With the holidays around the corner, businesses are gearing up for the busiest time of the year by hiring extra workers, planning sales promotions and setting up holiday displays. Now is also a time to review your inventory management processes, from getting the right product on the shelves to managing the influx of post-holiday return items. 

Whether your business uses a third-party logistics provider (3PL) or owns and operates its own fleet to move your goods in and out, an inventory management system that provides increased visibility across presale and post-sales inventory processing is a crucial part of surviving the holidays – particularly in an economic environment in which every sale is crucial, and operating budgets are stretched to the limit. 

Effectively managing inventory is more than bringing your products to market; it’s a delicate balance of processing your goods and sharing necessary information during all levels of transit. Here are a few tips to help your business manage its inventory both before and after the sale.

Presale: Know what and how much you’re getting…and when

When it comes to holiday inventory, it’s all about having the right merchandise, in the right amounts, in the right place at the right time. One common problem among businesses is effectively managing inbound inventory that’s heading for your store or warehouse. Personnel costs are a huge chunk of every operating budget, and knowing what and how much is coming in – and when it’s coming – is essential for staffing decisions, providing insights into when to increase staff to process shipments as they arrive.

The first step to ensuring your inventory is properly stocked is to know your “delivery window.” By pinpointing exactly when a shipment will arrive at your store or warehouse, extra employees can be specifically scheduled to process the delivery, which avoids long, inactive wait times and saves you time and money. If you operate your own fleet, plan to change “delivery dates” to “delivery times” that specify within hours when inventory will arrive. If you outsource your shipping, work with your shipper or 3PL to utilize visibility services that let you know in advance what’s coming and when, and notify you of any shipping exceptions. Use a delivery service that offers guaranteed delivery during a specific window of time, at your choosing. 

Properly unloading a shipment also means loading it into your store and warehouse so you can quickly find it when you need it. An efficiently stocked warehouse lets employees locate a product with minimal effort. A poorly stocked warehouse will lead to lost products and stock outs. 

For smaller warehouses that routinely have problems with overloading, it may be beneficial to increase the number of shipments per week. Though this may sound counterintuitive, more frequent, smaller shipments can thin warehouse volume and increase visibility by reducing the number of products in a warehouse. Rather than having a small facility packed with a whole week’s worth of merchandise, decrease the shipment size and deliver multiple times a week.

Implement an Efficient Returns System

Optimizing your inventory management processes also means providing efficient, effective processes for customer returns. A properly designed system for processing returns will ensure returned items end up in the right place.

As is the case with regular inventory, the key to effectively managing returns is to know what’s coming…and when. Utilize a Web-based returns system that not only makes it easy for your customers to print out a shipping label and get the item back into your system, but also provides visibility and tracking of in-transit returns for both you and your customer. If possible, utilize a returns program that’s available as an application program interface (API) that can be integrated into your own Web site and enterprise applications.

An efficient, Web-based returns system can also reduce your carbon footprint by eliminating unnecessary paperwork and shipping errors. 

With the holiday season just around the corner and the economy remaining tight, inventory management is more important than ever. An effectively designed inventory network can prevent holiday headaches and improve worker efficiency. This year, give yourself a gift by evaluating your inventory to ensure that you’re prepared for the holiday season and beyond.