Inventory Purgatory

Using one or more of these tactics can get products moving.
June 2, 2013

Q: I have too much inventory. It’s not moving, and it’s killing my business. What are my options?

A: Every retailer faces this problem sometime. You bet the farm that a product will move, but instead, it. just. sits. there.

Years ago I came up with a seemingly great idea, a line of T-shirts for kids that extolled the virtues of working moms. I was sure I had a hit, so I ordered thousands of units to be printed. Despite my best promotional efforts, sales were flat and my dreams were ultimately packed up inside boxes in a storage unit. Over the years I’ve used the shirts as gifts for new moms and handed them out as prizes at my conferences for women. I always receive compliments on the designs, so I’m generating good will. But let’s be real: Wal-Mart has yet to place an order, and the project was a financial bust. If you’re dealing with excessive inventory, several options can help you avoid the storage fees like the ones I incurred.

First, Sue B. Zimmerman, who sells a variety of preppy and Cape Cod-themed clothes and accessories at suebdo.com, wonders whether your problem may be with how you display or describe items in your brick-and-mortar shop, online store or through wholesale sell sheets. To upgrade displays, “try to use unique props,” Zimmerman suggests. “Oftentimes things don’t sell simply because of the way they’re displayed.” She sometimes scrounges the take-it-or-leave-it section at her local dump to find unique displays that give new meaning to that old line about how someone’s trash is another’s treasure. CraigsList.com or your friends’ attics might yield finds, too. Dated descriptions (mentioning spring with apparel you’re still trying to sell in summer, for instance) may stall inventory; ditto for dull ones—perhaps you want to suggest how to best use an item, whether apparel, cosmetics, a tool, etc. If you’re stumped about how to edit your displays or descriptions, consider soliciting advice and services from an accomplished merchandiser or copywriter to whip up interest.

Another possibility, says Wendy Krepak, creator of Card Cubby, a purse-sized, business-card organizer, is selling your inventory at a steep discount through flash-sale sites such as Groupon or LivingSocial. Depending on the type of merchandise, specialty sites are also an option, including Zulily for kids’ stuff, or Gilt and ideeli for all things fashion. You can also explore eBay’s Deal of the Day offering.

Be sure you thoroughly understand why you’re sitting on unsold goods. Ordering too much inventory to sell at a particular time is one thing, Krepak says, “but if you have a product that is not right for your market despite your best efforts, that’s quite another issue.” In that case, she advises finding a distributor to buy the merchandise at a huge discount, learning from your mistake and moving on.

Zimmerman offers a smart alternative: donating excess inventory to a nonprofit cause that’s popular with your core audience, especially if the organization will acknowledge your contribution in social media and newsletters. “Public relations is worth so much. This alone might drive more awareness and sales to your business.”

You can also try creative selling to your current customer base. Zimmerman advises pairing the excess inventory with a buy-one-new-item/get-another-item-of-your-choice-free sale or bundle items in a basket and sell at cost.

“If that doesn’t fly, opt for a fun, interactive giveaway through social media,” she says. In keeping with your brand and current merchandise, “post questions on Facebook and reward creative answers with a giveaway.” 

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