supply chain

7 Supply Chain Definitions Every Founder Should Know

Closet full of colorful clothes

We work with many young companies started by inspiring founders who often have incredible marketing and branding chops. But, when it comes to inventory, that expertise is hard to hone and hire for. Even if you’re not an expert, there are things you can do like follow our 7 step guide and get familiar with a few basic definitions: 

1. Lead Time 

This is the most basic concept on the list and probably something you’ve already heard from your suppliers. Lead time is simply the number of weeks or months between when an order is placed with a supplier and when the finished good can be delivered. Your fully baked lead time will be not only how long it takes your supplier to make your product, but also how long it will take them to ship it to you. 

2. Minimum Order Quantities (MOQus)

If you’re a small brand, you’ve probably already run into this concept with your suppliers. Minimum order quantity is the minimum quantity in units per SKU, units per category or dollars that your supplier will allow you to order. Although you might do a lot of sophisticated analysis to figure out the exact amount of inventory that you need, it might not matter if this amount is below the minimum order quantity defined by your supplier. While it might not be possible, you should definitely try to negotiate the MOQu down to give you flexibility and avoid holding more inventory than you need or can sell.

3. Buffer Stock (Safety Stock) and Service Level 

No matter how accurately you are, there is always risk that you may have underestimated the inventory you need. To avoid stockouts, companies keep extra stock on hand by setting a service level target which is the probability that all customer orders will be fulfilled. New brands might want to set a high (99%) so as not to damage the brand with stockouts. But, service level does rely on relatively predictable demand which many young brands don’t have. That’s why at Fuse, we rely on a weeks of supply target. 

4. Weeks-of-Supply

Weeks-of-supply is calculated as total inventory / weekly sales. Weeks of supply can be calculated based on historical results or as a forward looking metric based on your forecast. Many inventory professionals consider the forward looking approach to be best practice because seasonality can vary drastically throughout the year. In Fuse, we seamlessly calculate your weeks of supply target and build it into your inventory buffer. We’ll look to your expected seasonality and make sure that you’re always ordering enough for next season.

5. Sell-Through Rate 

Weeks of supply and sell-through, when used together, can help give you a complete picture of your inventory position. Sell-through is defined as total sales divided by inventory stock at the beginning of the period. So, if you sold 500 silk blouses in January but started with 1,000 silk blouses in inventory, your sell-through rate would be 50%. A high sell-through rate and a low weeks of supply number means that you need to restock while a low sell-through rate (5%) and a high weeks of supply number means that you’ve overbought and may need to mark down your inventory. One of the most relied upon concepts in inventory planning, sell through can give you a good benchmark for understanding the health of your inventory. 

6. Reorder Point and Reorder Level

The reorder point is the level of inventory at which a reorder is triggered. This point is calculated as the forecast sales during the lead time plus buffer stock. The reorder point tells you when you need to reorder, but not necessarily how much (the reorder level). Fuse can help you understand both metrics by seamlessly linking the pieces together. We provide a reorder recommendation based on the buffer you set, your lead time and the demand forecast you’ve created using our advanced algorithms.

7. Open to Buy 

An open to buy puts all of the concepts of inventory planning together in one report. It is a budget that highlights how much capital is available to spend in a given period, and how much already has open POs against it. In many instances, a planner may know exactly how much product she needs to order to support demand, but she may no longer have the budget to meet this demand. For example, she might need $150,000 of product next month to reach the brand’s sales targets, but $75,000 may already be allocated to open POs. In this type of example, the planner’s job is to optimize the allocation of the remaining budget to best serve the business. Usually, at this point, the best course of action is to determine how best to optimize margin. The planner will evaluate which SKUs can generate the most profit given the limited budget available rather than simply doubling down on best sellers.

At Fuse, we’ve implemented these concepts and best practices in our software to vastly simplify the analyses that planners have to do. We’re here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.

Sources: 
https://www.thebalance.com/sell-through-rate-2890389
http://www.threebuckets.com/category/formula-cheat-sheet/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Service_level
https://www.thebalance.com/open-to-buy-planning-2890318
http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/lead-time.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reorder_point
http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/minimum-order-quantity

Are You Financing Your Inventory the Wrong Way? Here are 3 Ways to do it Right.

Make sure to finance your inventory the right way!

Over the past year, we’ve learned that many young companies are financing their inventory completely the wrong way. What’s the wrong way to finance inventory? With venture capital funding. 

Why you don’t need VC funding for your brand

First and foremost, unless you have a completely new business model (like Dollar Shave Club or Birchbox when they were first starting out) or something else that’s extremely innovative about the brand you’re building, venture capital funding is probably not right for you. If you do take VC funding, it should be used exclusively to drive your business’ hiring and marketing needs. These are important investments in growth and worth selling a piece of your company for. But, given that there are many other ways to finance your inventory, selling a big chunk of your company to do so doesn’t make any sense. 

At this point, you might be asking yourself, well if I can’t use venture funding, what should I do? Here are three options:

(1) Your Suppliers and Manufacturers

Our advisor, Lisa Hom, who’s starting a new brand called Kaleido Concepts and has been an executive at multiple $100 mm+ brands, plans to finance her inventory by, “...getting creative when working with manufactures and suppliers. It all comes down to cash flow. The strategy should be to pay your manufacturers for the goods after you sell them. I asked a manufacturer for terms of net 120 days, meaning that I didn't have to pay him for the goods until 120 days after he shipped the product.  So it gave me 90 days to sell it and not have to pay for the goods out of my cash.”

While it may take a bit of leverage to get that type of accommodation from a supplier, most founders don’t even know that they can ask. Many manufacturers feel that they are falling behind and are eager to partner with founders who can educate them on the world of e-commerce. When starting a new brand, you need to talk to suppliers from a place of strength, so getting creative about what your strengths are is super valuable. Moreover, we’ve seen several start-ups partner with their supplier by letting them take an equity stake in the company. Not only does it give you capital, but it also completely aligns your incentives.

(2) A Letter of Credit

Now that you’re in business and actually have sales, you can go get a letter of credit from a bank. The letter of credit will demonstrate to your suppliers that you will be able to pay them. This letter of credit not only allows you to purchase more inventory than you otherwise could, but it also allows you to negotiate better payment terms with your suppliers. Now that you have more inventory, you can drive higher sales, increase the amount guaranteed by the bank, buy even more inventory and do it all over again. So long as the inventory is selling, you’ll continue to be able to use this approach to finance your business.

(3) Inventory Factoring

Finally, although inventory factoring sometimes gets a bad name, there are great companies like Dwight Funding, who are revolutionizing the world of inventory factoring and taking a modern approach to working with young companies. Inventory factoring is when a company takes on debt to finance inventory against its future sales or accounts receivable. This can be especially effective when you work with large retailers like Sephora, Nordstrom and others that commit to purchasing large amounts of product for the upcoming season well in advance. These receivables can be leveraged to get a loan in order to be able to buy the inventory that will support these large contracts. 

What do you need to be successful?

If you pursue these strategies, you need to maintain trust with the third parties you work with by forecasting your demand and inventory needs accurately. If you’re unable to pay your supplier because you’ve vastly overestimated the sellthru rate of your inventory or your factoring partner can’t get a straight answer on what you expect this year, these partnerships won’t be successful. That’s where a tool like Fuse comes in to help you forecast demand and inventory more accurately. Planning inventory and getting it right is our bread and butter. As a scrappy start-up, our tool can help you gain leverage and continue to forecast easily and accurately as you grow your SKU count and monthly order volume without throwing more bodies at the problem. No matter how you choose to finance your inventory, Fuse is here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.
 

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.

What's our ROI?

When we first started Fuse, we had several key hypotheses as to how we could improve the way inventory planning is done by retailers today. First, we were convinced that it’s impossible to plan a growing business in Excel. As the volume of data and the number of SKUs grow, it’s easy to make errors in Excel and, in fact, impossible not to when you’ve linked several spreadsheets and Excel is crashing mid-save. Excel’s capabilities are limited, and thus planners must rely on backward-looking metrics like sell-thru and historical growth rates, which don’t accurately paint a picture of their growing business. Second, an algorithm can better detect anomalies and accurately estimate seasonality than a human whose attention is divided amongst the many other urgent priorities of the day.

After working with our early customers for some time, we’re proud to say that both our hypotheses were correct -- we’ve found that the ROI of using Fuse makes a meaningful, material difference on both the revenue and the cost side.

10% More Revenue

On the revenue side, we’ve found that Fuse helps our customers achieve 10% more revenue. We did a deep dive into our customers’ biggest quarter - Q4. First, we took a look at stockouts in Q4. We defined a stockout as zero sales with 95% confidence. This means that we excluded instances in which zero sales could have legitimately meant no demand for the product. Second, we assumed that our customer’s revenue target for Q4 was equal to actual Q4 sales. In reality, given the number of stock-outs our customers experienced (more on that below), the revenue target was likely most definitely higher than the sales figures actually achieved. Finally, at Fuse, we always encourage our customers to modify the forecast by including relevant details like product launch dates, products that are phasing out, as well as other information they might know about their business that an algorithm doesn’t. For purposes of our analysis, however, we excluded that information. 

Even assuming the above simplifications, we found that our customers could have made 10% more revenue and avoided 450 stock-outs (on average) during Q4 if they’d followed Fuse’s algorithm. In fact, one of our earliest customers who joined the platform in Q4 had zero stock-outs in Q1

What does this mean? Well, for one thing, it means that Excel is definitely not the right tool for growing businesses to plan inventory. In addition, it also means that even without additional input from our customers, Fuse’s initial predictions (based on seasonality) can achieve dramatically better results for our customers.

Reduce Overspend on Inventory by 3x

What we often find with the growing companies we work with is that a significant stock-out in the past, or paranoia about stocking out, leads to panic overbuying. This ties up precious capital and resources in inventory that could be deployed elsewhere. 

In Fuse, we use a forward-looking weeks of supply target to help customers maintain a lean inventory buffer. We often find that many of our customers are managing their buffer using sell-thru (which is backwards looking) or a historical weeks of supply target. For a growing business, these backward looking metrics don’t reflect current trends, and can lead to dangerous overbuying. However, with Fuse, it’s now possible to look forwards instead of backwards, thanks to our accurate forecast and real-time actualization of sales.

We took our customer’s forward-looking weeks of supply target (based on Fuse’s forecast) and applied it to create a recommended inventory buy and replenishment recommendation. What we found was that on average, our customers were overstocked in almost 200 products and spending 3x what they needed to on inventory. By following Fuse’s recommendations, our customers can dramatically reduce their inventory spend and more efficiently manage their working capital, freeing up cash for initiatives that will grow their business, like customer acquisition.

Conclusion

Our data shows that prior to Fuse, our customers were buying not enough of the right SKUs and too much of the wrong SKUs. With Fuse, our customers can switch this around and invest more capital on the right SKUs and less on the wrong SKUs. At Fuse, we’re here to help you focus on your business, not your inventory.