Archive for the ‘Inventory’ Category

For those who are not baseball fans, let me give you a quick update: The Chicago Cubs are really good this year. They won over 100 games in the regular season and have now jumped out to a 2 – 0 lead in their best-of-five series with the San Francisco Giants. FiveThirtyEight  has them as the favorite to win the World Series.

If all of that is news to you, you should also be told that the Cubs have, frankly, sucked for a long, long time. They haven’t won a pennant since 1945 and a World Series since 1908. There is even a short story (The Last Pennant Before Armageddon) tying the Cubs winning a pennant to the end of the world. (To answer the obvious question, the World Series is scheduled to start on October 25th. Barring rain delays, the last possible game would be on November 2nd. The US presidential election is on November 8th.)

So if the Cubs make it to the World Series, there will be a lot of excitement around here. If they actually win the Series, Cook County will likely shut down for a month. And that all raises a question: How many Cubs t-shirts can be sold?


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About a year ago, we had a post on Zulily and how they managed their order fulfillment. It featured a nifty graphic from the Wall Street Journal showing just how much longer their delivery times were relative to other interet retailers. Now, the Journal has another story — with a spiffy updated graphic — discussing how their delivery times have gotten even worse (Zulily Nips Business Model in the Bud, Mar 23).



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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.


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.


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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