A Guide to Warehouse Inventory Management Processes in 2023

Last Updated: January 30th, 2023
Researched and Written by: Russ Davidson

The last decade has seen e-commerce and other online marketplaces explode in popularity. This trend has led to the development of warehouse inventory management processes that help manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, and retailers meet the needs of customers looking to buy products directly from wholesalers or retailers rather than manufacturers.

With over 5 million warehouses in the US today, including the vast network of secondary locations operated by eCommerce companies, inventory management has become essential for warehouse managers and a critical component of any organization’s supply chain.

Inventory management refers to managing raw materials and finished goods directly related to production. The purpose of the warehouse inventory management process is to keep track of all inventory so that you never run out but also don’t have excess amounts sitting around unsold. Having a streamlined warehouse management application for optimizing the picking, packing, and putaway of your organization’s inventory can save you time and money while keeping your company running efficiently.

HighJump WMS Warehouse Stats Warehouse Inventory Processes
A dashboard in HighJump WMS

Today’s Warehouse Inventory Management Challenges

Warehouse inventory management involves managing the storage and inventory of goods stored in a warehouse in real-time, as well as the processes of receiving, sampling, counting, and replenishing stock. Warehouse management is a greater part of the overall inventory management plan a company may implement, which involves purchasing goods from suppliers and ensuring products can be shipped safely and on time. This is accomplished by tracking stock while it’s in storage and optimizing the putaway and picking process when items are received or sent away from the warehouse.

Understanding the common challenges in warehouse inventory management will help your company keep an eye out for the right tools and solutions to fix them. This is the beginning of a company’s path towards higher profit and improved customer satisfaction.

Warehouse inventory control requires more than just organizing products–it helps create the right alignment of network strategy, technology systems, and engineering for improved inventory visibility and accuracy. Failure to face any of these common challenges can lead to inefficiency and reduced productivity.

Supply Disruptions

A supply disruption occurs when a disturbance or problem interrupts the supply chain events, activities, or processes. In other words, it’s a breakdown of the flow of goods to their ultimate resting point, which is delivery to the customer.

Companies can take steps to prepare against these disruptions with the right warehouse inventory management processes. For example, by evaluating where most of their customers are located, they can analyze which methods of transportation are most effective for shipping goods to the customers. It may even influence the location of where you want the warehouse to be located in order to minimize shipping costs and times.

Market Volatility

Markets can fluctuate due to a number of factors, such as global competition and an increase in choices available to the customer. This volatile demand can create a ripple effect that makes it difficult to keep up. Modern warehousing technology prides itself on being demand-driven vs product-driven–meaning volatility can lead to overstocking, an increase in return rates, and more.

Companies can use warehouse inventory management processes to better prepare for market volatility by holding safety stock, leveraging technologies such as demand planning and predictive analytics, or by diversifying their product and partner portfolio in the event that trade restrictions make it difficult to receive certain items or exchange goods with certain countries.

Inventory Loss

Losing inventory is a far more frequent occurrence than one would expect. Inventory shrinkage can include loss, theft, miscounting, or damage of goods in the warehouse. While moving and organizing space in a warehouse, it’s common for stock levels to be affected by this–ultimately increasing the total cost of goods.

Warehouse inventory management processes can better plan for capacity, keep plans of warehouse space updated with products for quick retrieval, improve the visibility of product labeling, manage provisions for losses, and train staff in safe handling practices.

Warehouse Management Systems (WMS)

In order to manage stock stored in a warehouse or storage facility, as well as track, audit, and manage the items for order fulfillment, most businesses will turn to a warehouse management system. The best warehouse management systems will vary depending on your needs. Because every warehousing operation is different, it’s important to evaluate the features of different WMS platforms to determine the solution that best meets your needs.

Further Reading: Explore our picks of the best warehouse management software

Warehouse management software (sometimes called WMS software) makes it possible to manage and coordinate inventory and actions throughout a warehouse or distribution center. In order to oversee warehouse operations, WMS software gives warehouse managers powerful tools to design a warehouse’s workflow, control stock, schedule labor, generate bills, analyze reports, and coordinate with shipping yards and docks.

Sometimes warehouse inventory management functionality can be provided through a distribution ERP software or supply chain management software. The best warehouse inventory management software functionality makes it possible for a warehouse to operate at its maximum efficiency through:

  • Higher accuracy of order fulfillment
  • Optimized picking and shipping
  • Faster delivery times
  • Efficient labor management
  • Increased visibility of an order’s status
  • Optimized storage space
  • Minimized inventory movement
  • Improved yard and dock productivity
WISE WMS Dashboard
A WMS Dashboard in WISE.

Common WMS Functionality

  • Picking: Expedites and optimizes the product selection process. Finds, selects, and prepares products for shipping to retailers or directly to consumers. Send pick lists to warehouse pickers that contain customer info, date and time of order, order number, product location, product SKU, and a description/photo of item. Print out carrier-compliant shipping labels detailing origin, weight, shipping class, and tracking numbers or barcode details. Further reading: What is Order Picking? And What Are The Best Methods?
  • Receiving: Manage deliveries, unloading, and storing of inventory within the warehouse or fulfillment center. Creates proper documentation for pre-receiving tasks and attach it to each shipment with a visible barcode. Receive and unload stock based on the delivery schedule. Count and confirm inventory including quantity, integrity of seals, and verify product codes/SKUs.
  • Storage: Store received goods in a single-load or mixed-load option. Process delivered goods and allocate warehouse space for them.
  • Cycle counting: Continuously track inventory levels and speed up the auditing process by breaking it down into smaller sample batches. These audit counts can be made without a shutdown of production or fulfillment, as opposed to a more traditional physical inventory count. Helps reduce inventory errors by identifying problems in the process. Further reading: What Is Cycle Counting?
  • Cross-docking: Route goods being received to fulfill existing orders and use them prior to taking up space on your inventory shelves.
  • Serial number and lot tracking: Allows for identification of a particular unit or group of inventory that can not be easily tracked as individual units.
  • Order allocation: Input orders from a variety of sources and create an order list to fill. Assign picking and packing tasks to employees and prioritize based on varying characteristics such as fulfilling back-orders.
Logiwa Order Picking
Manage order picking in Logiwa.

Why Is WMS Important?

The right warehouse inventory management system can improve sales and increase profits. This is done by speeding up the processes that occur after a sale has been made. By shortening shipping times, your company will be able to process more orders at a faster rate–leading to higher overall company productivity.

A warehouse management system becomes a vital part of any warehouse by improving inventory records, optimizing logistics, ensuring product accuracy via real-time updates, and offering better customer service. A WMS system also adds efficiency and consistency to your overall quality control processes–meaning at every stage in your fulfillment process, workers will be able to pick and putaway more items in less time because they have the right tools guiding them.

WMS can also integrate with existing business management processes, such as ERP software. A full ERP suite will typically handle accounting processes such as income and expenses, purchasing, and general inventory costing.

What is the Difference Between Warehouse Management and Inventory Management?

There are many ways to manage your company’s inventory. Detailed inventory management systems are often used alongside warehouse management systems (WMS). In fact, some people refer to these management systems interchangeably. While there are undeniable overlaps between inventory and warehouse management, there are key differences you need to be aware of before implementing one or the other at your business.

The key differences between inventory management systems and warehouse management systems are:

  • Inventory tracking can be utilized by any business with inventory, regardless of if they have a warehouse or distribution center. It can be something as minor as a single-store retail location keeping track of items on their product floor.
  • Warehouse management tends to be a more complex process that focuses more on managing and coordinating inventory and actions throughout a warehouse or distribution center. The goal of WMS software is to better control a warehouse’s workflow via controlled stock locations, picking and packing optimization, labor scheduling, and coordination with shipping yards and docks.

Warehouse Automation and the Future of WMS

A new trend in warehousing is warehouse automation, or the process of replacing human workers with robots, vehicles, and other automated technologies. Warehouse automation systems work by streamlining warehouse operations through automated means such as conveyor systems, scanning hardware at checkpoints, storage, and retrieval via robotics systems.

Warehouse automation systems, such as some of the newer warehouse inventory management systems, offer:

  • More accurate order picking through traceability tools and AS/RS systems to cut down on human error or RFID tools for more streamlined tracking of managing inventory
  • Streamlined multi-echelon supply chain operations to better sync income and outgoing processes to maintain storage equilibrium.
  • Reduced maintenance and downtime for repairs through preventative maintenance software features that can plan routine maintenance prior to mechanical breakdowns
  • Create a safer workplace environment by avoiding product expirations

There are also other types of WMS systems such as warehouse execution systems (WES), which are logistics software suites made for managing on-site product picking, distribution, and storage. While this software is primarily used by distributors, manufacturers also use WES to automate product assembly processes and handle raw materials.

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