Introduction to Serial Number Inventory Tracking

Serial number inventory tracking through barcode scanning

Inventory management is most often handled on a per-SKU basis. All units of a SKU are summed up into one large quantity. Sales, shipping, and receiving then deduct from that lump sum. This is the ideal inventory management solution for most online retail businesses. It’s fast, simple, and serves your warehouse’s needs without getting in your way.

But what if your business requires you to track individual units in your warehouse? This is something that even the most advanced inventory control workflows can struggle with. How can you track single units that are being lumped together under their shared SKU? The answer for many businesses is serial number inventory tracking:

Product serial numbers compared

There are many different types of product serialization that you may wish to track. Some are assigned directly by the manufacturer, while others may be given after production. Some retailers will even choose to serialize products themselves. This unique identification can be useful for tracking products through the production line or for warranty and recall purposes.

You handle products with serialization every day. Every cell phone on the market today ships with a unique IMEI. Every major electronic device, such as laptops and TVs, has a serial number printed on a label. Even the cash in your wallet features unique serial numbers. Some currency serial numbers are highly sought after by collectors.

When to use serial number inventory tracking

Whether to track inventory by individual serial numbers or not can be a tough choice. Retail business owners must decide if their inventory control needs mandate serialization. If that’s not the case, the drawbacks may outweigh the benefits.

Some retail niches are required by their industry to adopt serialization. If you sell laptops, smartphones, or other valuable electronics, you’ll want to keep track of those serial numbers. Records tying serial numbers to customers will be useful for warranty claims and product recall notices.

There are often legal requirements to keep record of serial number inventory. Vehicles, pharmaceuticals, and firearms all have legally required identification. If you sell these types of products, you’ll need to keep track of those unique sales and inventory.

Photo credit: mrbill (Flickr)
Photo credit: mrbill (Flickr)

Many retail situations are less clear in their need for serialized inventory. Some warehouses may choose to adopt serialization to better manage custom, made-to-order goods. Others may keep record of identifiers that are not legally required, but assist with customer support matters. Finally, retailers of vintage or luxury collectibles often consider the serial numbers to be a core part of the products for sale.

It’s important to identify a real need for serialization before you consider adopting it. Inventory management is much simpler without involving unique serial numbers per unit. If your business doesn’t benefit from serial number inventory tracking, you can avoid a lot of headache by skipping it.

How to track serial numbers effectively

Perhaps by now you’ve made the decision to put serial number inventory tracking in place. Next, you’ll need to come up with an effective workflow for your warehouse. Serialized inventory is something that needs to be tracked from start to finish. Ideally, you can track a serial number from the moment it is added to inventory to the moment it ships out.

Serialized inventory management starts when you receive new inventory. As you process purchases from suppliers and add the goods to inventory, you should record all the included serial numbers. From then, you’ll have a record of which serial numbers you have in stock, and can begin tracking them through your warehouse and shipments.

Some times, you’ll want to track serial numbers as they move through your warehouse. If your business involves product customization or assembly, keep record of where each unit is in the production process. This will give you data to help audit your workflow’s speed and effectiveness. If you have a large amount of serialized inventory, it may help to keep track of serial numbers by their location within the facility.

One common benefit of serial number inventory tracking is tying a serial number to a shipment. Keep a record of which serial numbers have been picked from inventory for each order. As the order is shipped out, you can tie the shipped serial numbers with the customer’s record. A database of customers and their serialized purchases can be invaluable when dealing with warranty issues.

To make serial number inventory tracking easier on you and your business, consider using inventory management software that supports serial numbers out of the box. SKULabs makes it easy to document serial numbers when receiving inventory, and scan out serial numbers when picking orders.