5 Inventory Management Mistakes to Avoid in 2024

Business is thriving. You’re expanding product offerings, launching as a marketplace seller on Amazon, and might even try setting up a TikTok shop. It feels like the sky’s the limit. 

But as you get your listings ready for expansion, have you thought about how  these avenues for growth also introduce complexity for your ecommerce operations – especially with inventory management? 

Pivotal for seamless fulfillment experiences consumers expect, inventory management should be top of mind, because without careful planning, the risks are high that miscommunications, errors, and delays will creep in – resulting in disappointed customers rather than skyrocketing growth. 

To prevent mistakes, you need to stay vigilant and proactive – and you need a robust toolset to support a systematic inventory approach. Here are the top pitfalls, along with the strategies you need to not only avoid problems, but create a strong foundation for ecommerce growth. 

Mistake #1: You don’t count inventory often enough.

Businesses often conduct physical inventory counts at the start of each fiscal year or quarter, when every item in stock is identified and logged. Also known as physical stock takes, these projects require a massive effort; some retailers even temporarily close stores or halt sales operations during the process to ensure accuracy and allocate more workers to the counting process. 

Not only is this method expensive and unwieldy, but it simply isn’t fast enough for the dynamic world of eCommerce. With multiple sales channels and fluctuating seasonal demand continually impacting inventory levels, you need to frequently verify the accuracy of the numbers in your online systems. Otherwise, you risk stockouts and overselling merchandise, which can frustrate customers and cause damage to your brand’s reputation. Consider these remedies:

  • Upgrade to barcode scanning. A barcode system using printed labels and a scanning app on a smartphone or specialized device speeds counting and reduces human error. Scanning a label takes a fraction of the time needed to jot down even the briefest of details – and items are immediately visible in your online system with full product details available.
  • Adopt continuous cycle counts. Cycle counting is the practice of counting a rotating subset of your inventory on a regular, frequent basis. These small-batch counts are less disruptive and more accurate than business-wide stock takes, and you can adapt the schedule to reflect which product categories need most attention. Because the job is ongoing, you can build specialized teams so counts are conducted consistently. 

Mistake #2: You don’t keep comprehensive, current data.

Stock counts are just one part of the overall inventory picture. Without knowing current locations, item types available, end dates, and other critical product information, you miss out on opportunities to streamline and optimize your warehouse and fulfillment processes. 

This lack of visibility has an impact on the bottom line: Last year, out-of-stock products and deep discounting of excess merchandise cost merchants $244.5 billion, or nearly 6% of all North American retail sales, according to research from the IHL Group. To build a comprehensive view of your inventory:

  • Create a single source of truth. A comprehensive catalog is a must, including discontinued products, incoming new items, and returned or exchanged merchandise. In addition, you need to account for all your inventory locations, including stores, warehouses, third-party logistics providers, and online marketplace fulfillment centers, so you have end-to-end visibility.  This holistic view is all but impossible to achieve using physical printouts and emailed Excel sheets; instead, consider a cloud-based inventory management system like Finale that’s designed to integrate data from multiple sources to provide real-time visibility. 
  • Make a plan for marketplace selling. If you sell on major online marketplaces like Amazon, Walmart, or Rakuten, you may opt to use fulfillment services offered by the platforms to speed order delivery and potentially boost your products’ visibility on the marketplace site. But each new marketplace fulfillment partner adds a new location for stock and a new challenge for maintaining up-to-date inventory data. Before making the leap, study which marketplaces align with your brand audience and select only those that make sense from a strategic standpoint. As part of setup, integrate reporting from the marketplace fulfillment center into your unified inventory data hub.

Mistake #3: You order too many items.

Safety stock is your “just in case” stash of merchandise to prevent overselling and stockouts. It’s also a cushion against supply chain disruptions, which is why many retailers bumped up inventory after the shakeup in global supply and demand caused by the pandemic. But too much safety stock generates excess inventory costs, which include not just the product price, but also insurance and warehousing expenses. 

You should aim to strike a balance so you don’t accumulate a backlog of obsolete, expired, or out-of-season products. Here’s how:

  • Use the MIn/Max method to prevent overstocking. Set a ceiling on the amount of extra stock on hand by calculating your minimum and maximum order amounts. An inventory management system can prompt you to reorder when stock falls to the minimum amount, set by multiplying average daily sales by the order lead time. The maximum amount to order is usually a multiple of the minimum – anywhere from 1.5x to 2.5x – to ensure that you don’t over-order items. To maintain precisely the right amount of stock, use an inventory management system that automatically recalculates min/max quantities based on the most recent sales period.  
  • Consider domestic suppliers. If goods travel from overseas, you need a higher safety stock level than for items produced domestically. Consider working with manufacturers located in the U.S. or the Americas to reduce exposure. The practice is growing in popularity: Two-thirds of respondents in a McKinsey survey in late 2023 said they were seeking suppliers closer to home to ensure a more stable supply chain.

Mistake #4: Your forecasts are based on guesswork. 

The ability to accurately predict demand is the foundation of solid business planning, and informs not only your product purchasing schedule but also sales forecasts, budgets, and staffing plans. But without reliable data–current and historical–, forward projections are certain to be off-base. 

Despite its importance, forecasting remains a challenge for most retailers. BDO found that  49% of executives expect their supply and demand forecasting to be inaccurate, while RSR Research found that improved forecasting is the top opportunity for improvement retailers identify. To align forecasts with reality:

  • Calculate the true Cost of Goods Sold (COGS). The product price is just one of the costs involved in bringing goods to your door, and ultimately to customers. Freight and customs fees, insurance, packaging, warehousing costs including rent and more should all factor in so that you have a true number to reference when determining your pricing strategy, sales forecasts, and budget.
  • Leverage historical and geographic data to predict demand. While it’s impossible to know whether history will repeat itself when it comes to inventory demand, using all the existing data at your command is still your best bet for accurately gauging future performance. If you have a unified inventory dataset, you can reference similar products to predict performance of new items, dive deep into geographic data to project the impact of sales at regional store locations, and pull up-to-the-minute reports during peak seasonal events so you can fine-tune your forecasts. 

Mistake #5: You have a “set it and forget it” mindset. 

External factors such as inflation or supply chain delays aren’t the only reason you need a flexible outlook. Consumer demand for individual products can fluctuate unexpectedly if your brand goes viral on TikTok or  items in a new retail partner’s stores start flying off the shelves. And you may introduce changes to the business that impact your eCommerce operations and warehousing – such as by adding new online sales channels, creating new product configurations or offerings, or implementing new in-store returns policies. 

If you’re managing inventory using manual practices, you can’t cope with these potential disruptors, much less seize the new opportunities for growth that come with an agile approach. To stay nimble, review inventory processes regularly and monitor your data closely to identify any performance gaps. And consider these strategies:

  • Enable maximum flexibility in product configurations. Whether you want to create seasonal gift packs, start a replenishment service, or devise physical kits or virtual bundles, your inventory management system and processes need to adapt. Items should be trackable as standalone products or as components of the kits or gift sets they belong to. 
  • Offer regular training on updated processes. Ensure your warehouse and fulfillment workers are consistently applying current best practices by offering regular training sessions. These sessions can also yield feedback and ideas about how to streamline inventory operations. Providing opportunities for staff to build skills is essential to prevent attrition and build institutional knowledge. As one example of the current labor crunch, just 8% of executives say they have the in-house talent to execute supply chain digitization initiatives, McKinsey found.

Avoid costly mistakes with proactive inventory management

Ecommerce inventory management has never been more complex, raising the risks  of miscommunications and delays that can negatively impact the customer experience and endanger the growth trajectory of your brand. But with agile inventory management practices and a commitment to unifying real-time data, you can go beyond avoiding the pitfalls to streamline your operations for maximum efficiency and customer satisfaction, and proactively make product decisions. 

How Finale can help

With 10 years of experience in eCommerce inventory management, Finale Inventory knows the potential mistakes to avoid as growing businesses upscale their eCommerce operations management. With real-time inventory and warehouse management, proactive forecasting tools, and integrations with leading fulfillment and eCommerce partners, Finale has the technology and expertise to help your company grow.