, block letters to the towel itself (sure, the customization meant a little extra $$, but totally worth it).

RSaunders May 11, 2011 4:34 PM

@Kyle I think you’re on the right track. If the hotel is losing 4000 towels/month, that’s 133 per day. If the hotel has 1000 rooms, that’s 1 in 7.5. Each towel costs ~$5, and HI hotel rooms cost ~$150. Thus towels contribute 0.4% of the cost of each hotel room. If these RFIDs reduce this cost 75%, we’re going from 0.4% to 0.1%. The profit ratio of 0.33% doesn’t offset a very large capital investment, given the expected rates of return even in a down economy. Certainly the security theater of signs warning of nano-RFID tags would be a better investment. To make real money, you need to turn your luxurious and prestigious linens into a 75% margin retail opportunity as Petréa suggests.

Dirk Praet May 11, 2011 4:55 PM

It would be way more fun to embed a slightly more complex chip into the towel that either blows up or sets fire to the luggage. And then have the thief arrested on terrorism charges.

Rick Auricchio May 11, 2011 5:16 PM

@Dirk. Damn, I was just about to post what you said. Great minds think alike!

The towels should combust at, say, a half block from the hotel. This keeps the fire away from both the hotel and the airport.

Sounds like just about the usual wi-fi range…

godel May 11, 2011 6:43 PM

@BF Skinner

“You need to start staying at a better class of establishment. If you lack sufficient motivation take your handheld UV lamp and shine it around. It’ll make the higher per night cost reasonable.”

I’m afraid many of the more expensive hotels will also fail the UV lamp test. Lots of nasty stains on the mattress.

Paul Renault May 11, 2011 8:03 PM

RSaunders, you forgot to factor in the savings from not having to wash the stolen towels.

Richard Steven Hack May 11, 2011 8:34 PM

And really how much is the management of the RFID and checking the room when someone leaves going to cost?

The smart move is just to assume the guests will take the towels and add the expected cost to the hotel rates.

I know hotels are competitive, but really this is the cheapest and simplest move: let the guest pay for the hotel’s towels. If most hotels do it rather than more complicated prevention measures, it’s a wash competitively. The only thing that will matter competitively then is how much the hotel pays for the towels.

To me, this is an example of “management think” – instead of doing something sensible, they do something adversarial to their customers. This is very common in management.

RobertT May 11, 2011 10:17 PM

I think you’re all missing the secondary uses of the RFID in the towels.
– automated counting the number of towels in a hamper (think pool side towels)

  • Automatic inventory control (think lower laundry expenses, maybe that’s where some of the lost towels are going)
    • Knowing that ALL the towels in a particular room should be in that room, i.e. someone has not added a towel to a room that it should not be there. Think towels that might contain a contact poison, (chlorpyrifos poisoning?)

SadButMadLad May 12, 2011 3:38 AM

It’s possible to lose track of towels if the hotel has a swimming pool. Alternatively make the swimming pool towels a different colour and the guest has to pay for them. If a guest is seen with a room hotel towel at the pool it will be confiscated. The waiters are always hovering around the pool to serve guests and they can be the ones to spot the rogue towels. Guests are still allowed to use their own towels at the pool.

No technology needed.

Neil May 12, 2011 4:04 AM

I must confess I’ve never quite understood why towels are treated as some kind of precious resource by the hotel industry and (presumably) certain of their guests. Is it that a sign is needed in the lobby/staff smoking area to the effect of “Guests are reminded that towels and bath robes are in cheap, plentiful supply at any Walmart”…?

Alternatively, if 1 in 7 guests are seriously taking towels, then one wonders if there’s actually a genuine expectation on the part of guests that the the towel is really “included in the price”, in which case maybe the simplest solution is just to include it in the price.

I am intrigued though at the mentality of people who can actually be bothered to lug extra towels around the airport– usually I’m trying reduce the amount of spurious baggage or have far more interesting things to cram into my suitcase.

Bill May 12, 2011 4:13 AM

If towel theft is a problem worthy of consideration, that establishment is in good shape.

I wish towel theft was on my risk register!

Alan Kaminsky May 12, 2011 7:08 AM

Which costs more — the collection of half a dozen luxury soaps, shampoos, lotions, bath oils, body oils, etc. that appears in the room every day “free of charge,” or a towel?

Why is it okay to use up (or take) the soap, but taking the towel is a prosecutable larceny?

Why not provide one logo-embroidered towel in the room and encourage the guest to take it? (Of course, include it in the price of the room, like the soap.)

Why spend all the money on RFID chips, RFID scanners, inventory tracking software, staff time (time = money), etc. just to make sure the precisely correct number of towels exists in the hotel at all times?

Clive Robinson May 12, 2011 7:58 AM

@ scared

“My wife takes great pleasure in stealing the spare roll of toilet paper when we check out from a hotel room.”

Have you counted your socks recently?

“I’m pretty sure she’s doing it to annoy me.”

Possibly, possibly not, due to having bad experiances whilst traveling in the past I always carry my own towel and a full toilet roll. Let’s put it this way some places the loo paper could either give you paper cuts, be used to sand oak down or both. My least favourit is “Izal Medicated” ( http://carbolicsoap.com/izal-toilet-paper-p-905.html ) I’m sure that it is designed to “polish in” not “wipe clean”.

Any way if it does annoy you either just hide it before she nicks it, or you could do something silly and pretend it’s funny. Such as,

Victoria Beckham had a “baby shower” the other week and her guests thought it would be funny (as in mummy) to wrap her from head to toe in toilet paper…

@ RobertT,

“Think towels that might contain a contact poison, (chlorpyrifos poisoning)?”

Hmm I don’t know where you are but like many other OP’s it’s not that easy to get hold off in a lot of places in sufficient quantities to kill (look up the LD50 mg/kg value). Thus if done in a single dose should be dead obvious in a corpse at autopsy, and likewise the symptoms in a living person (if they can get medical assistance sufficienttly promptly).

It came out of Chemical Weapons research carried out in the UK back in WWII, it was looked at because it’s solubility in water was low (but had a high solubility in organic solvents,) and it’s melting point a little above human body temprature so in temperate environments it would have some percistance value.

At one point it was the most common household insecticide in the US as it was assumed to “be safe” according to Dow Chemical Companies advertising. However Dow got hit with the largest fine given at the time for hidding poisoning reports from the EPA in the mid 90’s and voluntarily withdrew it for use in homes (it is said that something like 3/4 of US placental blood samples tested positive for it prior to this). It is considered to have significant effects on cognative ability and a cause of ADHD and other pervasive developmental disorders.

OP insecticides sprayed onto tentage used by coalition forces are one of the things suspected of causing “Gulf war Syndrome”.

I’m wondering if you are within a stones throw of Bangkok at the moment because of,


Perhaps the most easily available chemical that would cause chemical burns is caustic soda. If a towel was soaked in a solution and then tumble dried it would probably feel “hardwater rough”. However as it makes contact with a wet body it disolves and starts the “soaponification process” with skin. Which for most people having got out of a bath or shower will make them rub the towel against themselves harder. Which is unfortunate as I takes a little while before you realise you have a chemical burn…

The upside for any Random J Nutter is that caustic soda is a frequently used cleaning agent, so it is likley to be thought of initialy as an accident, not an attack…

Caustic soda is also a chemical that has been used by certain people wishing to temporarily remove their finger prints before entering countries as illegal immigrants under a false name.

One major use for caustic soda in the past was with animal fats, you boil it up and the result is soap. As this has a fairly bad smell a stronger less unpleasant smell was used to cover it. From the early Victorian period through untill the 1980’s one common substance used for this was “Coal Tar” which was a by product of making town gas (Carbon Monoxide) from coal. The smell still reminds me of when I was quite young 😉

Harry May 12, 2011 8:33 AM

When my family travels, it is impossible to keep track of towels. We use more than average, have several sets of connected rooms, and use the hotel pool.

  1. Use more than average: I suppose room service could scan each towel before delivering it, which would mean entering or scanning both the room # and the towel. Seems like a lot of human labor, which is a high-cost input.
  2. Sets of connected rooms: towels routinely end up in the other room or in dad’s room down the hall. They also end up on the room service tray and occasionally falling off the balcony.
  3. Hotel pool: many but not all hotels request you use pool towels and not room towels, but this rule is generally observed in the breach.

And another factor: successfully assigning towels to specific rooms requires perfect compliance with scanning rules. Do you really think that cleaning, room service, pool, and concierge staff will scan every towel, every time? Bad enough if a room gets an unassigned towels, but really bad if a room “steals” an assigned towel because someone on hotel staff neglected to scan a towel.

I foresee a lot of aggravated hotel guests contesting charges by alleging hotel mistake. Both the innocent and the guilty could use this tactic; the fancier hotels, at least, will give into the guest rather than create ill will.

BF Skinner May 12, 2011 8:51 AM

tag every towel, associate it with a room, collect pool towells nightly and update location inventory.

on checkout morning provide bill with an embedded RFID that id’s the guest. They’ll carry the reciept with them.

Scan the guest and luggage as they exit the hotel and add any (room or pool) towels in the luggage to the bill.

Easily defeated with my suitcase version of a faraday cage I realize but if you’re not yet taking a UV lamp on vacation with you (for why? crimminy) how likely is it you’ll shield your luggage?

bob May 12, 2011 9:01 AM

I do take soap and shampoo (not all of it, just so I have a couple in my travel bag). But since I assume I am being billed for 2 of each per night I dont believe it is stealing; if anything they are stealing from me since I DONT take most of them. I would never take a towel.

However I am annoyed enough at having my every movement tracked by an ever increasing number of entities, I may now start putting all the towels in the microwave for a good “clean” when I check in.

paul May 12, 2011 9:15 AM

All you really care about is whether the towels are leaving the premises, not so much where they are (as long as they’re getting to the laundry when they need to). Sure, there are complicated countermeasures, but all the hotel is trying to do here is reduce shrinkage. (In fact, they’d probably rather not have the opportunity to know whose towel is in which room, because that could lead to unpleasant money-making opportunities for staff.)

The other thing on these numbers is that at least some of the loss of towels is going to be at the hands of employees. But implicitly pinning it on guests is better for a resort’s image that advertising that some of the people with master keys to rooms like to steal stuff.

NobodySpecial May 12, 2011 9:53 AM

Hotels are a different world, it seems that the curriculum for hotel university was fixed in 1950.

Why a shower cap and sewing kit but never any toothpaste or disposable razors? I can live without moisturizer for a day but arriving at the hotel late at night with no toothpaste is a hassle.
Although I suppose now that we got Bin Laden perhaps the TSA will stop stealing my toothpaste.

Why include enough heavy oak furniture and wardrobes for a castle but no chair you can work at. Although one chain has started putting in aeron chairs.

If you are going to only have wired internet at least provide a cable. In the room – not available for loan at the desk.

And worst of all, how much does decent coffee cost? Even staying in expensive hotels (when work is paying!) you get the same single sachet of crap that you get in a motel 6. Do a deal with starbucks and get them to deliver something drinkable and up the price of the room from $250 to $252 to cover it.

posedge clock May 12, 2011 10:10 AM


Where are you staying in HI that costs only $150? Better bring that UV lamp…

Ryan May 12, 2011 10:46 AM

OK, in Hawaii this particular hotel most likely is profitable to sustain US$16,000 per month but many properties around the world aren’t profitable and only stay in business because the owner has a passion or the property is regularly sold from 1 mistaken owner to another.

If an unprofitable property had an additional $800 per month what does that do to the viability of the business?

This is just on the raw cost of the item also, what about the cost in administration for replacement. Then there is initial cleaning and “curing” of the towel ensuring it is ready for hotel usage. This can double the cost in the towel from day 1 and is often not calculated as cost by the property because it is not as easy to quantify as 1 towel.

In some cases the savings from stolen hotel towels will allow properties to create further employment and provide a better service to you as the guest.

How would you like to be served 30% faster when checking in and checking out of the hotel? How would you like to receive your room service fries in 7 minutes instead of 15 minutes? How would you like a discount? The savings from the towels can do this also.

Yes, hotels can build the cost of the towels into the rooms and many already do unbeknown to the general population, then they charge you for stealing – I don’t like it but it’s business.
In saying this what you’re really paying for when you’re charged for a towel isn’t the towel itself but the cost of administration for replacing the towel and the hassle in replacing the towel. It’s really more of a service charge.

The thing is, if theft is dropping, employment is going up, you get a better service as a guest and the hotel owner can eat at night as a result of a solution, how can you say this is a bad thing?

Yes, RFID solutions are a bit controversial but if this is the impact I don’t have a problem with it.

TS May 12, 2011 11:09 AM


“If the hotel has 1000 rooms, that’s 1 in 7.5”

I think if there’s a person stealing towels, they’re not just taking one. So while it may average out to 1 in 7.5, it’s probably more like 1 in 15 rooms, that person taking two towels.

I bet those who like taking towels just grab a bunch off the service carts (along with extra shampoo and soap). If they’re going to track your towels by RFID, they’re going to have to get better carts that don’t allow you to grab stuff as you walk by.

karrde May 12, 2011 11:43 AM

I do wonder if hotel management are aware of the possibility that housekeeping staff might be in on towel theft.

The likelihood varies with the quality of towel, the wage level of local housekeeping staff, and the culture that the housekeeping staff come from.

It’s a thought. I don’t know enough to even guess, having not spent a night in a hotel in about 3 years. (And I never got into the habit of swiping towels, though I have occasionally swiped some consumables…the soap/shampoo items that are set out.)

GreenSquirrel May 12, 2011 2:04 PM


There is no doubt that if a hotel is struggling then being able to reduce the costs of business is a good thing.

However is this solution a cost effective treatment of the problem? I dont think so, but others might.

Yes, if this works and its impact is a reduction in loss to the hotel which, in turn, increases its profits it may have some value.

This is a big if.

If it doesnt work, then it is a lot of wasted money which is more likely to put the struggling hotel out of business than towel theft.

S May 12, 2011 2:23 PM

@Harry: “successfully assigning towels to specific rooms requires perfect compliance with scanning rules.”

There are RFID tags that are erasable/re-writeable that could be used in this scenario. The tags would be erased when the towel is in the laundry, then re-written with the current room number when they are delivered to the hotel room.

Michael B May 12, 2011 2:46 PM

A little reading comprehension fail? the article linked only stated that there was a possible $20 fine OR three months in jail. Neither the article nor the comments contained any follow-up to report what the final resolution may have been. So I certainly would not say she was ‘sentenced’ at all.

Rick Auricchio May 12, 2011 6:39 PM

The answer to “Why RFID tags?” is easy.

Someone thinks it’s cool to use technology to solve a problem. His bosses are impressed and think they’re cool for agreeing with him.

It’s hitting a fly with a sledgehammer.

Richard Steven Hack May 12, 2011 6:42 PM

S: And that’s the problem. How much does all that RFID maintenance cost vs the cost of a lost towel? The towel is paid for, has been used, and will eventually be retired – probably fairly soon since a lot of used up towels floating around makes the hotel look cheap. So they have a limited life span as it is, even without shrinkage.

So add on the cost of RFID maintenance. Does that really offset the cost of shrinkage sufficiently to make that approach profitable?

Especially as opposed to merely tacking on the cost of room towels to the room rate which requires no maintenance and no thought?

Discordian May 12, 2011 8:58 PM

Actually, a more cost-effective way of this solution would be the very public and unmissable-by-the-guests announcement of a brand-new, cutting edge RFID towel-protection system without the actual implementation of it.
They do not need to catch real towel-thiefs that badly anyway: imagine security gates at hotel doors, security staff reclaiming the towels from the guests – they would be harmful to the hotels image. They need only the deterring effect of the system, not the actual thiefcatching function, and they can deter most potential towelsnatchers with a pretend-RFID-system. (Sure, some will inevitably try to hack the system, and of course, they will succeed… but most tourists lack a hackers mindset).
A pretend-system would cost almost nothing, would be very easy to implement and it would lack all the possible negative sideeffects of a real security system, while retaining most of its boons.

RobertT May 12, 2011 11:02 PM

@Clive R,
No I’m not in Bangkok at the moment, but bedbugs are rampant in most parts of SEAsia, so OP room treatments and actual spraying of the bed is very common. I suspect I have been made sick by this in the past, the symptoms are very strange, similar to food poisoning but different because of the cardiac aspects.

It seems improbable that the Bangkok deaths are OP poisoning, but the concept of delivering a poison this way is indeed intriguing. If the poison were water soluble than the towel would be safe to handle and deadly only when you used it to dry a sufficient body area. (such as after a bath/shower). If the poison were slow acting than the victim would have no idea what happened and all evidence would be collected and disposed of by the normal maid service. Who would ever suspect the bath towel? Better still if the poisoning displayed symptoms similar to food poisoning than everyone would conclude it was something that they ate.

SimonC May 13, 2011 4:25 AM

All this and nobody has noted many hotels already use the same technology for tracking minibar purchases, and have done for many years.

Davi Ottenheimer May 13, 2011 5:20 AM

I am reminded of Douglas Adams

“any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it … win through, and still know where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with”

john Henry May 13, 2011 8:39 AM

I don’t know specifically about RFID in towels but I do know quite a bit about RFID tags in things like uniforms and lab coats as are worn by employees in manufacturing plants. I know about this because I once helped an industrial laundry implement a system.

First, they are active, not passive tags which means that they contain a battery and have quite a bit more range.

Second, they are not so much a tag as a token. They are in a sealed stainless steel shell about the size of a watch battery, about 1/2″ OD by 1/8″ thick and are sewn int a seam of the garment.

These garments are usually rented by an industrial laundry. The tag allows them to track garments in and out of the laundry facility, the pickup and delivery trucks, and the customer plant. I doubt that it does anything to prevent theft, it is more to prevent loss.

It also is used to track how many times each garment is washed and allows for automatic replacement after so many washings. Or, if garments are frequently showing us worn out before their time, this can be used to help the laundry or user figure out why.

I suspect that RFID tags in towels might be useful for reasons like this as well. In addition to theft prevention.

Ir they might be simple 1 bit RFID tags such as used by stores for shoplifting protection. These aren’t really “RFID” since they only signal their presence or absence, but some suppliers are calling them RFID.

For the paranoid, I suspect that the uniform tags could be used to track an employee’s movements around the plant but have never heard of that happening. They are pretty obvious and could be easily removed. ID cards are a much better tracking tool.

John Henry

john Henry May 13, 2011 8:48 AM

Clarification to the above:

The industrial laundry is usually an independent business that owns the uniforms and rents them to the manufacturer for their employee’s use. The rental includes laundering, repairs of rips, missing buttons and replacement on irreparable damage or after a certain number of washing cycles.

My experience is in industrial uniforms but on reflection, I suspect that the uniforms used in restaurants including table linen, fast-food, retail stores and so on is a much bigger business in terms of volume. I would be surprised if these did not have RFID tags as well but will have to look next time I am in McDonalds.

I wonder if hotels own and launder their own towels or if they rent them from a service? Ditto bedlinen. Anyone know?

A quick Google and I found this so apparently yes:


John Henry

Allison May 13, 2011 8:46 PM

re: whether hotels rent their linens or launder their own: it depends on the hotel.

If you ever lose something in the laundry (teddy bear, child’s sock), the answer is that if the hotel does the laundry itself, you have a much much much higher probability of the hotel returning that item to you if you ask. Otherwise, the probability is zero–because even if it was found, the linen vendor has absolutely no idea where it came from.

My guess is that the laundry folks, in house and out, are the obvious source of the thefts, not guests. Then their number of losses make sense–no chance that one every three guests is losing a towel. but high chance that the the sum total of the laundry staff is taking that many per day.

Kirk May 14, 2011 10:54 PM

First, when looking at this it should be remembered that guests are not the only source of towel loss in a hotel. There is also the laundry service and the employees.

My brother used to be involved with tracking towels for a major Las Vegas casino. It should be noted that there is not enough time to count how many towels go to and from the laundry. Instead they went by weight. But towels lose weight in the process. Part of this is water in the towels, and part because of wear on the towel.

Now enter a technology few seem to grasp. Namely the ability to know which towels go through what doors at any given moment in time.

Now the easy part is knowing exactly how many towels went to the laundry and how many came back with no more labor then a check of the PC screen.

A scanner on the front door and you can visually know when a guest leaves with your towel. No need to confront them. Simply hit their credit card for the expense.

There is no need to know which room a towel visits.

Karl O. Steinke May 16, 2011 8:54 AM

My rough calculation is that the hotel is paying about $5 to replace a towel. Offering to sell “souvenier” towels for six or seven dollars (which is a pretty cheap souvenier), coupled with the RFID, the threat of RFID, or other towel tracking mechanism, would reduce towel theft to individuals doing it for kicks, and generate a small amount of revenue (perhaps to help defray towel security costs). The low cost might have the added effect of making the towels seem not worth stealing. I have seen hotels that have a price listed to buy one of their bathrobes. Unfortunately they seem to price them quite high ($60) which implies a value that makes them more likely to be stolen. I’d guess $15 is more realistic replacement cost. A hotel I stayed at on Oahu had the pool towels a different color from the room towels to help them keep track.

Roger May 16, 2011 9:22 AM

== How much are towels, anyway? ==
One of the articles that Bruce linked suggests that a towel is about $9, but then also says that preventing 3,250 thefts/month saved $16,000/month, which is more like $5 per towel.

A few other posters have been bandying about $5 figures too.

However $5 wholesale is the low-ball price for a reasonably sized bath towel of good quality cotton. The sort of towel I expect to find in a 5 star hotel ranges from $8 to $13 USD — wholesale price, in bulk. So if you pay $500 for two nights in a room, and nick a couple of nice Egyptian cotton bath sheets to go with it, the hotel’s margin better be more 5% or else you just walked out the door with all their profit.

What sort of margins do hotels get? It varies a lot, so much in fact that from week to week they often aren’t sure themselves. But lately, it’s generally been very thin. As Ryan mentioned above, quite often in the off-season they run at a loss just to keep things ticking over. But even in high season, it’s a cut-throat business with very narrow margins. For example, Hyatt — one of the world’s largest chains, with over 400 hotels — had a quarterly net profit last year of just over $10 million, on several billion dollars capitalisation.

Ouch. $10 million might sound ok, but bear in mind that this is worldwide, with tens of thousands of employees, in fact it’s really struggling to make ends meet. If each of those 400 hotels lost $16,000/month to towel theft, $10 million quarterly profit would turn into $9 million quarterly loss.

Yep, this is an industry that’s so desperate, it probably looks reasonable to bill people if they use two serviettes.

Alex May 16, 2011 10:31 AM

I really don’t think trying to enforce a rule against taking towels to the pool could possibly be worth the cost in lost business. I would expect you’d lose a fairly large percentage of the guests you harassed about taking towels to the pool. They’re called guests for a reason. It’s the sort of idea Basil Fawlty would have come up with if he’d taken a job with Intercontinental Hotels.

tensor May 16, 2011 11:39 PM

Right, standards are slipping. We have to wait a bloody 60 posts here before someone invokes John Cleese? (And don’t you give me that “I was all Douglas Adams” rubbish…)

At this rate, I expect to be reading about single-substitution ciphers advocated as security devices.

Seriously, embedding the towel-tags probably has may justifications, as others have noted. Anti-theft is a free rider, if you will.

chris May 17, 2011 4:37 PM

My father, president of his senior class at Cornell’s hotel school, ran a Mobile five star hotel and is in the Hospitality Magazine Hall of Fame. He didn’t have a problem with towel theft. Nor did he have a problem with theft of putters at the first-ever hotel putting green. that’s because he figured that the clientele was mainly wealthy and if their friends saw the hotel name on the stolen items it would lend prestige to the institution.

the low hanging towel May 19, 2011 12:10 AM

2010, someone was sentenced to three months in jail for stealing two towels from a Nigerian hotel.)
that makes email scamming an attractive alternative.

dennislv May 19, 2011 8:21 PM

This won’t prevent the thefts. The local dollar stores will make a lot of money selling aluminum foil so the guests can carry them out undetected. When theres a will…

AviD July 4, 2011 4:42 AM

This still doesnt take into account certain cultural aspects.

The manager of a very large hotel in Israel, told me about something he calls “The Dafka Principle”.
(Dafka is a Hebrew word with no real English translation, it roughly means “just because”. It has a flavor of spite, but not quite…)

Turns out some hotels had tried this, but “It doubled the theft because of the Dafka principle. No one here uses ‎them anymore. ‎”
Culture can provide powerful incentive to be ingenious enough to get around most security mechanisms…
And, a security mechanims that can be gotten around (especially by cultural effects) is worse than none: it practically puts a target on your back.
(Much like the “HackerSafe” label did back when…)

@Bruce, I hope your new book relates to cultural effects too… could be fascinating.

Doris Fok July 19, 2011 9:12 PM

How does this RFID works on the bath towels? Are this RFID washable once you tag them? what is the cost for this installation for the club’s Bath towels control??

Steve September 15, 2011 10:38 AM

I’m curious as to how exactly that hotel was able to save $16,000. There has to be more to it. I work for a hotel supplier and the cost of towels isn’t that expensive. Perhaps hotels who are worried about theft could just state they have RFID tags – but not actually use them – most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The goal is to reduce theft, and if people believe there are RFIDs then they may pass next time they consider stealing a towel.

Upset B&B owner March 2, 2012 7:59 PM

As a Bed and Breakfast owner, and working almost 7 days a week, 12 h a day trying to satisfy guests , I take it quite personally when guests “forget” they packed a towel ( chosen to match the color of the shower curtain ) or any other item, I take it as a stab in the back and I wish sometimes the industry had review sites on guest behavior ….

loombrand June 15, 2016 5:10 AM

Offering to sell “souvenier” towels for six or seven dollars (which is a pretty cheap souvenier), coupled with the RFID, the threat of RFID, or other towel tracking mechanism, would reduce towel theft to individuals doing it for kicks, and generate a small amount of revenue (perhaps to help defray towel security costs).

Steve July 22, 2016 12:18 PM

You very nice and thoughtful people are missing the point in several areas:

1) If you include the price of the towel in the room rate you are charging twice. Everything in the hotel is already in the room rate. That’s how the math works. All other charges are perceived by the guest as “nickel and diming”.

2) Towels take up a good deal of space. It is difficult to store enough towels to maintain more than three par. What is a “par” of pool towels? Some guests use one, some use 6.

3) Pool towels are not “amenities”. They are not soap, lotion, mouthwash, shampoo, conditioner. They are pool towels and therefor are more like recreational equipment, bicycles, silverware, china, glassware and other stuff that gets lost, worn out and broken. There is no expectation from anyone (staff or guest) that pool towels are like Kleenex or paper towels.

Hotels have Kleenex and lotion and soap and shampoo (which come in case quantities of 200) by the thousands, pool towels are sold by the various vendors generally by the dozen. If towels were amenities one could buy them in larger pack sizes. You can only wash a pool towel approximately 30 times before it is a useless stained rag.

As a hotelier for many years, I can assure you all that the only, and I mean only reason that hotels implement various schemes to help maintain an acceptable working inventory of pool towels is to prevent a negative guest experience resulting from a shortage of pool towels.

If Missy shows up at the pool and cannot get the 4,5 or 6 towels that she wants for each member of her group of 6 on their Girls Weekend, you will be offering compensation or risking a savaging in social media. Missy will think nothing of taking said towels to the beach in her car and leaving them there or in her car.

Guests on Holiday Weekend with multiple room occupancy go to the pool multiple times a day. They get towels each time and wrap themselves in a pool towel for their trip back to their room, each time. In three days they have 24 towels in their room laying in a wet dirty pile in the corner of the bathroom. Said guests will return to the pool looking for more towels.

Everything the hotel does regarding pool towels they do in an attempt to provide the guest a quality pool experience and minimize complaints.

That’s the truth…

Tom B. October 15, 2016 9:30 AM

The last post by Steve is completely correct. I work at a resort with 4 pools and towel theft is rampant. I have caught people trying to steal stacks of towels.
Yes it could be a cost of doing business, but its the guest satisfaction that suffers. We send out an emailed survey after a guest stays at our resort and lack of pool towels is the #1 complaint. Yes we purchase extra towels, and re-order when stock gets low. I have been yelled at, lost good employees because they were yelled at all because we didn’t have a towel for a guest. So to get a rfid embedded into towels so we can track who has said towel, to us it seems like the only solution.

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