Managing for Bottom Line Cash Flow
In the world we now live in, financial health requires a commitment to proven retail business fundamentals, a commitment to operational discipline, and a heightened attention to detail.
When economic conditions were more favorable, it might have been possible to consistently generate positive cash flow without this commitment to core retail fundamentals, operational discipline and attention to detail. But regardless of economic conditions, in both good times and bad, these are the core retail fundamentals that drive exceptional cash flow, for retailers of all sizes.
1. Detailed Sales Forecasting
Detailed sales forecasting identifies and quantifies where opportunities are, while assuring that the overall forecast is realistic. Sales forecasting provides direction and purpose to a season. It’s the first step in deciding how best to allocate your resources.
The best sales forecasts, however, don’t just forecast sales dollars, they also forecast the components of sales dollars, unit sales and average selling price. A 5% increase with a 15% increase in units but a 5% decrease in average selling price is likely to put a lot of pressure on average selling prices and margins. Alternatively, a 5% increase with a 5% increase in units and no change in the average selling price is not as likely to create downward pressures on average selling prices or margins.
Most importantly, detailed sales forecasts give you the budgets that you need to make your pre-season purchases, and the benchmarks you need to guide your in-season decision making. Forecasting is the beginning step in being able to forecast your cash flow, and then deliver on that forecast.
Detailed sales forecasting promotes positive cash flow.
2. Active Inventory Management and Lean Inventory
At heart, retailing is trading. The very first retailers were traders, and the very best retailers have always been traders. Traders buy and sell, buy and sell, buy and sell… and then buy and sell some more. The notion of retailing emphasizes the importance of turning inventory over.
Every retailer is focused on sales, and rightly so. The instinct to maximize sales, however, is often coupled with the instinct to always have in stock whatever a customer might want. Trading gives way to stocking, leading to slower turning inventory. Inventory has a funny way of consuming available cash. There’s always something to buy, and what seems like a good reason to buy it; new items, new categories, broader assortments, greater depth of stock.
I recommend maintaining lean inventory levels. Simply defined, lean inventory is the sweet spot between having the inventory needed to support the sales forecasts, without the burdens and risks of excess inventory. Maintaining lean inventories requires that inventory levels be actively managed.
Active inventory management and lean inventory promotes positive cash flow.
3. Maintaining Initial Markup Percentages
Eroding margins can have a devastating impact on cash flow. Conversely, margins that are stable and even increasing are essential to sustaining positive cash flow. And margin management begins with initial markup percentages.
Markup erosion occurs when cost increases from vendors are partially absorbed by the retailer in the form of lower markups. Usually it happens because the retailer is fearful of the impact on sales if the full percentage increase is passed on. A 55.0% markup becomes a 54.5% markup, for example. That’s money you can’t get back, and across a full assortment of items, over the course of time, it adds up.
Initial markup percentages can also erode when the sales mix shifts from higher priced, higher margin goods to lower priced, lower margin goods. On an item by item basis the initial markups look okay, but with lower priced, lower margin good contributing a greater share of sales, the aggregate markup slips, leading inevitably to a lower maintained margin.
Along with sales and inventory, initial markup percentages need to be planned out to create a budget to guide your purchases as well as benchmarks to guide in-season decision making.
Planning initial markup percentages promotes positive cash flow.
4. Protecting Maintained Margin Percentages
Markdowns take a bite out of gross margin percentages, but the impact on cash flow occurred well before the markdown was taken. When a markdown is taken, the resulting cash flow is merely a cash recovery on excess inventory. The negative impact on cash flow occurred when the decision was made earlier in the season to bring in inventory that ultimately couldn’t be sold at full retails and margins.
Preseason planning can prevent the excessive breadth and depth of assortments that leads to markdowns. Forecasting sales and closely aligning inventory levels to those forecasts prevents the build up of excess inventory. Further, flowing merchandise throughout the season, as close as possible to the planned time of sale keeps things fresh, promotes a sense of urgency in customers and allows you to respond to the sales trend, thus minimizing markdown risk.
Promotional discounting also impacts margins. Many retailers over the past few years have felt compelled to discount to drive sales. An increased level of discounting, however, places enormous strains on cash flow. Like markdowns, promotional discounting doesn’t generate full margins, the cash needed to pay the merchandise payables and all of the other expenses of the business.
Pre-season inventory planning, just-in-time principles and limiting promotional activity promotes positive cash flow.
5. Manageable Cost Structures
Variable cost structures are manageable cost structures, and the more manageable the cost structure, the more control a retailer has over cash flow. As it turns out, all costs are variable costs over time. Given enough time, all costs can be managed. The objective is to make every cost as variable as possible, to make them as manageable as possible.
Take rent expense, for example. When retail sales went off a cliff in late 2008, what did the major national retailers do? They went straight to their landlords. Their mission was to reduce their rents, but another way to think of it is that they began to manage lease expense, which is typically thought of as a fixed cost, as a variable cost.
Payroll, however, needs to be considered separately. Payroll is a step variable cost, due to a mix of full-time (fixed cost) and part-time (variable cost) employees. That makes payroll pretty manageable. But store level payroll is not merely an expense. While payroll levels cannot be totally divorced from sales levels, engaging, passionate employees are essential to delivering memorable customer experiences and generating plus revenues.
Variable cost structures promote positive cash flow.
6. Finance Working Capital Internally
Do you borrow the money you need to finance your seasonal working capital needs, or are you able instead to fund your needs from accumulated cash flow? Put another way, at the end of your peak selling season, does the cash on hand go to pay back the outstanding loans, or does it go toward the merchandise you’ll need to bring in for the next season?
I encourage my clients to set for themselves the goal of financing their working capital needs internally from accumulated cash flow. It creates a healthier Balance Sheet and keeps financing expense to a minimum.
How do you do it? By adopting a monthly cash flow plan that leaves you at the end of each season with ever-increasing cash balances, thus gradually (or not so gradually) reducing the amount of your seasonal working capital needs that you have to finance externally. It’s a project that will leave you with a much healthier balance sheet, and sustained positive cash flow.
A cash flow plan promotes positive cash flow.
Cash Flow Management
The most successful retailers over the next few years will be proficient in maximizing the cash flow from their businesses. Some may do it by generating significant increases. But many, if not most, will do it by skillfully driving cash flow from the revenues they’ve got.
They will build a cash flow plan, manage to the plan, and then deliver that plan.
A cash flow plan enables you to establish monthly budgets and benchmarks for all of your key cash-impact accounts, benchmarks that you can manage to. It enables you to identify potential cash pinch points in future months at the earliest possible point in time and gives you the greatest opportunity to develop the widest array of options to deal with potential cash shortfalls.
In the world we now live in, a forward-looking cash flow plan is an essential tool for maximizing the amount of cash flowing from the top line to the bottom line. And consistently generating positive cash flow is an essential ingredient in building long-term financial health and competitiveness.
Being successful in the coming years is going to require that retailers of all sizes become skilled and disciplined in managing these retail fundamentals to consistently drive cash to the bottom line. Put simply, retailers will need to become adept at planning a number, and then delivering that number, each and every month.