5 Steps: How to Manage Inventory Effectively for Your Busy Season

With the holiday season around the corner, businesses large and small will be focusing on how to manage inventory effectively to meet demand.

In this blog (and recent podcast episode), we're sharing five strategies you can take to better manage inventory and how one company applied them for Black Friday with great results:

  • Increased output efficiency by 30% while orders increased 300%
  • Reduced customer experience (support) tickets by 80%
  • Cut time from order to shipping down to one hour during their busiest time of year!

Based in Colorado, Topo Designs produces and sells inclusive apparel for the outdoors. The brand has accelerated in size over the last decade – once a basement operation, they now manage a distribution center, 5 retail locations and a thriving e-commerce channel.

Before RF-SMART, the Topo team was working with manual processes to pick, pack and ship goods to their customers and did not have a Inventory Management solution. However, with scaling order volumes and increased seasonal pressure, the old way of working simply wasn’t cutting it – inefficiency and inaccuracies were scratching away at their customer satisfaction and something had to change. Topo faced three major challenges surrounding their busy season:

  1. They lacked order accuracy and visibility into their open orders
  2. They were manually picking based on a pre-printed 4x6 label
  3. Their delayed processing times resulted in high customer service tickets and lost sales
“We really needed to look at putting together a five-step plan that instilled a growth mindset throughout the organization," explained Matt Williams, Director of Operations and Finance. With scalable efficiency as the end goal, here is how Matt approached Topo’s operational challenges:

Step 1: Sharpen Insight Into Your Inventory

Topo Designs conducted a wall-to-wall count immediately before their NetSuite go-live date. By doing so, they were confident their inventory was accurate and reliable so they could start their ERP journey off on the right foot. To follow this up, Matt implemented a cycle counting program to maintain the integrity of their data in the lead up to the holidays.

Improper counting processes are a gateway to inventory inaccuracy and order fulfilment errors that are the enemy of any successful inventory management program. If you’re interested in improving the way your business counts stock, check out this free Counting Best Practices Guide.

Tip: Ensure your inventory is 100% accurate prior to handing off to your forecast team.

Step 2: Instill Cross-Functional Discipline

A commonly neglected (yet crucial) step is to promote alignment between your warehouse team and other key business areas. If your sales or e-commerce department is actively providing warehouse operations with insight and direction, this will enable your team to be more agile and plan ahead.

Thanks to the inventory accuracy achieved from carrying out Step 1, Topo Designs’ e-commerce team was able to demand plan for the holiday season. By sharing their sales and fulfilment projections with their colleagues in the warehouse, potential errors and inefficiencies could be averted.

Tip: Demand analysis should be at the SKU level (not style).

Step 3: Find the Path of Least Resistance

The demand planning exercise allowed Topo’s team to identify which SKUs would move the fastest during their busy period. From there, they strategized the most effective paths and locations for picking and storing these items. You may have heard of this approach as the “golden zone” – the aim is to maximize inventory accessibility for your pickers, while reducing travel and congestion along the warehouse aisles.

Picking is a complex subject, and there are various ways of doing it. In this recent podcast episode, our experts explore tips, best practices and different use cases to help you decide what would work best for your business.

Tip: Keep the "golden zone" (pictured below) in mind when creating your slotting plan.


Step 4: Take a Holistic Approach

If you’re thinking about streamlining certain inventory processes, be mindful of how the overall flow will change and consider any potential bottlenecks that could arise.

Originally, it took Topo 10 separate scans to pack a single order and get it ready for shipping. This was overly time-consuming and wouldn’t be compatible with the modifications they were making to picking.

To restore balance, they adopted an auto-pack feature. RF-SMART would now enable them to auto-pack an order based on item dimensions and shipping information on the sales order – reducing the number of scans to just two

As you prepare for your busy period, map out your order fulfilment workflow and pinpoint any stages where similar bottlenecks could arise. Work backwards, tweak processes and be holistic in your approach so that your operations are harmonious.

Tip: Work with a hardware professional to ensure your scanners and printers are optimized for your environment.

Step 5: Evaluate and Introduce Automation

Up until now, the warehouse team would use paper pick tickets to navigate through open orders, fulfilling them one by one. This method was not productive or efficient enough for the upcoming holiday. To address this issue, the final step in Matt’s plan for conquering the busy season was to introduce mobile wave picking.

RF-SMART’s Pick Manager solution afforded the business the ability to pick multiple orders in waves or groups, and assign totes for packing along the way. The mobile devices also provided workers with validation at every touchpoint, eliminating errors (as well as paper) and giving them confidence they were picking the right items.

Tip: Utilize totes to make picking and packing easier.

Results - Same Day Shipping and Increased Efficiency

Black Friday was the final stress test for Topo Designs, for which they were projecting a 300% increase in order volume. Matt’s team had been working with the new program for the past month and were confident they could manage the extra activity with the same staff head count as usual. As a result, the Topo team saw a 30% increase in output efficiency.

“We came in on that Friday, and by midday Sunday, we were already out of orders. We had blasted through everything and we were just waiting, thinking “when are the rest of the orders coming in?” said Matt.

In fact, they were so far ahead that they were shipping orders within the hour during their busiest time of year.

They also saw an 80% decrease in customer experience tickets because their orders were shipping accurately and on time.

If you typically struggle with the busy season and want expert, tailored advice for enhancing your inventory processes, be sure to check out the podcast episode or speak to our team.

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