What Everybody Gets Wrong About Store Inventory Accuracy

Don’t build roadblocks out of assumptions. – Lorii Myers

red herring

Retailers are not properly managing the most important asset on their balance sheets – and it’s killing customer service.

I analyzed sample data from 3 retailers who do annual “wall to wall” physical counts. There were 898,526 count records in the sample across 92 stores. For each count record (active items only on the day of the count), the system on hand balance before the count was captured along with the physical quantity counted. The products in the sample include hardware, dry grocery, household consumables, sporting goods, basic apparel and all manner of specialty hardlines items. Each of the retailers report annual shrink percentages that are in line with industry averages.

A system inventory record is considered to be “accurate” if the system quantity is adjusted by less than +/- 5% after the physical count is taken. Here are the results:

So 54% of inventory records were accurate within a 5% tolerance on the day of the count. Not good, right?

It gets worse.

For 19% of the total records counted (that’s nearly 1 in every 5 item/locations), the adjustment changed the system quantity by 50% or more!

Wait, there’s more!

In addition, I calculated simple in-stock measures before and after the count as follows:

Reported In Stock: Percentage of records where the system on hand was >0 just before the count

Actual In Stock: Percentage of records where the counted quantity was >0 just after the count

Here are the results of that:

Let’s consider what that means for a moment. If you ran an in-stock report based on the system on hand just before those records were counted, you would think that you’re at 94%. Not world class, but certainly not bad. However, once the lie is exposed on that very same day, you realize that the true in-stock (the one your customer sees) is 5% lower than what you’ve been telling yourself.

Sure, this is a specific point in time and we don’t know how long it took the to degrade up for each item/location, but how can you ever look at an in-stock report the same way again?

Further, when you look at it store by store, it’s clear that stores with higher levels of inventory accuracy experience a lesser drop in in-stock after the records are counted. Each of the blue dots on the scatterplot below represent one of the 92 stores in the sample:


A couple of outliers notwithstanding, it’s clear that the higher on hand accuracy is, the more truthful the in-stock measure is and vice-versa.

Now let’s do some simple math. A number of studies have consistently shown that an out-of-stock results in a lost sale for the retailer about 1/3 of the time. Assuming the 5% differential between reported and actual in-stock is structural, this means that having inaccurate inventory records could be costing retailers 1.67% of their topline sales. This is in addition to the cost of shrink.

So, a billion dollar retailer could be losing almost $17 million per year in sales just because of inaccurate on hands and nothing else.

Let’s be clear, this isn’t like forecast accuracy where you are trying to predict an unknown future. And it’s not like the myriad potential flow problems that can arise and prevent product from getting to the stores to meet customer demands. It is an erosion in sales caused by the inability to properly keep records of assets that are currently observable in the physical world.

So why hasn’t this problem been tackled?

Red Herring #1: Our Shrink Numbers Are Good

Whenever we perform this type of analysis for a retailer, it’s not uncommon for people to express incredulity that their store inventory balances are so inaccurate.

“That can’t possibly be. Our shrink numbers are below industry average.”

To that, I ask two related questions:

  1. Who gives a shit about industry averages?
  2. What about your customers?

In addition to the potential sales loss, inaccurate on hands can piss customers off in many other ways. For example, if it hasn’t happened already, it won’t be long until you’re forced by competition to publish your store on hand balances on your website. What if a customer makes a trip to the store or schedules a pickup order based on this information?

The point here is that shrink is a financial measure, on hand accuracy is a customer service measure. Don’t assume that “we have low shrink” means the same thing as “our inventory management practices are under control”.

Red Herring #2: It Must Have Been Theft

It’s true that shoplifting and employee theft is a problem that is unlikely to be completely solved. Maybe one day item level RFID tagging will become ubiquitous and make it difficult for product to leave the store without being detected. In the meantime, there’s a limit to what can be done to prevent theft without either severely inconveniencing customers or going bankrupt.

But are we absolutely sure that the majority of inventory shrinkage is caused by theft? Using the count records mentioned earlier, here is another slice showing how the adjustments were made:

From the second column of this table, you can see that for 29% of all the count transactions, the system inventory balances were decreased by at least 1 unit after the count.

Think about that next time you’re walking the aisles in a store. If you assume that theft is the primary cause for negative adjustments, then by extension you must also believe that one out of every 3 unique items you see on the shelves will be stolen by someone at least once in the course of a year – and it could be higher than that if an “accurate” record on the day of the count was negatively adjusted at other times throughout the year. I mean, maybe… seems a bit much, though, don’t you think?

Now let’s look at the first column (count adjustments that increase the inventory balance). If you assume that all of the inventory decreases were theft, then – using the same logic – you must also believe that for one out of every 5 unique items, someone is sneaking product into the store and leaving it on the shelves. I mean, come on.

Perhaps there’s more than theft going on here.

Red Herring #3: The Problem Is Just Too Big

Yes, it goes without saying that when you multiply out the number of products and locations in retail, you get a large number of individual inventory balances – it can easily get into the millions for a medium to large sized retailer. “There’s no way that we can keep that many inventory pools accurate on a daily basis” the argument goes.

But the flaw in this thinking stems from the (unfortunately quite popular) notion that the only way to keep inventory records accurate is through counting and correcting. The problem with this approach (besides being highly labour intensive, inefficient and prone to error) is that it corrects errors that have already happened and does not address whatever process deficiencies caused the error in the first place.

This is akin to a car manufacturer noticing that every vehicle rolling off the assembly line has a scratch on the left front fender. Instead of tracing back through the line to see where the scratch is occurring, they instead just add another station at the end with a full time employee whose job it is to buff the scratch out of each and every car.

The problem is not about the large number of inventory pools, it’s about the small number of processes that change the inventory balances. To the extent that inventory movements in the physical world are not being matched with proper system transactions, a small number of process defects have the potential to impact all inventory records.

When your store inventory records don’t match the physical stock on hand, it must necessarily be a result of one of the following processes:

  • Receiving: Is every carton being scanned into the store’s inventory? Do you “blind receive” shipments from DCs or suppliers that have not demonstrated high levels of picking accuracy for the sake of speed?
  • POS Scanning and Saleable Returns: Do cashiers scan each and every individual item off the belt or do they sometimes use the mult key for efficiency? If an item is missing a bar code and must be keyed under a dummy product number, is there a process to record those circumstances to correct the inventory later?
  • Damage and Waste: Whenever a product is found damaged or expired, is it scanned out of the on hand on a nightly basis?
  • Store Use, Transformations, Transfers: If a product taken from the shelf to use within the store (e.g. paper towels to clean up a mess) or used as a raw material for another product (e.g. flour taken from the pantry aisle to use in the bakery) are they stock adjusted out? Are store-to-store transfers or DC returns scanned out of the store’s inventory correctly before they leave?
  • Counting: Before a stock record is changed because of a count, are people making sure that they’ve located and counted all units of that product within the store or do they just “pencil whip” based on what they see in front of them and move on?
  • Theft: Are there more things that can be done within the store to minimize theft? Do you actively “transact” some of your theft when you find empty packaging in the aisle?

So how can retailers finally make a permanent improvement to the accuracy of their store on hands?

  • They need to actually care about it (losing 1-2% of top line sales should be a strong motivator)
  • They need to measure store on hand accuracy as a KPI
  • They need an approach whereby process failures that cause on hand errors can be detected and addressed
  • They need an efficient approach for finding and correcting discrepancies as the process issues are being fixed

Stay tuned for more on that.

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