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If you’re a small business owner in 2017, you know that the options for selling your products aren’t limited to just the hours when your brick-and-mortar store are open.

Using all the tools and platforms at your disposal, you should be able to push your inventory across multiple online channels, giving you the widest customer base possible.

Of course, “selling across multiple online channels” is a bit more complicated than it sounds. There are a number of platforms out there, from behemoths of retail to ecommerce specialty sites, that can act as third parties and make customers aware of your products, for a small fee. The trick is making sure that you have the inventory management skills to serve these platforms, so you don’t end up promising what you can’t deliver.

First, let’s break down what it means to sell your inventory across multiple channels. Then we can see more clearly why inventory management is so crucial to the success of that strategy.

Why sell your inventory online?

As Deloitte puts it, “digital is fundamental to the entire business and the entire shopping experience, in and out of the store.” This means two things: One, if you are in retail, you need to have an online selling component. And two, once you have that online selling component, you can’t think of it as different from the rest of your business. It’s all one entity.

To sell across multiple channels means to sell in your store, in your online store, and perhaps through third parties (which we’ll get to later). While your in-store and online store sales might be pretty straightforward to you, they are also somewhat limited in their scope. If you’re a small business, you may not have the resources to invest in marketing your wares to a wider, non-local audience.

What are your options for selling inventory online?

The first and most obvious option for selling online is to set up your own website, featuring only your products. Self-hosting your own site (using a platform like WooCommerce or Magento) gives you full control over the look and feel of your site, though you may need to be handy with coding (or hire someone who is) and pay for hosting as well. You can also use the platform to market yourself beyond your typical reach.

You can set up shop on a big, well-known hosting platform like Shopify or BigCommerce as well. These platforms allow for less customization, but they take care of the technical heavy lifting. Hundreds of thousands of merchants are already on these sites. Your site can still look somewhat unique depending on the templates you choose.

Finally, you can sell your products through online marketplaces, such as Etsy, eBay, and Amazon. You aren’t on these sites (especially Amazon) to build your brand, for the most part. You’re here to get your products in front of, potentially, millions of eyeballs. There are other benefits, such as the added security and reliability of these online megaliths; the downsides include giving a percentage of every sale to the platform you use—usually a small price to pay for the exposure.

So, the options for selling your products are plentiful. And there’s no reason why you couldn’t, in theory, utilize some or all of these options at once. Sure, you can host on your own site—but why not keep a listing on Amazon, or Shopify, to make sure you’re hitting all the marks you can?

Once you do this, you’re officially selling your inventory across multiple online channels. But it’s not time to celebrate yet. You need to make sure you’re properly outfitted to handle a potential influx of orders, some of which will come from one channel, some from another.

Why is inventory management software necessary to make this happen?

It may seem obvious to some that a retail company would need a quality inventory management system to track its products and make sure nothing is lost, misplaced, or out-of-stock at a crucial time. Yet according to the 2017 Wasp Barcode State of Small Business Report, 43 percent of small businesses either don’t track their inventory or use a manual process to do so.

Imagine using a pen and paper to track packages going to customers around the world, ordering from a number of different sites, and not making a single error? It’s impossible.

When you need to start tracking large amounts of inventory, from the time it arrives as raw materials until its final destination at a customer’s doorstep, only an automated system (usually powered by barcodes, which Amazon uses to great effect) will do.

There are a few major concerns that arise when tracking this much inventory manually:

  • Maintaining accurate inventory levels: It only takes a simple keystroke error to throw off all your inventory levels, forcing a re-order when there’s still plenty left on hand; or conversely, failing to alert you that you’re out-of-stock and needed to reorder days ago. That simply doesn’t happen with automated systems.
  • The carrying costs of inventory: Carrying inventory for multiple channels doesn’t mean “always having a ton of inventory on hand just in case.” Carrying inventory in warehouses can be expensive—you need to pay for shelf space, security, insurance, and the costs of obsolescence. You want to “pull” inventory when it’s needed, not “push” it out.
  • Demand forecasting: Related to the carrying costs, a good inventory management system can help you figure out when to schedule for surges or dips in demand.

A small business (or large one, for that matter) simply isn’t as efficient without inventory management systems helping to coordinate where inventory needs to go, and when.

And frankly, it’s one thing if you have a single online channel and it takes you awhile to fulfill orders. But once you start using other platforms to sell your products, any delays or issues in sending out accurate shipments will only further damage your brand and end up being a waste of money. If you’re going to invest in opening multiple channels, you need to be prepared to service those channels as you do the rest of your business. Remember, there is no separate “digital” and “real life” business anymore—everything is interconnected, and your tools should serve that mission appropriately.  

It’s 2017, which means that even small businesses can sell their products to customers all over the world, any time of the day. Gone are the days where your inventory only flew off the shelves from 9-5—now, thanks to the Internet, you’re open all the time. If you want to wake up Monday morning with an accurate reading of where your inventory went overnight so you’re prepared to sell to customers in-store and online for the rest of the week, get yourself a quality inventory management system. Then, get to work.