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Ecommerce Forum

Live inventory monitoring

 6:36 pm on May 26, 2011 (gmt 0)

One of the problems that I have read about & that seems to be a persistent issue in e-commerce is when a customer orders an item(s) that appears to be available, only for the customer to find out after they have placed the order and obtained a confirmation that the item is out of stock and it will take x days/weeks to arrive.

I haven't looked extensively into this area but is there perhaps a commercially available module/option/system that you can build into your site and that gives live inventory levels feedback from all the vendors/wholesalers/manufacturers systems that a site is supplied from?

I have an interesting idea in this specific area that I would like to develop into my site (amongst a slwe of them!), but it requires that such a system be in place in order for it to work.

Any comments?



 8:48 pm on May 26, 2011 (gmt 0)

I don't know of a commercially-available system, so I rolled my own. It involves screen-scraping my suppliers' website, as they don't offer a more-elegant method.

Whenever a customer views a product on my site, I display a out-of-stock note if both myself and my supplier is out of that item. My system timestamps their inventory data, and if the data is stale, it fires off an HttpRequest to my supplier to refresh the data. I do the request *after* I display the product page to my customer, as to not slow-down their shopping experience.

The system has been working quite well, and by limiting my requests to a few hundred per 24-hour day, my supplier is unlikely to even notice what I'm doing.


 6:47 pm on May 30, 2011 (gmt 0)

Inventory is far more complex than it seems, especially if you have items with options (Widgets in red, blue, green, each ranging from small to large.)

I usually code this myself but have had the chance in my position to explore how others are doing it. Magento definitely has this, but I don't like it, at all! It has you create each item


... Then "hide" those and create a "super product" for display in the cart that builds it's options lists off your hidden items. You track inventory by the hidden items, not the viewable one. This is totally insane, but guess what, this is how QuickBooks does it too. Ugh.

So far the best all around solution I'm exploring is an oldie but goodie from 1995, PDG, that uses the QB Web Connector. They fully support QB integration and have been doing so for a very long time. This is not an endorsement but I'll say it's looking pretty good. :-)

Their implementation supports a bi-directional update of both the site and QB, you can schedule it to sync as often as you want (less than every 15 minutes is overkill.) Change something in QB, it updates the site, and vice versa.

For the nuts and bolts of "simple" inventory management, My path of inventory [webmasterworld.com]


 3:51 pm on May 31, 2011 (gmt 0)

So is there no authority on inventory in e-commerce?

I can scope out in diagram/flow chart form what I want software to do, but I have no techie knowledge nor any real inclination to develop or excel in this area.

I can then have my idea connected into that (or maybe I can come up with a turnkey solution and then sell it?)


 4:25 am on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

So is there no authority on inventory in e-commerce?

Correct, a hundred different packages, all going about it in similar but different ways.

Heck, you can't even get eBay and Amazon to agree on inventory methodologies. One doesn't allow "zero" inventory for a listing, and the other doesn't like color/size variations (except in very few categories).


 8:46 am on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

I haven't looked extensively into this area but is there perhaps a commercially available module/option/system that you can build into your site and that gives live inventory levels feedback from all the vendors/wholesalers/manufacturers systems that a site is supplied from?

How could there be? Manufacturers and wholesalers usually don't broadcast their inventory into the internet. Hell, I have suppliers that do not even have a website.

The problem is not to build a system that is able to collect the stock from suppliers websites, or read an RSS feed that supplies this information. That would be the easy part.

The problem is that there are very few suppliers who provide this kind of information. Least of all in a standardized format.


 2:05 pm on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

The "how could there be" is the kind of reply from someone who maybe can't see and can't say "why can't it be".

If the problem is with suppliers and not technology, then someone has to step forward to be the trailblazer, a visionary and someone who can see that they will be able to capitalize on their first mover advantage, not to mention cornering the market and then selling their system to other suppliers.

Or perhaps the online retailing community can form a collective voice to encourage the development of such a system?

I am disappointed to learn that while many facets of commerce have been revolutionised by the internet and modern technology, that this segment remains languishing behind, especially when it doesn't need to be so.

Do you know why suppliers don't supply this kind of information?
Are suppliers afraid of something and if so, what?


 3:13 pm on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

Are suppliers afraid of something and if so, what?

Yes, they are afraid in a smart way.

Many of their inventory systems are running on IBM AS/400's or other big boxes (non-LAMP platforms), wired to 5250 terminal emulators, possibly via token ring. Their database is DB2, or perhaps Oracle. Internet access is the exception, rather than the rule.

There is the physical wiring (token ring versus Ethernet), differing networking protocols, authentication schemes, and database access protocol stacks to navigate.

And these existing systems are all live and running, so if you disrupt their workflow in any way (programming bug, etc), you'll be liable for thousands in downtime costs.

Their upside is minimal, maybe reduce headcount of people answering the phone, but add headcount of high-cost network administrators.

If you can make the numbers work, by all means you should invest all-in. You'll probably spend 2k man-hours getting your first customer up and running, and (assuming they pay all of your invoices), you may have a product that you can resell to other wholesalers running identical hardware and software.

The world is not entirely white box LAMP architecture yet. If it were, the problem-space is small, and the solutions are obvious.


 3:22 pm on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

Do you know why this segment of ecommerce has been allowed to remain on a "technology island" like this? I am quite shocked to learn this.

Do you know how Amazon navigates all these complex systems with their service, which is supposed to be the best shopping experience on the web?


 3:27 pm on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

This is also a major problem (or opportunity) in our industry. There are too many small distributors that can't even produce a tracking number much less an inventory count. What we are seeing is the large companies are stocking everything (or nearly everything) that they display on their websites. This appears to be working as they have been buying out the 2nd tier on-line retailers.


 3:45 pm on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

When you mean "large companies are stocking everything", are you talking about large distributors?

Who is buying "the 2nd tier on-line retailers" and who are these companies or type of companies?


 5:26 pm on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

Large E-commerce companies in our industry are starting to stock physical inventory. The 2nd tier are E-commerce companies that became big ($50 - $100 mil in sales) but were mainly drop shippers. These are the folks that have the visitors but not the physical inventory. They've built great websites and figured out how to drive customers to the site but do not have the capital to physically own the inventory. These are the folks that are being bought out. We have also seen distributors buy these e-commerce companies and continue to run them. The only difference is now they have stock on-hand to fulfill the order.


 7:16 pm on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

Do you know why suppliers don't supply this kind of information?
Are suppliers afraid of something and if so, what?

This is valuable business information. Imagine you are a manufacturer or supplier. You have competitors. What information could they gain if they had access to the inventory in real time? If you tap into such a system you can check which products are the cash cows of a company and which only accumulate dust on the shelves. Which products sell, which don't. Which are worth copying and which not. You could find out if there might be a shortage of a product and perhaps it is advisable to boost advertising for a competing product during that time.

You are not sure if you should buy shares of a specific company or not? Check out the inventory, calculate what they are selling - you would know the turnover of a company before the quarterly numbers come out. Is the new product launch of your competitor a success? Check the inventory. This is valuable data no company will give away.


 7:36 pm on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

I don't thnk anyone is implying that the inventory information would be in the wild. The OP is aware of the value of this information, and was asking about standards regarding the distribution of inventory levels, including that data protected by credentials.

I was trying to express that there's no "technology island", that the inventory systems are quite advanced, performing inventory-turns reporting, integrating with accounting for balance sheet and tax calculations, and doing this all on a large scale.

These systems may-or-may-not run on desktop or LAMP computing platforms. This does not define them as technology islands. They probably have more functionality than anything written for a PC platform.

Old school: yes. Powerful and functional: yes. Technology island: only to the misinformed.


 7:52 pm on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

Thank you to all who have contributed to this topic.

So, if I develop a kick-ass e-commerce site, will I have to deal with 2 or more systems and then some manual element (phoning/faxing/emailing) added on top in order to fulfil orders or just to find out if I can actually fulfil orders or not?

To jecasc:
There's all kinds of data flowing around on the web, some of which is far more sensitive, critical or privileged than inventory levels at X wholesaler or manufacturer.


 7:55 pm on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

"Old school: yes. Powerful and functional: yes. Technology island: only to the misinformed."

But they're not keeping up with and serving of the needs of the market and ultimately, of the end customers?


 5:56 am on Jun 2, 2011 (gmt 0)

Correct, and that's where your turnkey solution comes in. Brush up on your RPG, write some C++ code, and you can own the market. If you create the standards, you'll own the standards. The most difficult part will be finding that first paying customer.


 1:53 pm on Jun 2, 2011 (gmt 0)

On my to do list.

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