Stocking Issues

Posted by Dean Rowan on

So this might just be the most boring read ever, but it occurred to me today to try and explain why we sometimes have inventory issues. Like I said, boring for many but it might help you sleep if the stress of COVID-19 is keeping you up!

As many retail stores do, we have a client-facing website that you all see and interact with to buy or research products. On the office side, we also have inside-facing software that you don't see but which allows us to order products, track and pay taxes, etc. In between these two "systems" is an interface (which we pay for) that synchronizes or balances the inventory between them. The master or primary inventory is on our side and the slave inventory is on your side. Essentially, if you buy something online or in store (remember those days?) the interface pushes that information back to the office and the sale gets recorded and the inventory gets updated. When the interface looks to balance stock it takes the master inventory and compares it with the slave inventory and adjusts the slave to match the master. For example, when I order in a new product, when it comes in I "receive" it in the office and push the new stock numbers out to the website and sales of that or any other product are hourly reported back to the office system.  All this happens via the interface but neither of the companies who make the client-facing or office-facing software make the interface. As a result, we have 3 companies that we are trying to get to always "play nice" with each other, but in truth neither one really gives a shit about the other. 

The result is that sometimes we have minor errors which I call translation errors. One system says we have 10 while the other says we have 9 and neither one is smart enough to tell us there is a discrepancy so we have no idea there is a problem and this is where it all falls apart. After a while, our physical inventory might be at zero but due to that unknown translation error the website still shows 1, and it is this imbalance that no one can figure out for us and we don't know is there until you order the last product and we go to fill the order. Then BOOM, we learn we're actually out of stock and I grind a bit more enamel off my teeth. 

We have worked with all three systems providers to find a solution but as you can imagine they all tell me it's not their issue, it must be one of the others. We had a particularly bad day last December 14 at 10:32am when one of the systems removed a long list of random things from the client-facing website, leaving a bunch of things that we physically HAD in stock showing as out of stock. We discovered this in January and spent a month trying to solve it. The outcome was that no one could explain it, but I could see dozens of "manually removed" entries in our inventory database that did not correspond to any inventory corrections we had made. As of now, it's a cold case, no body and no answers

So why am I telling you all this and what are we doing to combat it?
First of all, we immediately implemented a way of doing inventory spot checks to see if we could find these random translation errors and fix them before the stock level got too low. Next, we implemented a process of confirming ALL inventory of that particular sku every time we packaged or added more. This meant that if we added 50 1lb bags of Floor Malted Pilsner to stock, we also counted the stock we had and the TOTAL number of bags was confirmed or corrected. This has helped a lot but I suspect the software owners have also fixed something behind the scenes as our errors are way way down. I am sharing this with you because I know it is as frustrating for you as it is for us to assume something you order is in stock only to find it is not. I have expressed to all the systems technical support people that it is equally as bad to show inventory we don't have as it is to show that we are out of stock of something we do have. Not sure they get it. 

So, like I said, this is a good read if you can't sleep but it's also something that also keeps us up at night. The obvious solution is to always keep stock levels well above zero but with changes to the distribution landscape in Canada in recent months as well as the recent changes in buying habits and customers, our best efforts to stay out in front of inventory shortages has been frustrated and made more complex. Some items that were easy to get are now hard to get (made in India, for example) and most items are now coming in from the USA. 

My real reason for writing this was to hopefully find that one customer who has looked online for something and found that it is not available, OR someone I have had to contact to refund part of their order because what was available online is not really available. To them and to you, I apologize for what looks like just a dumb error on our side, but I assure you it is way more complex than that and it's not in our best interest to have anything but accurate inventory both on the client-facing side and the office-facing side.

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