If you’ve ever worked in a retail store, inventory management probably gives you flashbacks to back storerooms filled with stock being counted by hand. But with the rise of ecommerce, inventory management is expanding from brick-and-mortar to digital.
From storing inventory in a garage or basement to outsourcing or renting warehousing solutions, it’s critical to manage the process accurately, efficiently, and cost-effectively. If you don’t, you risk losing money or failing to meet customer demand.
Managing inventory strategically has never been more important, and it only gets more challenging as you grow in both product development and units sold. Read on to learn how to stay on top of the inventory management process.
What is inventory management?
Inventory management refers to the management and monitoring of a company’s stocked goods. Inventory management is vital for both online and brick-and-mortar businesses, and includes ordering and restocking inventory, storing inventory, adjusting frequency, order quantity, and inventory forecasting.
Why is inventory management important?
Managing inventory the right way is crucial, especially for growing ecommerce businesses. Here’s why.
1. It ensures you never run out of stock
Part of inventory management is figuring out how much inventory you should have on hand at all times. Too much inventory, and you risk ‘dead stock’: inventory that can no longer be sold due to being outdated. Too little, and you’ll run out of stock, fail to meet customer demands, and miss out on potential sales.
By establishing reorder points, you can ensure that you keep an eye on your inventory so that it doesn’t dip below a critical level. (More on this later.)
2. It helps you save money on storage
Too much inventory can result in too much money spent on storage space. Storing inventory is a variable cost — it’s based on how much space your inventory takes up at any given time. When you have more product on hand than you need, you end up paying more for storage. Being smart about inventory levels can help you reallocate those funds.
3. It prepares you for the unexpected
It pays to be prepared. Do you know what you’d do if any of the following supply chain mishaps took place tomorrow?
- You unexpectedly sell out of a product
- You miscalculate your storage needs and run out of space
- Incoming inventory from the manufacturer is delayed
- You run into a cash flow issue and can’t purchase more inventory
Strategic inventory management can help you get out of these sticky situations. Tracking inventory over time and having contingency plans in place for potential inventory problems will prepare you for situations that would otherwise seriously impact your business.
4. It shows trends in customer behavior
Keeping track of what inventory sells like hotcakes versus what ends up covered in metaphorical cobwebs can share some important insight about what your customers are — and aren’t — into. You can also gauge the success of prior promotions or product launches by assessing inventory levels before and after those events.
5. It predicts the future
Well, kind of. Good inventory management lends itself to good inventory forecasting, which can help you predict and plan for demand. You can leverage past inventory trends on a monthly, seasonal, or SKU-by-SKU level to better prepare for future levels of sales and demand. Make sure to keep any planned marketing promotions or new product launches in mind, too.
5 Inventory management techniques and methods
Now that you know why you should stay on top of inventory management, it’s time to get into the how. Here are 5 inventory management techniques every ecommerce retailer should keep in mind.
1. Set reorder points
Also called par levels, reorder points are the minimum quantity of each product that must be on hand at all times in order to prevent stockouts. When your inventory levels drop below the reorder points, it’s time to order more products from your manufacturer.
To calculate reorder points for your products, add up the following (in days):
- Your manufacturer’s lead time for sending inventory to your fulfillment center
- Your fulfillment provider’s receiving turnaround time (if applicable)
- A recommended “safety stock” of at least 14 days in case of a sudden demand spike
Then, multiply the sum of 1, 2, and 3 by your average units of the product sold per day. This number is your reorder point.
Although it requires some math upfront, setting reorder points will help streamline and take the guess out of restocking inventory.
Make sure that you check your reorder points over time and readjust as necessary, especially before peak times like the holidays when you’re likely to need more stock on hand.
“ShipBob’s software lets us track inventory change and velocity over time. Being able to monitor which styles are selling quickly helps us always keep our best sellers in stock. We’ve been able to get through our heaviest seasons while staying ahead of production using ShipBob’s inventory forecasting tools — even as our order volume more than quadrupled in less than a year.”
Ryan Casas, COO of iloveplum
2. Use the FIFO approach
“First-in, first-out,” aka FIFO, is an inventory management principle that means that your oldest inventory (first-in) gets sold and shipped out first (first-out). This is especially important if you’re selling perishable products or those with expiration dates.
Even if your goods are shelf-stable, FIFO can still be a good strategy. Because packaging, design and branding, and product features tend to change over time, it’s important to change out inventory so you don’t end up with obsolete products.
If you’re storing inventory and fulfilling purchase orders in-house, you’ll have to monitor this manually. If you’re outsourcing to a third-party logistics (3PL) provider, they’ll likely be able to implement a FIFO system for you.
3. Regularly audit your inventory
While auditing physical inventory is often tedious, it’s important to check actual inventory levels against the amount of inventory you have listed electronically. If you work with a third-party provider, you’ll probably be relying on their software system and reporting to keep track of inventory levels. However, it’s important to make sure that the system’s numbers match up with your physical stock.
Spot checking can be a more manageable way to keep inventory audits under control in between full physical inventory audits. This means choosing a specific product, counting the number of units on hand, and comparing it to the number of units listed in the system. This is especially helpful if you have a large product catalog with lots of different SKUs. Inventory management technology can help simplify this process by prompting a spot check when the system marks the product stock as zero.
After checking your inventory levels, it’s important to have regularly updated backups of this data. This can be as simple as exporting the data from your inventory management software to a CSV file at least once per week. Additionally, you can set up automatic backups of the inventory levels provided in your ecommerce platform using apps like this one.
4. Maintain a relationship with your suppliers
Choosing the right manufacturer is a huge step for growing businesses to find the most cost-effective and efficient partner that can help elevate growth. But finding the right supplier for your business is just the beginning. Maintaining a good relationship with your manufacturer will ensure they’re a partner in inventory management rather than an obstacle.
Make sure to communicate frequently with your manufacturer, especially when you’re anticipating an increase in sales or they’re running behind schedule on production.
If you have inventory quality issues, a product that won’t sell, a product that sells out more quickly than anticipated, or any other situation that calls for production adjustments, having a good relationship with your supplier will help your supply chain run more smoothly.
5. Use inventory management software
Software that is specifically designed to help you manage your inventory, whether in-house or in a 3PL’s warehouse, can help avoid losing money from unsold products, report on inventory levels and trends in real-time, and offer suggestions for inventory distribution. It can also help automate several of the techniques above, saving time and potential human errors for your business.
What is inventory management software?
Inventory management software helps automate and streamline the inventory management process by tracking inventory levels, orders, sales, and shipments. Good inventory management software allows you to plan ahead and prepare for various levels of demand and sales by monitoring trends and historical patterns.
Why do I need an inventory management system?
An inventory management system is a necessity for growing ecommerce businesses. Here’s why.
View real-time inventory counts at the SKU level
With inventory tracking software in place, your orders and inventory are synced in real-time. At any given time, you can view the status of inventory you send to various partners, the quantity on hand at your storage facility, and total units sold per day. This provides reassurance and visibility into what is available to ship to your customers, as well as the real-time impact of promotions and product launches.
Automate reorder notifications to prevent stockouts
Using historical data, inventory management software can help project when you should order more inventory to prevent stockouts. This helps take the guesswork out of reorder points. Some inventory systems also allow you to set reorder notification points that automatically alert you to restock.
Run reporting on inventory trends and forecasting
Inventory software can automate reporting on product trends and inventory forecasting for your retail business.
An inventory management solution can help you better predict future demand and sales. Monitoring which products are purchased together can help you understand your customers’ behavior and help you decide how to group your products for new offers or promotions. You may find patterns of how one SKU drives demand for another.
You can also monitor the inventory you have on hand and units sold per day, run reports to see which SKUs and sales channels are your highest sellers, and see which products aren’t as popular, costing you higher warehousing fees. This can save business owners money in the long run.
Best inventory management software
There’s no one-size-fits-all inventory management system; every small business or large corporation has different needs, especially when it comes to ecommerce. Here are some of the most popular inventory management software for online stores.
For businesses that use multiple sales channels and fulfillment providers, TradeGecko provides a powerful inventory and order management platform. TradeGecko’s software combines sales channels, locations, and currencies to streamline inventory control from a single dashboard.
This can be especially useful for ecommerce businesses that sell both direct-to-consumer and wholesale, as well as those who need to connect inventory data from several different international warehouses.
TradeGecko is not a fulfillment provider; however, their software can be used in conjunction with fulfillment technology to ensure streamlined inventory management and order fulfillment.
Some businesses — especially enterprise retailers who have been operating for many years — choose legacy providers like SAP to track inventory. These include warehouse management and enterprise resource planning systems (WMS and ERP respectively).
Many WMS and ERP systems use legacy technology. While these systems record and manage stock levels, there is not always an automation or optimization component. These options also tend to be expensive, incurring significant overhead in exchange for limited functionality, thus geared toward very large companies.
ShipBob is not a standalone inventory management system, but rather an order fulfillment solution that has inventory management software built in. Merchants get the tools, guidance, and reporting necessary to efficiently manage their inventory across multiple stores and ShipBob’s fulfillment centers.
Inventory tracking tools are included at no extra cost for merchants who use ShipBob to fulfill orders. Having order fulfillment synced up with inventory management helps streamline your supply chain and keep data and reporting in one place.
Why outsource inventory management to a 3PL?
You may think that outsourcing inventory storage and ecommerce order fulfillment to a 3PL provider means turning inventory management over to them. In reality, a good 3PL partner provides merchants the tools, data, and transparency they need to manage their inventory efficiently and cost-effectively.
Inventory management involves much more than just warehousing your products. Fulfillment and inventory management go hand in hand. Here’s how a 3PL helps you manage your inventory.
Sync SKUs and orders from your store
A tech-enabled 3PL’s software seamlessly integrates with all major ecommerce platforms and marketplaces. This enables merchants to connect their store in just a few clicks without needing a developer.
Connecting these channels provides a cohesive view of all orders, inventory, fulfillment centers, sales channels, and customers in one place. You can easily pull over all of your SKUs from your store into your 3PL’s system. And as you add new products, you can easily sync your new SKUs.
“We roll out new products and designs on our website 1-3 times a month and send new inventory to ShipBob each week. It’s really easy to create new SKUs and restock existing ones using ShipBob’s technology, which is especially important with high inventory turnover.”
Carl Protsch, Co-Founder of FLEO Shorts
View real-time inventory counts
Once your 3PL has your inventory at their fulfillment centers, you can check the quantity on hand and units sold per day at any given time for direct visibility into what is available to ship to your customers.
Proactively reorder inventory
Tech-based fulfillment uses historical data to help project when you should reorder inventory to prevent stockouts and backorders. You can set reorder notification points for the stock levels at which you want to be automatically reminded to restock.
This helps you connect the upstream activities of purchasing and manufacturing to the downstream activities of sales and product demand, ultimately helping you make more accurate purchasing and production decisions to save on inventory costs.
Store inventory in strategic locations
If your 3PL has multiple fulfillment centers, they should be able to help you determine the optimal fulfillment center locations based on your customers’ shipping destinations.
Your customers most likely don’t all reside in one geographic area. Using one fulfillment center can make it difficult to efficiently reach the majority of people who buy from you. Instead, distributing your inventory to major hubs or cities can ensure you ship to lower shipping zones, delivering orders more quickly and at less cost.
Each time an order is placed on your online store, the 3PL’s order management system will automatically choose the fulfillment center closest to the end customer to draw inventory and ship the order. Additionally, if you run out of inventory at one fulfillment center, you’ll have backup at another.
Discover trends to drive growth
As we mentioned above, having accurate insights about your customers’ purchasing trends can help you figure out the optimal inventory levels for your products.
For example, understanding which products aren’t selling but instead incurring storage costs — as well as those that are selling more quickly than you can keep them in stock — can empower you to make better supply chain decisions.
Some 3PLs provide built-in reports that let you view a trend analysis of your products and give you more control of your inventory and the key metrics that drive business growth. These include peak fulfillment times, revenue of orders shipped by day, sales by channel, and sales and quantity of orders by USPS shipping zone.
Control how products are grouped
A 3PL’s technology gives you the power to select how you group your inventory. This includes:
- Bundling your products for promotions
- Merging the same product across multiple sales channels
- Separating inventory by lot numbers and expiration dates to comply with regulations and be able to act promptly and effectively in the event of a recall. (This also helps with the FIFO technique we talked about earlier.)
- Kitting items to assemble them a certain way before they are shipped to customers
- Preparing orders to send in bulk or transfer inventory
Today, outsourced order fulfillment often means receiving the tools needed to manage inventory from within their warehouse(s). A good 3PL shouldn’t be a cost center but rather a partner that helps prevent stockouts and can accurately forecast demand to increase sales and reduce storage costs.
Inventory management FAQs
Now that you’ve gotten more familiar with managing inventory for an ecommerce business, here are some frequently asked questions you may want to know.
How do I know when to reorder inventory?
Calculate reorder points either manually or through your inventory management system’s software. Some inventory management software allows you to enable automatic reorder notifications when stock drops below the designated reorder point.
How do I know how much inventory to order?
Stocking the right amount of inventory is a delicate balance you have to strike. If you order too much inventory, you’ll end up with extra stock for which you have to pay for storage; too little, and your customers will look elsewhere.
Analyzing historical data and trends from previous months will help you determine how much stock you’ll need moving forward. If you’re launching a new product, make sure to clear storage space for excess inventory before it arrives.
How do I deal with stockouts on my store?
If you frequently find your products selling out, make sure that you order a higher quantity of inventory the next time you restock. If you’re in the situation where you’ve run out, keep customers in the loop on when they can expect your product to be back in stock by displaying restock dates on the product page and offer them the option to be notified when it’s back in stock.
How do I plan for seasonality?
Seasonal variations in supply and demand can put a lot of pressure on a growing business. If your business has been around for over a year, analyzing previous years’ seasonal trends can help you plan properly for upcoming seasonality.
If your business is brand new, you can research seasonal trends in your industry to help you form predictions. For example, if your product is meant for winter use only, you’re likely to find that demand is highest just before and during the winter months, while you’ll want to have less stock on hand in the summer.
How do I manage inventory in multiple warehouses?
If you are operating several of your own warehouses or inventory storage locations, make sure to set up a WMS and inventory management system that allows you to keep track of inventory across locations. Having the right technology in place can streamline in-house inventory management.
If you outsource fulfillment and the warehouses are all owned and operated by the same 3PL, they should be able to provide visibility into all of your orders, stock levels across fulfillment centers, and shipments in one place.
If your inventory is stored in warehouses operated by several different fulfillment providers (e.g., in different countries), an inventory management system can help you manage all sales channels, locations, and currencies to streamline inventory control from a single dashboard.
What is a SKU?
A SKU, or Stock Keeping Unit, is an alphanumeric code number assigned used to identify a product. The code represents different product characteristics, such as color, size, and brand. Each product variation is assigned a SKU, and the SKU is used to keep track of inventory (e.g., a Large red shirt is a different SKU than a Medium red shirt, and thus, should be stored in a separate location).
What is inventory turnover?
Inventory turnover measures how quickly your company is selling inventory. It can be a useful comparison to industry averages to measure the strength of your company’s sales volume and performance. Knowing your inventory turnover rate can provide valuable insight into how your company manages inventory, sales, and costs.
Inventory management affects every aspect of a business’s operations. Choosing the right inventory management system and techniques can help your business save money, meet customer demand, and stay efficient and effective in the fast-moving ecommerce landscape.
If you’re in need of a 3PL that will help you manage your inventory in real-time, check out ShipBob. With ShipBob’s technology and network of fulfillment centers, you can manage inventory and order fulfillment efficiently and effectively from one central platform.