demand forecasting

7 Easy Steps to Set Up Your Supply Chain Correctly

Learn how to set up your supply chain and manage your inventory correctly from the start

Supply chain is incredibly daunting, especially if you’re new to it. While it might seem confusing and complicated at first, you can tackle this complex field by breaking it down into a series of simple steps. 

1.       Choose Your Inventory Assortment

This is where your genius as a founder comes in. You know your customers best and you can use your judgement and qualitative insights to hone in on that next best thing. Of course, if there’s any data you can use to supplement your intuition (like what’s sold well in the past), we encourage you to do so!

We always recommend that young companies start with a simple assortment of SKUs. You can always add more as you grow, but it’s incredibly hard to manage a wide product assortment right out of the gate.

2.       Forecast Demand

This step is critical because you need to have an understanding of what sales of each product (down to the size and color level) will be. Without this analysis, you could wind up vastly over or under buying inventory. When you’re just starting out, it’s completely OK to use an Excel model. Hopefully, you’ve taken our advice and kept your product assortment simple, which will make it easier for you to forecast demand.

However, as you scale, there aren’t really any sophisticated tools out there to help you that don’t cost a small fortune. That’s why we created Fuse - to help algorithmically forecast demand at a price point that doesn’t break the bank.

3.       Size Your Inventory Buys

Once you’ve completed your demand forecast, you need to translate this data into an inventory buy and replenishment plan to make sure that you have enough inventory to fulfill expected demand. As a young company, you can’t afford to stock out - it disappoints customers and damages your brand.

To avoid stockouts, you want to link your demand forecast to the inventory you have on hand and the inventory you expect to receive from suppliers in the coming months. You need to order enough to make up for the gap between what you have on hand, what you expect to receive and how much you plan to sell. You’ll also need a bit of buffer just in case.

Many companies do this work in Excel, but Fuse can automate the whole process of translating your forecast to an order recommendation that’s consistent with your buying cycle.

4.       Track Your Purchase Orders

Now that you’ve placed your orders with your suppliers, you’ll need some sort of tracking system to track these POs. If there are delays or something arrives to the factory damaged, you’ll want to make sure to stay on top of it or else you may stock out.

Many companies use Google Sheets, but with Fuse’s PO module, Fuse has a simple way for you to seamlessly track your purchase orders. Unlike a google sheet, once the PO change is logged, we can seamlessly link it back to your current inventory position and demand forecast in order to give you a clear picture of what this means for your business.

5.       Track Your Inventory

Now you know that your inventory is somewhere between your supplier and your warehouse, but the question is, where? Is it on the boat, is it at the dock, is it in the warehouse? Flexport can help you track where your goods are. This type of tracking is critical because there may be delays at customs or in other parts of that shipping process that neither you nor your vendor can anticipate. Having visibility can help you make adjustments and communicate with your customers.

6.       Understand Your Inventory Position

Your inventory has arrived. Now, it’s critical to understand exactly how much of it you have and where it is. There are two possibilities - you can do it yourself at your own warehouse or you can work with a third party logistics provider (3PL). Most young companies choose to work with a 3PL rather than managing their own warehouse. With a 3PL provider like Quiet Logistics, you can completely outsource both the tracking and fulfillment piece of inventory management. While this might seem expensive, unless your core competency as a business or a founder is warehouse management, you may be better off outsourcing.

If you do choose to run and manage your own warehouse, you’ll need a warehouse management system like Fishbowl to help your employees in the warehouse know what’s where and also track goods as they come in. 

7.       Fulfill Your Orders

Finally, your products are in your warehouse and you’re ready to get products into the hands of customers. This is one of the most critical questions in the supply chain. There are two parts to this process - order management part and shipping and logistics.

On the order management side, there are many great systems out there like Stitch Labs that can help you make sure you’ve allocated the right amount of inventory to your e-commerce site, your retail store and your wholesale business. When you process an order from a customer on your website, you want to make sure that you have enough inventory to fulfill that order. You might have a lot of inventory on hand, but perhaps all of it is already allocated to your wholesale channel. These systems can also notify you when you’re running low. As your company grows, you may want to expand into more robust ERP systems like NetSuite. These types of systems are typically what people think of when they refer to an “inventory management system.”

Finally, the shipping and logistics piece is a whole separate beast. Smaller companies aren’t well resourced to do this, which is why a 3PL system can be extremely useful. Not only can they take care of your inbound goods, but they can also pack and ship goods to your customers. There are also new software providers like Shiphawk that can help you and your customers track where the shipment is. This piece is critically important because it’s how your customers will interact with you and your brand, so you want the experience - from packaging, to shipping, to tracking, to delivery - to be flawless. 

Staying sane

As a growing company, to stay sane, you need to take it one step at a time. There are some basic things you can do when you’re starting out to make life easier and help you succeed. First, find a 3PL provider you trust and rely on them to do the blocking and tackling. Second, while going into wholesale can seem attractive, you need to be careful about doing this early on. Working with retailers that are 1000x your size can be extremely challenging and time consuming, so you want to make sure to pick the right partner. Lastly, be thoughtful about how much inventory you buy and how you finance it. Making big mistakes early on can literally take down your company. 

We created Fuse to help companies transition from managing their demand forecasting and inventory planning process in Excel and Google Sheets to using sophisticated software. Start with Excel, but don’t stay there too long. As your business becomes more complex, mistakes become even more risky and costly. Make sure to invest in inventory planning software like Fuse to avoid drastically over or understocking. We’re here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.

Your company may be young, but you don't have to plan like it

Just because you're a young company, doesn't mean that you can't define and build out the planning function early on.

At Fuse, we define ourselves as an inventory planning tool for growing retailers. We work with many young start-ups who have a diverse set of experiences with the areas we touch like demand forecasting, supply chain and inventory management. Some have experienced planners who come from a background at big companies like Target, J.Crew or Gap. Others are general athletes who’ve had inventory planning and supply chain management thrust upon them. To level the playing field, we decided to answer some basic questions in this post.

What is inventory planning?

Given this disparate set of experiences, we thought we’d take a step back and answer, “What is inventory planning and why is it so critically important?” According to the Business Dictionary, inventory planning is, “The process of determining the optimal quantity and timing of inventory for the purpose of aligning it with sales and production capacity.” 

In our last post, we defined supply chain through a series of seven questions. The key questions answered by an inventory planner are questions two and three: "How much inventory will I sell? How much inventory do I need to order?"

We asked Jeffrey Awong, VP of Planning at BarkBox, with prior experience at both Jackthreads and Lord & Taylor for his input:

“Planning functions differ across companies, but at the core, it's really about ensuring that there is a perfect match with the supply of goods and the forecasted demand, with a heavy emphasis on efficiency. As a result, it sits right in the middle of Marketing (understanding demand levers), Finance (P&L and cash flow implications) and Merchandising (to understand the magic of what's being sold).”

Why is inventory planning important?

Cash management is critical for young companies, and planning well can help significantly mitigate inventory risk which can be especially fatal for young companies. It is a function that manages one of if not the biggest investment that a company will make. If a company buys too little of a specific product, then it can lead to stock-outs and lost revenue. If a company buys too much of a product, it can lead to too much cash tied up in working capital that could otherwise have been put to good use elsewhere. 

Skilled planners look not only at sales, but also at other metrics like profitability. In a given month, the company may have a certain budget to spend on inventory (typically called an “open to buy”). While you may want to buy $100,000 of product to meet your sales target, you may already have placed POs against that budget. As a small company, you might frequently find yourself in a situation in which you need more product than you can afford. An inexperienced planner might simply replenish the top selling SKUs, but an experienced planner will also look to see which SKUs are the most profitable. This is a critical question to answer, particularly if cash strapped. 

How can you improve?

From experience working with our customers, the two most common planning mistakes we’ve seen are:

  1. Focusing on revenue instead of margin. We see far too many companies re-ordering products that are high volume, but low value
  2. Investing in marketing without connecting that investment to inventory. Marketing can drive customers to the site, but that traffic can’t convert into revenue unless there is enough product there to support it. If you’re out of your top selling SKUs, all of the marketing spend in the world might not make a difference

For our young companies, we always recommend bringing on an experienced planning hire early on to save time and money. From day one, you don’t want to be placing your orders based on instinct. Once the planner is on board, Fuse is here to support him or her in crafting the critical pieces of the puzzle, marrying the demand forecast with the initial inventory buy and replenishment recommendation for each season. Our sophisticated algorithms help smooth out outliers and do the grunt work for the planner so that he or she can focus on the more interesting, strategic and analytical work. We’re here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.