Inventory Management 101: How to Manage Small Business Inventory

Inventory management is an integral part of your business.

It’s important to evaluate your business on a regular basis to ensure that you’re on track to succeed. One of the most integral parts of your business is inventory management.

How has your small business’s inventory management panned out? Have you had the right products available when you needed them? Did you lose out on business when items were out of stock? Or did you lose money due to excess stock?

In this article we discuss basic inventory management techniques, explain what to look for in good inventory management software, and go over some best practices for managing inventory.

Simplify your business with intuitive inventory

With Square for Retail, you can get your stock back on track.

What is inventory management?

Inventory management is the part of business supply chain management that aims to meet the buying demands of customers across all channels they are able to make purchases from. When done effectively, businesses reduce the costs of carrying excess inventory while maximizing sales. Good inventory management can help you track your inventory in real time to streamline this process.

By effectively managing your inventory you can have the right products in the right quantity on hand and avoid products being out of stock and funds being tied up in excess stock. You can also ensure your products are sold in time to avoid spoilage or obsolescence, or spending too much money on stock that’s taking up space in a warehouse or stockroom.

Good inventory management software should:

  • Reduce costs, improve cash flow, and boost your business’s bottom line
  • Keep track of your inventory in real time whether you are selling in-store, online, or both
  • Help you forecast demand to inform what you should order next
  • Prevent product and production shortages
  • Prevent excess stock and too many raw materials
  • Allow for easy inventory reporting analysis on multiple devices
  • Be accessible right from your retail point-of-sale
  • Optimize warehouse organization and costly employee time
  • Offer quick and painless bar code scanning to speed up the intake process
  • Allow for multilocation management, tracking inventory across several locations or warehouses

Inventory management techniques and best practices for small businesses

Here are some of the techniques that many small businesses use to manage inventory:

  1. Fine-tune your forecasting. Accurate forecasting is vital. Your projected sales calculations should be based on factors such as historical sales figures (if you sell with Square, look to your online Dashboard for this info), market trends, predicted growth and the economy, promotions, marketing efforts, etc.
  2. Use the FIFO method (first in, first out). Goods should be sold in the same chronological order as they were purchased or created. This is especially important for perishable products like food, flowers, and makeup. A bar owner, for example, has to be cognizant of the materials behind the bar and apply FIFO methods to improve bar inventory. It’s also a good idea for nonperishable goods since items sitting around for too long might become damaged, or otherwise out of date and unsellable. The best way to apply FIFO in a storeroom or warehouse is to add new items from the back so the older products are at the front.
  3. Identify low-turn stock. If you have stock that hasn’t sold at all in the last six to 12 months, it’s probably time to stop stocking that item. With Square for Retail’s Sell-through Report you can easily identify dead stock and take action by promoting or discounting overstocked items since excess stock wastes both your space and capital.
  4. Audit your stock. Even with good inventory management software, periodically you still need to actually count your inventory to make sure what you have in stock matches what you think you have. Businesses use different techniques, including an annual, year-end physical inventory that counts every single item and ongoing cycle counts, which can be most useful for products that are moving fast or have stocking issues.
  5. Use cloud-based inventory management software. Look for software with real-time sales analytics. Square’s software connects directly to your point of sale, so your stock levels are automatically adjusted every time you make a sale both in-store and online. Receive daily stock alert emails so you always know which items are low or out of stock so you can order more in time.
  6. Track your stock levels at all times. Have a solid system in place for tracking your stock levels, prioritizing the most expensive products. Effective software saves you time and money by doing much of the heavy lifting for you.
  7. Reduce equipment repair times. Essential machinery isn’t always in working order, so it’s important to manage those assets. A broken piece of machinery can be costly. Monitoring your machinery and its parts is crucial to understanding its life cycle, so you can be prepared before issues arise.
  8. Don’t forget quality control. No matter your specialty, it’s important to ensure that all your products look great and are working well. It could be as simple as having employees do a quick examination during stock audits that includes a checklist for signs of damage and correct product labeling.
  9. Hire a stock controller. Stock control is used to show the amount of inventory you have at a given time and applies to all items from raw materials to finished goods. If you have a lot of inventory, you might need one person who is responsible for it. A stock controller processes all purchase orders, receives deliveries, and makes sure that everything coming in matches what was ordered.
  10. Remember your ABCs. Many businesses find it helpful to have tighter controls over higher-value items by grouping inventory items into A, B, and C categories.
  11. Consider drop shipping. If your business adopts drop shipping methods, you can sell products without actually holding the inventory yourself. Instead, a wholesaler or manufacturer is responsible for carrying the inventory and shipping the products when a consumer buys from your store. That way, you don’t worry about inventory holding, storage, or fulfillment. Many owners who start an online store adopt drop shipping methods, but this supply chain fulfillment strategy can be adopted by many types of businesses across all industries.

Products classified as A — big-ticket items — make up the smallest percentage of inventory and have the largest annual consumption value. Products grouped into the C category — the least expensive items — make up the largest percentage of inventory and have the lowest annual consumption value. B products are in between. Annual consumption value is annual demand multiplied by an item’s cost.

The chart below shows (based on recommendations from Lokad) how businesses can break this down:

  ABC Inventory Analysis Example  
Classification Percentage of inventory Annual consumption value
A 10-20% 70-80%
B 30% 15-25%
C 50% 5%

Square for Retail:

A point of sale inventory system built for small business

Square’s retail POS offers robust inventory management software that updates in real time and lets sellers manage their inventory from anywhere. With real-time inventory sync, you can ensure accurate inventory across your sales channel whether you’re selling in-store or online.

Our inventory management system is quick to set up, easy to use, and works hard so that you can work smarter. With functions that allow you to download reports and receive a daily stock alert with items that are low or out, you always know how much you have in stock, helping to keep you proactive and organized. Learn more about its reporting features and other offerings here.

If you need a more complex solution, Square’s POS integrates beautifully with Shopventory and DEAR to manage inventory across multiple channels. Or work with a developer to create a custom inventory management software solution with the Square Items API.

PD01629 - US hardware lockup

How to track and manage inventory in the Square

Square for Retail’s cloud-based inventory management software gives you the tools to enable and track inventory by item or in bulk. For items with inventory tracking enabled, the stock count updates based on sales from the Square for Retail app, Square Invoices, and your online store. Inventory is tracked and managed on a per-location basis (and can be done with GTINs and SKUs).

How to track inventory by item

To enable item tracking and low stock alerts for your inventory:

  1. Visit the Item Library in your Dashboard.
  2. Select an existing item for your list.
  3. Adjust the count of an item and its location as needed (inventory is established, edited, and tracked on a per-location basis).
  4. Toggle the Tracking button to ON.
  5. Add a low stock alert at your desired threshold on an item by item basis
  6. Toggle Low stock alerts button to ON.
  7. Enter the quantity desired for which to receive a low stock alert for (ex: receive low stock alert when item inventory is below 5).
  8. Click Done and Save in the top right of your Dashboard.

Once you’ve enabled inventory, you will receive alerts in your Dashboard for low-stock or sold-out items, so you’ll know when to reorder and restock. Get the step-by-step instructions for managing items in our Support Center.

How to bulk upload inventory

Have a bunch of items to upload? Don’t worry, you can download a report of your current inventory and update your inventory quantities in bulk using the import tool. This is especially helpful for adding new inventory and verifying current stock on hand.

All you have to do is:

  1. Visit the Item Library in your Dashboard.
  2. Click the Actions button and select Import Library.
  3. Click Modify Item Library and click Next.
  4. Download our template file in the format you prefer (this includes your entire existing item library).
  5. Open the file and add your inventory by item in the column labeled New Quantity [Location].
  6. You can also update your Stock Alert Enabled [Location].
  7. Save the file, then drag and drop it into the Import Items window and click Upload.

You can learn more about managing inventory using an Inventory CSV in our Support Center.

Tips for businesses who make their own products

Some businesses own their whole supply chain — such as a producer and seller of handmade messenger bags.

Rather than sourcing finished products from other vendors, your business sources raw materials, which you then turn into items to sell. Inventory for these kinds of businesses usually consists of three categories:

  • Raw materials used to make products
  • Work-in-progress pieces
  • Finished products

In 2001, networking equipment giant Cisco learned the hard way what happens when supply outpaces demand. It wrote off $2.25 billion in raw materials and equipment components as a loss. One of the key factors for the loss was that Cisco’s inventory management modeling was way off and it poorly forecasted its sales figures.

Tips for retail businesses

But even if you aren’t a multinational business, good retail inventory management can help you save your business a ton of money. While it can be tempting to buy merchandise in larger quantities to take advantage of vendor discounts and free shipping, having excess stock isn’t always good for the bottom line.

Excess stock is problematic for a few reasons. To start with, you don’t want too large a portion of your business’s funds to be tied up in merchandise, and you could risk losing money if you’re not able to sell the products in time. (This is especially true for seasonal products. Ask any business owner who tries to sell Christmas ornaments after the 25th. Consumers naturally expect heavy discounts and you might sell at a loss if you sell the items at all.) Additionally there are costs associated with storing excess stock.

On the flip side, having too few of an item on hand can lead to a loss of potential customers. Imagine customers go to your brick-and-mortar store only to discover that their favorite product is out of stock. If you think they’ll just come back when the product is in stock, think again. A study of German consumers by GT Nexus found that 63 percent of shoppers who encountered out-of-stock inventory chose to buy the product from a competitor or didn’t buy it at all. And according to Square’s 2023 Future of Retail report, 44% of consumers want an automated tool to check product information or inventory.

Reconciling lost, damaged, or stolen items

A reduction of inventory in a retail store is often referred to as shrinkage. The average shrink percentage in the retail industry is two percent. And in 2016, shrinkage cost retailers more than $49 million in losses, according to the National Retail Security Survey on retail theft.

There are four main categories of inventory shrinkage due to loss and theft. According to a 2014 study, shoplifting accounts for 38 percent of retail shrinkage, employee theft accounts for 34.5 percent, paperwork errors make up 16 percent, and supplier or vendor fraud accounts for seven percent. Some experts also have a fifth category that encompasses all unknown reasons for inventory loss; it makes up six percent of all inventory shrinkage.

When goods are damaged they are also included as part of shrinkage. The damage may happen while en route to your store or in the store itself.

However it happens, shrinkage is a very costly problem for retailers and can result in a loss of profit. And it’s a double hit — you can’t recoup the cost of inventory and you can’t sell the inventory to make revenue.

To cover these potential losses, you might increase the prices of your goods, passing the cost to your customers. But that can backfire if customers are price sensitive. You might also need to increase processes that stem theft and loss — like security — which ups your overall budget.

While shrinkage is something that you need to factor into your bottom line, you don’t have to simply absorb it as a cost of doing business. It is advisable to talk to your tax adviser to understand if you can deduct the casualty and theft losses related to inventory on your personal or corporate tax return.


Aren’t spreadsheets a good way to manage inventory?

Spreadsheets aren’t an effective inventory management tool because they have to be updated manually, which is time consuming and means the data is almost always out of date. Also, spreadsheets can’t scale with your business, can’t communicate with your POS, and don’t show you how your products are selling.

Is inventory management software expensive?

Not necessarily. While some inventory management software costs hundreds or even thousands of dollars, Square’s cloud-based software is free with sign-up. See how Square stacks up against other POS systems.

What inventory management apps does Square currently offer?

Square offers two solutions businesses can use to track inventory: Square Point of Sale and Square for Retail.

Square Point of Sale is free to use and suitable for all business types, while Square for Retail is a POS designed specifically for retailers. Square for Retail builds on features from the standard Square Point of Sale and includes advanced functionality to help retailers easily manage their inventory, including the ability to count inventory, create and receive purchase orders, and print barcode labels. If you own a business with a large item catalog or if you manage multiple retail stores, we recommend Square for Retail given its advanced inventory management capabilities.

Here are the differences between the two POS systems:

App Square Point of Sale Square for Retail (Free Tier)
Monthly price Free Free
Bulk item upload Yes Yes
Per location stock counts Yes Yes
Set low stock alerts Yes Yes
Use GTIN and SKU barcodes No Yes
Create and print bar code labels from Dashboard No Yes
Reconcile shrinkage / mark items as lost Yes Yes
Automatically track inventory No Yes

Need help managing your inventory? Try Square for Retail free for 30 days.