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Archive for the ‘Inventory’ Category

So what should be more profitable for a retailer, selling from physical stores or selling over the web? That’s the question that a recent Wall Street Journal article considers (How the Web Drags on Some Retailers, Dec 1). At first glance, the answer seems straightforward. Web sellers don’t need to rent stores or have staff cooling their heels waiting for customers. However, the reality isn’t necessarily so clear,

While conventional wisdom holds that online sales should be more profitable, because websites don’t need the pricey real estate and labor necessary to maintain a store network, many retailers actually earn less or even lose money online after factoring in the cost of shipping, handling and higher rates of returns.

For retailers that outsource their Web and fulfillment operations, costs can run as high as 25% of sales, industry analysts said.

Kohl’s Corp. says its profitability online is less than half what it reaps in its store. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. says it expects to lose money online at least through early 2016 as it invests to build its technology, infrastructure and fulfillment networks. Target Corp. says its margins will shrink as its online sales grow. Best Buy Co. said faster growth on its website will weigh on its profitability at the end of the year.

Click here for a video of the reporter discussing her findings.

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Shop on Amazon.com and you will find a lot of items sold by lots of different sellers. For many of those sellers, Amazon isn’t just handling acting as a store front; it is also handling the logistics of order fulfillment. Now suppose that Amazon has a particular product which both it and several third parties are selling out its warehouses. How should Amazon physically manage the inventory? Should it keep the inventory it is selling physically separate from that offered by third-party sellers? In many instances, Amazon chooses to do just the opposite, allowing for “stickerless, commingled inventory.” Here is an Amazon video explaining just what that means.

And here is how the Wall Street Journal explains the benefits of the program (Do You Know What’s Going in Your Amazon Shopping Cart?, May 11).

The system has enabled Amazon to make better use of its warehouse space and keep a wide variety of items in stock around the country. The idea is to give Amazon flexibility to ship certain products based on their proximity to customers, speeding delivery times. For third-party sellers, it saves them the trouble of having to label individual items sent to the Amazon warehouse.

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The weather in Chicagoland over the last week has been miserable. I have shoveled the walks way too many times and it now feels like we’ve been transported to Hoth. That has gotten me thinking about road salt. That and a New Yorker article on the Atlantic Salt’s operations on Staten Island (The Mountain, Dec 23). The mountain referenced in the article’s title is a giant pile of salt — a third of a mile long and four stories high. It’s big enough to see on Google Earth. Check out the multicolored tarps.

salt

In any event, managing the inventory of road salt is an interesting challenge. (more…)

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It is late October and on my to-do list is wading through Open Enrollment options. That inevitably brings up the question of how much money to put into our Flexible Spending Account (FSA). Given that a lot of people face that question at this time of year, I thought I would recycle a post (from Dec 2011) on how to think of funding an FSA as an inventory problem:

FSAs allow US tax payers to set aside pre-tax dollars to pay for authorized expenses. One can have separate accounts for healthcare related expenses (think office-visit co-pays or dental work beyond what your insurance covers) and dependent care. Let’s focus on the medical one. Here is how a Forbes blog explained the pros and cons of the program (A Tax Break For Driving To Wal-Mart!, Dec 2).

The way you save with an FSA is this: If you divert $5,000 from taxable salary to pay for braces and your combined federal/state income tax rate is 40%, you save $2,000. You can use the money you stash in the account for medical, dental and vision expenses for yourself, your spouse or your kids. …

If you don’t spend your FSA money within the plan year (or a 2.5 month grace period in some cases), you lose it. The fear of forfeiture leads folks to underfund these accounts. Not paying attention to how expansive the list of eligible expenses is leads folks into forfeiting money. The average amount employees set aside into a healthcare flexible spending account is $1,500, and about half of participants lose an average of $75 at year-end, according to WageWorks. But even these employees who forfeit $75 are still better off with the FSA, says Dietel. Since the average election is just under $1,500, the employee has saved 25% to 40% of that, or $375 to $600, so they are still $300 to $525 ahead of where they would have been without a healthcare FSA.

So here’s the question: Do people, in fact, underfund these accounts? (more…)

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We have given considerable coverage to the attempts made by Macy’s and Nordstrom to virtually pool their inventory.  The idea is that while these firms need to carry inventory in a decentralized manner, in their brick and mortar stores as well as their main warehouses, they can still manage the inventory in a centralized manner. So, if an order is made online and the item is stocked out at the main warehouse, it can be sent to the customer from the nearby stores. The same idea applies when a customer places an order at a brick and mortar store that does not have a sufficient quantity.

During our penultimate class in the operations management course, I was discussing the benefits of such inventory pooling, and illustrating them using our recent posts. One of the students, Ryan Orr (h/t) mentioned that he recently placed an order at the Macy’s stores in Oakbrook for 10 identical ties for an important event. The store had only a limited number of ties, and agreed to order the rest of the quantity from nearby stores, and ship them directly to Ryan. As you see in the photo, Ryan got 10 ties, with 4 different patterns from 6 different stores (all in the Midwest). We blurred the receipt’s, but confirmed that all ties had the same UPC code, which means that this was not a mistake of the store in Oakbrook, the employee or the stores that the delivered the product. They all thought that they deliver the product that Ryan wanted.

Tiesblur1

Several explanations are possible:

(1) This is not a fast selling item (sorry Ryan), so over time the UPC number has transitioned from one pattern to another. Some stores carried the newer item, while other still carried the older one.

(2) It is possible that some of these stores were not originally Macy’s stores. It is possible that some of these were Marshal Field’s stores, for example, and still carried UPCs that were based on their legacy systems. We could not confirm this explanation.

(3) Loose quality control on Macy’s side. It is possible that someone accepted a shipment from a supplier to Macy’s without confirming that the shipment indeed included the right pattern.  All of these are green ties, but is it possible that someone did not notice the difference in patterns. Unlikely (?)

If anyone at Macy’s is reading and has a better (and maybe the right) explanation, we will be happy to post it.

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As the New York Times tells it, supply chains are changing (New Hubs Arise to Serve ‘Just in Case’ Distribution, Feb 12).

Major storms like Hurricane Sandy and other unexpected events have prompted some companies to modify the popular just-in-time style of doing business, in which only small amounts of inventory are kept on hand, to fashion what is known as just-in-case management. …

Just-in-case is a response to the vulnerability of just-in-time supply chains, said Rene Circ, CoStar’s director of industrial research. Since the 1990s, just-in-time has made sense for many companies looking to reduce the cost of keeping large inventories on hand. Technology enabled retailers and manufacturers to closely track and ship items to replace merchandise sold or components consumed in production.

This model also reduced transportation costs, because goods would be shipped only as necessary. By combining the just-in-case with just-in-time strategy, Mr. Circ said, companies are trying to strike a balance between “carrying the minimum inventory possible, yet never running out of things, because inventory equals cost.”

I’ve been trying to think what I should say about this article for several weeks. I have felt conflicted because, on the one hand, it hits on some interesting points. On the other hand, it also leads with one of my pet peeves of business reporting. Specifically, it links any change in inventory management to some failure of just-in-time management. However, I am not convinced that is actually a good description of what is going on here.

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Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and current 3D printing cheerleader, has an intriguing piece in the New York Times (Mexico: The New China, Jan 27). it deals with his experience running 3D Robotics, a maker of civilian drone aircraft. 3D Robotics competes with firms that sourcing their production in China and hence they have had to find a way to take on competitors with low labor costs. Their answer? Tiajuna, Mexico. 3D is based in San Diego so engineering is done on the north side of the border but assembly is done on the south. Labor costs may higher than in China (but, as the article notes, the gap is closing as Chinese wages rise) but Anderson sees many advantages in his firm’s “quicksourcing” model that depends as much on speed as cheap hands.

First, a shorter supply chain means that a company can make things when it wants to, instead of solely when it has to. Strange as it may seem, many small manufacturers don’t have that option. When we started 3D, we produced everything in China and needed to order in units of thousands to get good pricing. That meant that we had to write big checks to make big batches of goods — money we wouldn’t see again until all those products sold, sometimes a year or more later. Now that we carry out our production locally, we’re able to make only what we need that week.

This point obviously depends on owning one’s own facility in Mexico or having a very tight relationship with the Mexican supplier. If a small buyer doesn’t have much negotiating power with a supplier it will still likely face large minimum purchase quantities when buying from Mexico. Still it is an interesting observation and suggests that some start ups may be making ill-advised trade offs between cost savings and flexibility. (more…)

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