Can You Offer too Many Product Versions to Your Customers?

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Can you Offer Too Many SKUs to Your Customers?

The short answer is YES!

A SKU, or Stock Keeping Unit, defines each different product version that you sell and keep inventory of.  There may be different SKUs of the same overall item based on size, color, capacity (think computer or cellphone memory), features, and many other parameters.  For build to forecast businesses, that number of variations can quickly explode and become difficult to manage.

Your customers are busy and want ordering simplified. Of course, they may need (or want) more than one variation of a product. That is reasonable and a common aspect of business – one size does not fit all! But there is a point where too offering too many SKUs is not value added either for your customer or your business.  In his April 30, 2013 article “Successful Retailers Learn That Fewer Choices Trigger More Sales” in Forbes, Carmine Gallo discusses his experience and a study about “choice overload” by other authors. He writes about a retailer that “has discovered that giving a customer more than three choices at one time actually overwhelms customers and makes them frustrated…when the customer is faced with too many choices at once, it leaves the customer confused and less likely to buy from any of the choices!” Choice overload is well-documented in consumer studies but can apply in B2B as well.

While customer satisfaction is important, another key concern is the often-hidden costs associated with a business offering and managing a large number of SKUs for a given product type. These costs include holding inventory, S&OP (Sales and Operations Planning) team time, small production runs, and scrapping inventory.

Holding inventory takes up space, which may come with a cost or utilize racks that could be used for other products. Scheduled inventory counts take up employee time and may result in blackout periods when the warehouse is not shipping product.  The more SKUs there are, including extra SKUS, the greater the potential impact.

The Sales team’s forecasting and the Operations team’s purchasing reviews that are part of the S&OP process can occupy more of their valuable time if they need to consider these times. If small orders or forecasts require a new production run, this could be costly and create excess inventory. Whether from this new production or past builds, eventually it will make sense to write off and scrap old inventory, another cost impact to the company.

How do you know which SKUs to focus on if you wish to look at reducing your total number of SKUs? Start by examining SKUs that have:

  • Low historic sales over a period of time
  • Small variations between SKUs that customers do not value
  • Older technology or model when newer option SKUs are available

This requires a true partnership between Sales and Operations. It starts with educating both teams on the costs involved – neither group may be aware of the money and time impact to the company. Periodic (such as quarterly) reviews of SKUs that meet the above descriptions should become a fixed part of the calendar. A review of the data and other available for sale options should result in the identification of SKUs which may not be needed. At that point, it is helpful to have a customer friendly EOL (End of Life) Notice process by which you inform customers of last time buy requirements for this SKU and alternates available. It is usually best to provide some time for the last time buy in the interest of customer satisfaction, although that may not always be necessary.

At a company that designed and sold electronics, a robust SKU rationalization process was implemented to help address these issues. A representative from the Operations team analyzed SKUs that met a version of the above criteria and suggested candidates for the EOL process. Next, a member of the Sales team reviewed them and, where appropriate, issued product change or EOL notices to customers, providing them time for last time buy orders when needed. These steps helped reduce the work involved in maintaining these SKUs while not leading to any customer complaints.

A final note – sometimes it makes sense to continue offering low selling SKUs – to support customers buying other items (hopefully in larger quantities). It may be worthwhile to encourage them to keep coming back to you for all of their product needs and this may be a way to accomplish that. But it helps to understand that this is truly the case and not assume that this customer would not be equally happy with another, more popular, SKU.

 

Steven Lustig is founder and CEO of Lustig Global Consulting and an experienced Supply Chain Executive.  He is a recognized thought leader in supply chain and risk mitigation, and serves on the Boards of Directors for Loh Medical and Atlanta Technology Angels.

Updated: Jul 9, 2024

About the author
Steven Lustig of Lustig Global Consulting is a member of XPX Atlanta

Lustig Global Consulting that helps companies create risk management programs, establish robust manufacturing and supply chain strategies, and enable sustainability initiatives.