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What is Inventory Management?

Imagine you own a thriving independent bookstore in downtown Toronto, with shelves stocked to the brim. You have the latest releases and lots of classic, tried-and-true reads — but you notice one morning you have no more copies of the current No. 1 bestseller. The result? Restocking that bestseller becomes a race against time.

It's a scenario most Canadian small business owners are familiar with, and it's one that highlights the art of inventory management — a strategic dance of having enough in stock to meet your customers' demands. Mastering this art can transform your business from surviving to thriving.

What is inventory management?

Inventory management forms the backbone of many small business operations. Every product you carry (also known as “stock" in inventory lingo), from the smallest impulse purchase to the top-selling item, should be meticulously tracked and managed.

But inventory management is about more than just tracking what's in or out of stock. It involves the fine art of keeping the right amount of product on hand. By orchestrating your resources to meet market demands and exceed customer expectations, you're able to operate your business with a streamlined efficiency that adapts quickly and easily to an ever-changing market.

Benefits of efficient inventory management

Implementing efficient inventory management can be a turning point for your small business, steering you towards greater efficiency and success. Here are some of the benefits that come with getting inventory management right:

  • Unlock financial flexibility. Efficient inventory management means less of your money is tied up in stock, leading to improved cash flow and more financial agility.
  • Maximize sales, minimize misses. Keeping your inventory levels optimal ensures that your products are always available, which enables you to more effectively capture the sales opportunities that come your way.
  • Create happy, loyal customers. When your customers know they can turn to your business to find what they need when they need it, their growing trust translates into a loyal customer base.
  • Cut down on unnecessary expenses. With optimal inventory levels, you reap the savings from reduced costs on inventory storage and maintenance.
  • Empower informed decisions. Access to real-time inventory data equips you with the insights needed for strategic decision-making.
  • Easily adapt to market changes. With a robust inventory management system, you'll gain the agility to respond quickly and effectively to changes in both the market and customer preferences.

Now let's dive even deeper into inventory, the different types, and what a general inventory management process looks like.

What is inventory?

Inventory is the spectrum of goods your business holds — a vital component that impacts everything from cash flow to customer satisfaction. Think of inventory as a dynamic asset, representing potential revenue and the key to gaining and maintaining loyal, happy customers.

But what if you're a service business? Inventory isn't the sole purview of businesses that sell products. Service businesses often need to carry inventory — items that are included in providing the service. For example, a catering business would need to have an inventory of food ingredients and serving supplies on hand for each event it caters.

Types Of Inventory

Understanding the different types of inventory is key to managing your stock effectively. Here's a breakdown of the most common types of inventory:

Raw materials. Raw materials are the building blocks of your products — the initial components or ingredients you need to start the production process.

Work in progress (WIP). This type of inventory is in a transformation phase — it's not quite raw materials anymore, but also not the final product, either.

Finished goods. The stars of your inventory, finished goods are products that are ready to find their new homes with your customers.

Packing materials. Often overlooked but still vital, these materials protect your products during storage and transport, ensuring the products reach your customers in perfect condition.

Maintenance, repair, and operating (MRO) supplies. These are your behind-the-scenes heroes — the tools and supplies that keep your production or sales process running smoothly.

Whether you're crafting artisanal goods for your e-commerce store or running a bustling retail operation, the inventory you manage can vary widely.

For example, a local bakery will have flour and yeast as raw materials, dough in various stages as WIP, freshly baked bread as finished goods, bags and boxes for packing, and baking tools and ovens as MRO supplies.

The independent bookstore in the opening scenario, on the other hand, is a retail store, so it won't have need of raw materials or WIP. Its inventory would consist of finished goods, packing materials, and MRO supplies.

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What the inventory management process looks like

When it comes to inventory management, your goal is to craft a process that aligns perfectly with your business objectives and your customers' needs. It's about more than counting stock. You want to create a fluid, efficient process that fully supports your business's growth.

Understanding the basic steps involved in managing inventory helps you navigate the complexities of doing so effectively. Here's a breakdown of what the inventory management process typically involves:

  • Ordering materials and/or products. This step involves sourcing and purchasing the right materials or products needed for your inventory.
  • Storing inventory. Efficient storage of inventory optimizes space, ensures easy access, and minimizes damage or loss.
  • Monitoring stock levels. Regularly checking your inventory levels helps you make informed reordering and sales strategy decisions.
  • Processing orders. This step includes selecting, packing, and shipping orders, all while ensuring accuracy for complete customer satisfaction.
  • Restocking inventory. You want to regularly replenish your inventory as needed to keep up with customer demands and prevent stock outs (running out of an item).

Tips for an effective inventory management process

Managing your inventory effectively is pivotal for ensuring your business runs like a well-oiled machine. Here are some practical tips to help you improve your inventory management process:

Identify your inventory needs. To better understand the types of inventory your business needs, consider factors such as your product range, customer demand, and any seasonal demand fluctuations.

Implement a specific inventory management technique. There's a wide range of inventory management methods to help you manage your inventory effectively. For example, an e-commerce store might use just-in-time management — where you keep just the amount of inventory you need — to help reduce the costs of holding inventory. A grocery store, on the other hand, might use a first in, first out (FIFO) system, and sell older stock items first before they expire.

Choose an inventory management system. Select a system that aligns with your business's scale and complexity, from simple spreadsheets (manual inventory system) to an advanced or cloud-based solution that uses bar-code scanning (periodic inventory system) or radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology (perpetual inventory system).

Establish reorder points. Establish specific levels at which you will reorder each specific item or product, so you can balance the need to meet customer demands without overstocking. For example, a coffee shop might set reorder points for coffee beans and milk based on weekly consumption patterns to avoid running out of essential items.

Regularly review and adjust inventory levels. Continually monitor and adjust your inventory based on sales data and market trends. This can be particularly important in advance of upcoming gift-giving holidays, to ensure your popular gift products are adequately stocked.

Implement quality control measures. Regularly check your inventory for quality, including inspecting for damaged goods. This not only cuts down on the number of customer returns, but it also helps establish your reputation as a quality seller.

Optimize inventory layout. Arrange your inventory efficiently for easy selection and packing, such as grouping frequently sold items together in an accessible location. A hardware store might, for example, place fast-moving items such as screws and nails near the check-out for quick access.

Analyze inventory performance. Regularly evaluate your inventory to identify any trends, such as bestsellers, slow-moving items, or items with high holding costs. Use the insights from your analysis to adapt your inventory strategy as needed.

Streamline your inventory management process

Ready to take control of your inventory with ease? QuickBooks Online offers low-stock alerts, real-time tracking, and comprehensive inventory insight reports, so managing your inventory has never been easier. Plus, you can seamlessly connect to a variety of online sales and payments platforms. Make the smart choice for your inventory needs with QuickBooks Online today.

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