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Managing Retail Inventory and Maximizing Return on Inventory Investment

  
  
  

It's either going to be sold and converted to cash, or it's sitting there tying up cash, costing you more cash each and every additional day it's not sold.

Published by Business Know-How.com


Have you ever heard a retailer, wholesaler or distributor say, "We can't sell it if we don't have it?"

How about, "We're committed to inventory?"

Or perhaps, "We're not going to just give it away?"

It's not really surprising, in fact, that each comment seems to be followed over time by the next. There seems to be a direct connection from the idea that you must have inventory in stock in order to sell it, to the pledge of being committed to having (lots of) it in stock, to the assertion that the excess, leftover, dead stock retains its value and cannot be sold for below cost.

In fact, there is a direct connection in this line of thinking, and it is characterized by one misconception followed inevitably by another. Let's take a look at these (and other, related) misconceptions. 

"Our inventory is our most important asset."
Inventory may be the largest asset on your balance sheet, which makes it very important, but it's not the most important asset. Your most important asset is the customer relationships which enable you to turn that inventory into cash, day after day, day in and day out.

Inventory is one of those things where more is not necessarily better. When it comes to inventory, "more" generally leads directly to "too much", which is usually the first step on the road to trouble. Ask yourself this; "If I could figure out a way to do the same sales volume with less inventory, would I?" You bet. Inventory is, in fact, an unfortunate necessity of doing business for a retailer, wholesaler or distributor.

So if inventory is an asset which may not always be an asset, how do you determine what is what? There are two key inventory productivity metrics which are widely known, but not always fully utilized. The first is inventory turnover. Ask somebody how many times their company turns its inventory and they'll probably know the number right off the top of their head. What they may not be able to tell you as quickly, however, is how that turnover compares to other companies in their industry. Or, how many times they turn the inventory of their key categories or key items. Or, quite revealingly, how many times they turn the inventory of those items which makes up the last 20% of their sales (the 80/20 rule, but turned upside down, into the 20/80 rule).

The second key metric is gross margin return on investment, or GMROI. GMROI merely factors gross margin percentages into inventory turnover data to generate a financial measure of inventory productivity, the return on inventory investment. Which takes us directly back to the question we asked above, slightly re-stated; if you could generate the same gross profit dollars with fewer dollars invested in inventory, would you?

"I can sell it if we have it in stock."
I like to call this the Field of Dreams argument; if we stock it they will come. This is actually the inverse of "We can't sell it if we don't have it." This is, of course, easy for a salesman to say because he doesn't have to own the inventory personally, his company does, and if for some reason he can't sell it, he's not on the hook, the company is. But underlying these statements is an important truth about marketing: inventory doesn't generate sales, marketing does. Granted, building a reputation for having an item in stock when the customer wants it is not an unimportant marketing message, but it is clearly secondary to communicating to customers the features, benefits and value of an item. That's what truly builds customer demand. If you aggressively market it, if you aggressively sell it, they will come.

In fact, the marketing consideration that goes into the decision whether or not to stock an item is directly related to the customer's expectations. If the item is a tube of toothpaste, or a pair of running shoes, or the latest compact disc, the customer clearly expects it to be in stock, and if it's not, the sale won't be made. On the other hand, if the item is a leather sofa, or a refrigerator, or custom draperies, the customer would rarely expect to be able to take the item with them.

Depending on the use and the value of the item, as well as whether the item requires professional installation, the customer's expectations regarding delivery could range from several days to several weeks. Do you need to stock those items at the point of sale? Do the lead times within the supply chain allow for the stocking location to be centralized, back in the supply chain? Why own it at the point of sale if you do not have to?

By the same token, why own more of it than is needed to cover sales (plus an appropriate level of safety stock) until the next vendor shipment. While there are a number of formulas that will generate the appropriate replenishment parameters for any given item, the logic is pretty straight forward; every purchase for stock must be made with the informed expectation that you will be able to sell it within a reasonable period of time.

If an item is purchased from a vendor who maintains minimum purchase quantities, renegotiate those quantities or find another vendor. And if those quantities are being purchased to nail down specific purchase or freight discounts, run the numbers. You'll quickly realize that in almost every case the discounts that are leading you to purchase more than you need at any given time are very quickly offset by the carrying costs associated with the excess inventory.

"Our customer says that if we stock it for them they will buy it from us."
Really? Do you have a signed purchase order from the customer? No? Not surprising. These types of opportunities should be viewed by understanding that the "if" part of the bargain is the driver, not the "then" part. It's easy to get hooked in to a large, regularly recurring sale. It's like finding cash on the sidewalk. Or is it?

In fact, the key to understanding and evaluating these deals is the requirement to maintain inventories for the customer. The customer is very astutely managing the inventory they need to support their business back up the supply chain, and with it the risks and expenses associated with carrying that inventory. They want to be able to count on you having what they need, when they need it. How much additional inventory will you need to stock? What is the incremental carrying cost of that additional inventory? What happens if the customer suddenly decides to switch items? Factor those costs in. How profitable does the business look now?

"We've built up a lot of dead inventory, but we're not going to just give it away."
"We may have had it for several years", (with no activity but the accumulating layers of dust), "but we paid $10.00 dollars a piece for it when we bought it" (three years ago), "and it's still in very saleable. There's no reason to let it go for less than a 20% margin. Besides, somebody might come in and need it tomorrow."

Where to start with thinking like this?

First, the $10.00 spent three years ago is sunk and not relevant to any analysis today. The value of the inventory today is related to what potential customers might be willing to pay for it, which bears no relationship to what it originally cost. In fact, if you were to continue to try to market it at a price that would recover the costs associated with it, you would need to include in the cost basis the carrying costs that have been incurred since it was purchased, typically around 25% annually of the average inventory value. If these carrying costs were fully accrued, the cost value of our $10.00 item after three years would be $19.53. It would have to be sold at $24.41 to yield the desired 20% margin (compared to a selling price of 12.50 with a $10.00 cost base).

This is clearly absurd. Almost all inventory depreciates in value over time, anywhere from 20% to 50% a year. We understand this inherently; if a potential customer felt the inventory was fairly valued and desirable at a price of $12.50, they would have bought it long ago. The fact that it has still not sold clearly establishes that the market does not value at $12.50! There've already been plenty of tomorrows for customers to have bought it!

This may seem long-winded, but you can't put too fine a point on it. Dead inventory is a problem for most every retailer, wholesaler and distributor at one time or another. It happens. When it does the key to maximizing your recovery is to act quickly, be clear headed and sober in your assessment of what it will take to liquidate the inventory, and take your medicine. Just the opportunity cost alone associated with management's attention being diverted from constructive activities, like growing the business, argues persuasively that dead inventory cannot be allowed to build up until it's like a lead weight the company is dragging around. I'll say it again; take your medicine, learn from it, and move on. Don't worry about what you once paid for it, or how much you're carrying it on your books for. It's not relevant.

Conclusion
Don't fall in love with your inventory. It's not likely to love you back. It's amazing how the investment in inventory can take on an emotional, almost passionate quality. But, if you think about it, it is understandable. For many owners and executives, especially those with an entrepreneurial investment in the business, their inventory is made up of products which represent a life's passion.

For those of us whose focus is on managing retail inventory and maximizing the return on inventory investment, however, inventory is a dispassionate means to an end. We look at inventory, and we see a surrogate for cash. It's either going to be sold and converted to cash, or it's sitting there tying up cash, costing us more cash each and every additional day it's not sold. Our challenge as inventory managers is to help retailers, wholesalers and distributors recognize and adopt sound inventory management practices, in order to maximize their return on inventory investment, without sacrificing the passion that is the lifeblood of any growing business.
© 2003 Hurlbut & Associates All Rights Reserved

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