Nothing for retail inventory planners has been easy over the past three years. After the shortages of 2020 and 2021, the industry spent the past year trying to unload products as consumers cut their spending in the face of steep inflation. Although down from their peak, many inventory positions remain elevated for current sales levels.

Even though the era of bare shelves is not far behind the industry, many are learning to live on leaner inventories and plan to chase products as needed in 2023 and beyond. In doing so, retailers are prioritizing cost control and margin protection over the risk of lost sales.

Inventory levels have peaked. But they’re still bloated.

In June 2022, Target issued a mid-quarter warning that its profits for the period were in for a significant hit as the retailer worked to “right-size its inventory for the balance of the year” amid a “rapidly changing environment.” The retailer blamed intense pressure on consumer spending from inflation on necessities, including food and gasoline.

Target led the way, but discretionary retailers, with few exceptions, spent the rest of the year trying to clear inventory. Analyzing retailers across major sectors, Telsey Advisory Group analysts found that, across segments, inventory growth averaged at 46% in Q2 last year. In apparel and e-commerce, that figure was considerably higher, at 65.6% for both sectors.

“Coming out of 2021, inventory was really lean, lower than it should have been, because you couldn’t get goods and everybody was chasing,” Feldman said. “I think the miscalculation was the demand level.”

Retail inventories hit their peak in October 2022, when they were up 18% from 2021 levels. Inventories have since fallen considerably but remain well above where they were three years ago, or even a year ago.

An improving supply chain has magnified the problem, at least on paper. By February, overall schedule reliability in ocean freight was up month-over-month by 7.7 percentage points and up year-over-year by a “staggering” 26 percentage points, according to DHL. For consumer companies, that means goods have been shipping faster and arriving earlier than a year ago, which shows up in inventory levels. 

Excess is costly up and down the supply chain

The inventory story played out differently for retailers and many of the brands that supplied them. As retailers moved to cut back their positions, wholesalers were often left sitting on excess stock.

“If retailers have too much inventory, they’re going to stop purchasing, or slow down their purchases, or push out their purchases from their vendors,” said Joel Wolitzer, SVP and business development officer with Rosenthal & Rosenthal, which provides factoring and other financing services. “We have seen that slowdown on multiple levels.”

For merchandise suppliers, life can be made tougher by the fact many retailers don’t place firm purchase orders, which means their vendors have to place informed speculative bets on how much a retailer will purchase, informed by a retailer’s projections. Even purchase orders can be changed or delayed.

Suppliers producing private label merchandise for retailers can be put in an especially tight spot if their buyer decides to pull back on their orders. “Those goods can only go to that retailer. Suppliers can’t sell them anywhere else,” Wolitzer said. “So they’re kind of stuck.”

For larger wholesale brands, they may have ended up with higher inventory levels than their retail partners, but that’s not necessarily the worst-case scenario if they have their own sales channels.

For all players in the market, inventory excess is costly. Additional warehousing can get expensive. As Wolitzer noted, if companies have to borrow to pay for that warehousing, then there are financing expenses such as interest as well.

Have retailers learned their lesson? And which lesson?

The past two years raise fundamental questions about how to buy and plan inventory, and can yield some contradictory answers. One of the biggest is: Is it worse to have too little inventory in boom times or too much in downturns?

With supply chain problems easing, many of the same tensions that predated the pandemic are now coming back into play. While out-of-stocks could mean the opportunity cost of a lost sale, overstocks come with financial costs of storage and financing costs. Inventory excess also comes with opportunity costs by tying up working capital, and, perhaps most importantly, means less space for fresh products.

Still, retailers are unlikely to ramp up purchase orders anytime soon — even if demand does come roaring back.

Source: Retail Dive