Missing the forest for the trees is a common refrain that’s meant to remind you not to lose sight of the bigger picture. In eCommerce and retail, missing the forest for the trees means remembering that you’re not just trying to maximize sales. It’s about minimizing costs, reducing friction, maximizing customer happiness, and building a trustworthy reputation. There are many ways to do all of the above; we’re going to discuss methods that will go a long way toward improving your brand, and in doing so improve sales too.
Inventory management isn’t really all that fun. But it’s a critical component to trimming unnecessary costs and maximizing the efficiency of your order fulfillment process. Correct inventory management processes will reduce your expenses and in some cases can directly increase sales as well as customer lifetime value. Jake Rheude, the VP of Marketing at Red Stag Fulfillment, has several suggestions for improving inventory management.
Set minimum stock levels
Since the onset of COVID, we have noticed an uptick of demand on eCommerce sites as customers adjusted their shopping patterns due to stay at home orders. One of the most commonplace problems associated with this change has been popular items going out of stock.
Of course, out of stock items have been a problem in retail long before COVID; it was estimated in 2018 that retailers lost roughly $1 Trillion in sales.
According to Jake Rheude from Red Stag Fulfillment, there’s a simple solution to this problem: “Setting minimum stock levels can help you avoid out of stock scenarios. When a popular item in your store hits a certain threshold, say 10% of SKUs remaining, you order or manufacture more to replenish stock before you run out.
Imagine how many more loyal customers you can keep simply by ensuring that your store never runs out of the products they want to buy? That’s the value of setting minimum stock levels.
Be flexible with SKUs
On a related note to preventing stockout scenarios, your business should utilize a certain level of flexibility with SKUs that are sold in packs. For example, if you sell hydro flasks by the case as well as by the single unit but demand for single flasks is much higher than by the case, you can break down a case of flasks in the event that customers buy up all your single hydro flasks.
This strategy can help you buy time for a replenishing shipment of hydro flasks to arrive. And it works in reverse, too. If cases of flasks are selling faster than single flasks, simply bundle up the singles into cases.
Adapting your SKUs to customer demand is a win-win because it will prevent the likelihood of out of stock notices, plus it keeps the flow of inventory out of your warehouse at high speed.
Liquidate slower-selling inventory
Whether your business holds its inventory in your mom’s garage or its very own warehouse, there’s no such thing as free storage. Dead inventory is taking up space that could be used for storing more valuable, in-demand inventory. The solution to the problem of less popular inventory is to mark down the price after a given amount of time and have a clearance sale. Using an open-to-buy (OTB) plan may help you pinpoint how much inventory you should have on hand and when to liquidate.
Shrinkage is industry speak for damaged, lost, broken, or stolen inventory. If your business is small enough that you still personally handle inventory management, shrinkage probably isn’t an issue. On the other hand, if you’ve grown to the point that you have a large warehouse with staff, or have outsourced order fulfillment and inventory management to a third party logistics company, shrinkage will come into play. The current average for shrinkage at high-volume warehouses is more than 1% of inventory. Having to write off 1% of your inventory as unsellable is a significant gut-punch to your business. What can you do to mitigate the damage?
An inventory management system will prevent many items from being misplaced or lost within your storage area. Using either barcodes or RFIDs to scan items as they are unloaded from the receiving dock and placed in storage can probably reduce the chance of inventory going missing or lost. Safely and correctly storing inventory so that it is out of the path of machinery such as forklifts can prevent items from being accidentally crushed. Designing packaging (more on this later) to withstand the basic bumps and bruises that happen along the way from the warehouse to your customer’s front door is certainly not a bad step either. Lastly, conducting background checks on potential employees to prevent any bad apples from going to work on your warehouse floor, as well as installing video monitoring systems, may deter potential theft as well as enforce safe handling practices.
Minimizing shipping distance
Each major carrier factors distance into the cost of shipping a package. For eCommerce orders, this can quickly add up to a significant chunk of your margins, especially on long-distance shipping. There are a couple different ways to minimize shipping distance. The simplest method is to ship your inventory to a single delivery hub that’s close to a majority of your customers. A more sophisticated method is to store inventory in multiple warehouse locations around the country. In logistics parlance, these two practices are called zone skipping. Your company saves on the cost of shipping by reducing mileage that packages have to travel to reach customers by placing inventory in one or more delivery hubs that are closer to them than your factory, store, or port of entry is.
Implementing zone skipping into your business takes a bit of planning and foresight, and it usually comes with higher up-front costs associated with outsourcing part of your business. But the long-term benefit of reduced shipping costs, as well as faster shipping times (today’s consumers love instant gratification) are a good reason to make this change.
No doubt you’ve already spent time and resources thinking about how to optimize your company’s packaging. While there will always be packaging trends that come and go, your initial design should get most things right the first time, because repeating the design phase is an expensive process to be avoided. Optimal product packaging accomplishes a number of goals, which we’ll discuss below.
You could cover your products in gold casing or win coveted Scandinavian design awards for your clever aesthetic build. None of that matters if your product packaging fails to protect what’s inside. Make sure your products are being packaged in the sturdiest-possible containers to avoid costly damage. This goes not just for the product packaging itself, but for the box/mailer and any potential infill you use when you ship it to customers.
It’s rarely top of mind, but your packaging should fit as snugly as possible around your product. Not only is it safer for your product to have less room to bounce inside–and because less empty space inside the box translates to less chance of the box imploding from outside pressure or weight–but it may decrease the cost of shipping. Most shipping carriers factor in dimensional weight when they calculate the cost of shipping. By minimizing the size (and of course, weight) when designing packaging, you can save a significant chunk of change.
Today’s customers have certain expectations when it comes to the look and feel of the products they buy, and this extends to the packaging itself. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that unboxing had become a critical part of the customer journey. With lockdowns leading to a spike in online shopping, even more importance has been placed on that final act of receiving a package and opening a package. It’s become a surrogate for the unique experience of retail (which was already pivoting away from being just a place to buy things).
Brands can use their packaging to engage customers in a number of ways. Adapting recyclable, compostable, or other environmentally-friendly packaging is a branding nod towards the preference a minority of vocal consumers have towards sustainable action on climate change.
And of course, there are certain basics that brands need to check off their design list. A call to action should either be somewhere on product packaging or included in a small insert. Three common examples of CTAs are asking the customer to follow on social media, to take a quick satisfaction survey, or to leave a public review on the marketplace where the product was purchased. Adding a coupon code for followup purchase is a simple yet effective tool for upping long term loyalty, sales, word-of-mouth recommendations, and other metrics related to engagement.
White Hat SEO
Moving away from inventory management and packaging design, perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of running an online business is marketing. If you’re normally removed from the process of digital marketing and have it delegated to someone else, it might not occur to you that there’s good SEO and there’s bad SEO. Keyword stuffing, blogging networks, and cloaking don’t work anymore. These are all examples of bad SEO that Google will penalize you for. The same goes for social media tactics like follow for follow, paying for bot followers, and even certain types of giveaways. What does good (white hat) SEO look like?
Avoid working with spammers
If you’re trying to build your brand’s reputation, link building via guest posts or sponsored content is a solid strategy. But not everyone available to work with is trustworthy. A certain underbelly of social media and the web is saturated with low-quality content. Two quick ways to measure if a party is worth collaborating with are checking their spam score if they’re a website and measuring follower engagement if they’re a social media platform. If their metrics look healthy, it’s probably worth the time to collaborate with them (obviously, you’ll want to see what sort of content they’ve already produced and make sure it’s a good match for your brand).
Be genuine and useful in everything you do
Making useful, actionable content — videos, text blog posts, social media content — that customers actually want to watch, read, and share should always be the goal. Your purpose isn’t to be a factory that churns out content for the sake of content. It’s very much a quality over quantity type of pursuit. This extends not just to content but the interactions you have with customers and followers. If a customer leaves a comment on your company’s Facebook page, comment back! If they email you with a question, be thorough. A good mentality to have is you’ll never be successful enough to treat your customers as if they don’t matter.
Get experts and influencers to do the talking
If you’re at an impasse as to what sort of content will entice people to visit your website, collaboration with a well-known and respected personality within your industry carries a lot of weight. Invite experts or influencers who have the respect of your customers to talk on a subject relevant to your brand. This could be an Instagram takeover, a YouTube video review, or a guest post on your company blog. A B2B angle might look more like a webinar series, a guest panel with a moderator, or an in-depth report featuring quotes and data from experts and companies within your space. When executed correctly, these sorts of campaigns give your brand an edge because they associate you with trustworthy, qualified experts.
Time for a tweak, not a tear-down
When you’re making sales, it’s understandable to move past the intangible, “soft power” tools that can drive your business to the next level. After all, why fix what’s not broken? If you’re in a healthy position, there’s really no need for a full-scale tear-down. A tweak may be enough. Identifying those processes that could use a rethink is the first step to improving your entire operation and moving forward from a position of strength to something even better.