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What is an Inventory Planner and why is she SO important to your growing brand?

An inventory planner hard at work optimizing the supply chain of a growing brand

Are you an Inventory Planner? Have you ever tried to explain to your friends or coworkers what you do and had a hard time getting them to really get it?

Are you a business owner building a brand who’s been told that you should hire a planner? Have you wondered to yourself, ‘why?’ and ‘what would she help me with?’

If you fall into either of these two buckets, this post is for you! If you’re an underappreciated planner, we hope you can send this to your friends and coworkers so that they truly understand how much you contribute to your company. If you’re a business owner who’s new to ops but wants to scale, we hope we can persuade you to get an inventory planner before you run into a major operational crisis like stocking out of your top selling SKUs.

First, let’s start with some basic definitions. Inventory planners help companies:

(1) Determine how much inventory they need to order. 

Just like Goldilocks, growing businesses need just the right amount of inventory to survive. Order too little and you risk stocking out, damaging your credibility with your customers and harming your brand. Order too much and you can wind up with hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars of wasted inventory. The capital you invested may be permanently lost, crippling you from investing in other critical business initiatives like products that are selling well or marketing to attract new customers. Inventory planners do a complex optimization exercise every year, quarter, month and even week to make sure that just the right amount of inventory across all products has been ordered.

(2) Determine when the inventory needs to arrive.

It’s not enough to simply order enough inventory, but the inventory planner’s role is also to make sure that it arrives when it’s needed. If a company has a three month lead time, discovering that more inventory is needed the week before isn’t helpful. Conversely, if the inventory will sell through eventually but is just sitting in the company’s warehouse for six months, that capital could certainly have been put to better use. Timing is a critical piece of the planning equation.

(3) Aligning with sales and marketing. 

Marketing and sales are always trying to drive business. A critical input into planning are questions like “what promos are we running this month?” and “what big wholesale accounts do we expect to win next year?” Inventory planners work closely with marketing and sales to make sure that there is the right amount of product to support and prepare for the big wins expected to come from these initiatives. In prior blog posts, we’ve highlighted the importance of coordinating with operations if you’re in sales or marketing. 

So, why are Inventory Planners important?

Well, we hope that after reading our definitions, the picture all starts to come together. Yet, the unfortunate reality remains that inventory planning remains one of the most misunderstood and least appreciated functions at growing brands. 

So, here’s what we think. Inventory is either the #1 or #2 investment that companies make. If it’s #2, it’s second only to marketing. An investment this big, if not managed properly, can and has been the cause of failure. The less capital you have to play with, the more important it is to optimize that investment. While there is a lot to be done downstream in the supply chain, and we’ve highlighted this in our post on 7 supply chain questions you need to answer, the best optimization on the fulfilment side can’t help you if you’ve ordered the wrong amount of inventory. Because of this, the person who plans your inventory - makes sure you’re investing enough and makes sure it’s coming in on time - is one of the most important people in your company and one of the earliest roles all consumer brands should hire for early on. 

Whether you’re an inventory planner with decades of experience or a start-up founder who’s just coming to grips with the importance of operations and inventory, Fuse is here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.

The 3 things ecommerce brands can learn from Amazon Prime Day

Here's what small ecommerce brands can learn from Amazon Prime Day's success

This year’s Amazon Prime Day was record breaking generating $1 bn in sales. Not only did Amazon beat it’s own Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, but sales also increased 60% year over year relative to last year’s Prime Day. Amazon continues to dominate e-commerce and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But, as we said in our last post, we definitely believe that there is room in the market for digitally native brands to succeed. They just need to compete on a different dimension rather than trying to beat Amazon at the game that it’s mastered - convenience.

As Amazon continues to grow and dominate, we think that Amazon Prime Day has valuable lessons for growing brands that they can apply to their own business models successfully.

(1) The membership model works really really well if you’re fulfilling a real need

While subscriptions of one sort or another have long been in vogue for ecommerce companies, not all of these companies have been successful over the long-term. This year, a record number of customers signed up for Prime Day, demonstrating that the membership or subscription model can work really well, but it needs to have several key components. Namely that the benefits have to be unique, exclusive and drive significant value to the customer. 

The thing that makes Prime Day so special is that it is available to only Amazon Prime members. Most e-commerce subscription providers tend to provide a subscription for the sake of stabilizing their own revenue and cash flow and not necessarily because they offer something unique, exclusive and valuable to the customer. 

That being said, companies like Stitch Fix and Dia & Co. have been successful because they provide exactly that. In the case of a company like Dia, they’re meeting an untapped market need for plus size clothing and have a unique offering in a space where there’s a clear market gap. Literally the perfect use case for a membership model. 

(2) Don’t be afraid to run experiments

In a way, Prime Day is one big experiment for Amazon. The company has used it to test new product lines and releases or supply chain innovations with the focus shifting slightly each year. Once it becomes clear what worked and what didn’t, Amazon can use the plethora of data to improve throughout the remainder of the year. 

While most e-commerce brands do have a strong ethic of A/B testing whether it’s landing pages, marketing copy or other initiatives, it can be hard to run potentially game changing experiments and take big risks as a small company. But, that being said, what Amazon and other successful e-commerce players like Jet have taught us is that big bets can pay off. In an ecosystem where retail continues to be challenged, those who innovate successfully and take bold steps to reinvent their business models even when they seem to be working will be the ones who come out on top. 

(3) Make sure your supply chain and logistics are in order before ramping up marketing

While in the past Amazon has had some technical snafus related to Prime Day, the company has certainly succeeded in making sure everything went smoothly this year. While Amazon has a particular strength in supply chain and logistics, the lessons from its past technical malfunctions can teach smaller brands a thing or two.

Similar to the Amazon example, you don’t want to spend a ton of time, effort and money driving traffic to your site when that traffic can’t convert due to a shopping cart glitch (back in 2016), or, on the supply chain side, when you’re out of the inventory you’re advertising. At Fuse, one of the most common problems we encounter is a lack of coordination between the marketing and the supply chain teams. 

While marketing may launch a meticulously planned, omni-channel campaign, too often we find that these campaigns don’t take into account critical questions like if the campaign has the desired impact, can the company actually fulfill the orders? Will there be enough inventory to satisfy demand? While it seems obvious in hindsight, it usually takes a crisis or two for e-commerce brands to streamline the coordination between functions. 

As your company grows and scales and focuses on putting these lessons into practice, Fuse is here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory. 

Is Amazon eating the world?

Groceries spilling out

Just over 6 years, Marc Andreessen famously stated that “software is eating the world.” In e-commerce today, Amazon is certainly eating Whole Foods, but is it eating the world? While the full implications of the acquisition remain to be seen, there are a few things that we can infer from the acquisition and its impact on both food and e-commerce.

Standalone food start-ups will continue to struggle

Since the first tech bubble, standalone food start-ups have struggled to succeed. In the early 2000s, Webvan, a precursor to today’s Fresh Direct and Instacart went belly-up. There are several key factors that contributed to the start-ups failure, but the main one was a lack of scale. Today, despite being tremendously popular among Millennial audiences, food start-up Maple shut down last month. Others, like Munchery, continue to struggle and may not be long for this world. On the other side, the shining success in the industry has been Blue Apron, which announced its IPO. While some attribute Blue Apron’s success to marketing, we attribute it to a laser focus on implementing operational efficiencies and constantly improving with scale. 
 
In general, that will continue to be the theme. Food (and more broadly, inventory) waste has the potential to take a company down and creates notoriously tight margins. In many ways, Amazon, who has made its name operating on razor tight margins, is the perfect acquiror for a food business that tends to experience these issues to the extreme. 

The war between Amazon and Wal-Mart is about to heat up

With a slew of acquisitions recently - Jet.com, Bonobos, Modcloth - Wal-Mart made it clear that it’s making it’s presence known in e-commerce. Amazon has countered with the Whole Foods acquisition and will start going after the bread and butter of Walmart’s business. Not only that, but given Amazon’s expertise in operating on low margins, it’s actually well positioned to decrease Whole Foods notoriously high prices. This will broaden Whole Foods’ reach and put it in more direct competition with Walmart Grocery shoppers. At the same time, Amazon can offer a slew of other attractive food related services online and in stores. 

But can brands still stand-up to Amazon?

As we look to the broader ecosystem, what does this mean for brands and retailers? Is everyone else doomed? While this may be an unpopular opinion, we here at Fuse don’t think so. 
 
As the competition between Amazon and Wal-Mart heats up, the two will tend to converge into two very similar players with limited differentiation in the consumer’s eye. The number one differentiators will be price and convenience. In many ways, while Amazon’s success has put pressure on physical retail, it’s acquisition of Whole Foods actually validates that physical retail isn’t going away.
 
By 2020, Millennials will account for 20% of retail sales. Unlike prior generations, Millennials are looking for unique experiences and deeper connections to the brands they shop with. While Amazon and Walmart will always win on convenience, brands that work hard to facilitate unique experiences, value props and bespoke feeling (if not actually bespoke) products will continue to speak to Millennials. What’s more, creating these brands online is easier than ever today and there is so much more flexibility in what a brand’s physical presence needs to look like. It doesn’t have to be a fully stocked store, but rather, it can be a showroom or pop-up. 
 
In the early days of e-commerce, all brands were essentially competing on convenience. But, today, as e-commerce becomes more and more ubiquitous, it’s clear who’s poised to win on convenience. In many ways, this can be liberating for brands given that instead of competing on faster shipping, they can compete on delivering the brand experience Millennial consumers are searching for. 
 
In short, we don’t believe that the rest of retail is going away, but we do believe that retailers have to get smarter not only on brand, but also on the operations side. As tools like Fuse continue to grow, scale and become more ubiquitous, brands can help themselves compete against larger players who have vastly more resources. No matter what type of brand you’re building, Fuse is here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.

Who are we and why are we doing this?

We're here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.

Whenever we speak to a new customer, the question of who we are and how we got into the business of building inventory software always comes up. Given how frequently you ask, we thought we’d share our founding story with all of you.

Listening to you

When Anna was getting her MBA at Stanford, she pursued her passion for e-commerce and retail between her 1st and 2nd year. She set out asking companies, “What’s your biggest problem?” and was shocked to find that universally, almost every company said “inventory”. 

Upon returning to school, Anna decided to investigate the need more deeply. She started with a small user study that has since expanded to 150 user interviews. She interviewed planners, merchants, buyers, warehouse managers, logistics, managers, operations managers, COOs, CEOs, and anyone else who could possible touch or care about inventory. 

Her key takeaways were:

  1. Supply chain is needlessly fragmented with many handoffs between systems and an inordinate amount of time spent compiling data
  2. There was a big gap in planning - while people complained about their order management systems, their warehouse management systems or their 3PL, at least there was a system. However, when trying to answer the critical question of “how much inventory should I order?” all they had were Excel and Google Sheets

Anna knew that there must be a way to help the businesses she loved be more successful. This is where the idea for Fuse was born.

Personal experience

At that point, Anna sought out a partner who had deep expertise in supply chain and computer science expertise. Through the Stanford alumni network, she met Rachel. Rachel has a CS degree from Stanford, and after working as a software developer, transitioned to overseeing supply chain given her love for process oriented work and physical products. 

At Kiwi Crate and Parasol Co, Rachel dealt with the trials and tribulations of managing supply chain in Excel, even building out custom python scripts to streamline the process. At Parasol, Rachel was so dissatisfied with existing systems in the market that she ended up commissioning a custom system which cost her over $200k just to build, let alone to maintain.

When Anna approached her to seek her input on the gap she’d observed in the market, Rachel was immediately on board. It made so much sense, and she felt passionate about building the product she would have wanted to use. 

Solving a hard problem

When Anna and Rachel decided to add a CTO for the team, Rachel knew that there was only one person she wanted to work with. Having worked with Bridget in CS classes at Stanford, Rachel knew that Bridget would be the perfect partner. Not only was she an amazing technical talent with a CS Masters from Stanford, but she also had worked on new products within Google like Waze. This gave her the perfect balance of big company and small company experience.

When Rachel and Anna approached Bridget, she was excited by the sheer challenge of the problem. What could be harder than predicting the future? Not only that, but it was a real, visceral pain point for so many companies. And finally, given the advancements in technology, like machine learning, Bridget was excited to be able to take full advantage of her technical background to create the best algorithms for Fuse’s customers. 

Why we’re here

Coming together to build Fuse has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of our lives. As customers rely on Fuse and leverage the technology to streamline and increases the accuracy of their planning processes, we’re privileged to continue helping you focus on your business, not your inventory. 

4 simple rules for streamlining your SKU system

Great idea for inventory

This week’s post is on a definitively unsexy but very important topic, and it was actually inspired by one of our recent conversations with our customer, Snowe. Snowe is in the process of redoing their SKU system, an exercise that almost all of our customers go through as they grow. The main reason this happens is because when you start your business, you’re not quite sure exactly how it will grow and expand. What types of products will you be adding? Will you always stay in your chosen category? 

In the case of Snowe, their SKU renaming was prompted by several factors, according to Erica Peppers, Head of Product Development & Sourcing:

“We decided to overhaul our SKU system because the original structure we started with is no longer the right fit to scale with our business.  The two key components we considered were simplification and easy identification.  The system can be simplified, as our products don't need nearly the number of configurations as a product assortment that is narrow but deep.  Also, because we are not a seasonal or trend based company, our products are introduced with the intention of a long life span.  So rather than being just a series of letters and numbers, our SKU system should provide a reasonable degree of product identification at a glance. ”

While in some cases, renaming your SKUs is inevitable, there are several things you can do to make sure that your new system is successful and lasts you and your company for many years to come:

(1) Don’t rely exclusively on marketing categories

In many cases, we see SKU systems that leverage the marketing category the company uses to communicate with customers about its products. From a marketing perspective, having a clear sense of categories of product and what they mean to the customer is critically important. But, these categories don’t always translate in a meaningful way to the operations side. For example, if you have a children’s clothing brand, you might have marketing categories along the lines of “play”, “sleep”, “celebrate”, and while these are useful to the consumer, the fact that the item is merchandised for play does not mean as much to the operations person as knowing that it is a red onesie at first glance.  

(2) Keep it flat

It’s very easy to create a million categories and subcategories for each of your SKUs, but this causes additional confusion and complexity. Closely tied into the idea of avoiding using marketing categories for SKU naming, the more you can do with less, the better. Taking our baby products company again. We can have a red onesie with the SKU “ONS-RED-01” or “SLP-ONS-RED-01”. The more layers and depth you add, the more confusion and subjectivity you insert. For example, is our red onesie really for sleep, or is it for play? Instead of making it clear to all of your operations staff where the onesie belongs, you’ve now inserted subjectivity into the mix. With subjectivity comes room for disagreement and confusion. 

(3) Make it mean something

While it is possible to use a sequence of letters and numbers that actually mean something, do it! If you can shorten colors to “BLU”, “GRN”, “YLW”, there’s no reason to create a numbering system that’s associated with every color. By creating SKUs that mean something, you can make it easy for anyone in the company, and especially members of the operations team, to take a look at the SKU at a glance and know exactly what it refers to. On the other hand, if each color has a specific number associated with it, there’s no way to sort through the data intuitively. Moreover, to create any kind of summary reports that mean something to someone who’s not fluent in the SKU system, you’ll need a complicated series of tables and excel formulas to translate the meaningless numbers and letters into something digestible. 

(4) Make it your own

Finally, your suppliers will most certainly have their own SKU numbering system. The last thing you want to do is leverage their system and use it as your own. First, their SKU system is designed to do all of the above things we listed in items 1 - 3 but from the perspective of the supplier. Thus, what means something to them doesn’t necessarily mean something to you. Moreover, at some point, like you, they may find the need to redo their SKU system. If that happens, then the SKU system you’ve been relying on not only doesn’t exist, but it’s made your internal system completely meaningless. While it may seem like more work, having your own system is very worthwhile.

In general, we see this happen a lot with young companies - renaming SKUs is part of the journey and the growing pains. Regardless of where and how big your business is, we’re here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.