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Every company must carry stocks of goods and materials in inventory. The size of the investment in inventory depends on various factors, including the level of sales, the nature of the production processes, and the speed with which goods perish or become obsolete

The problems involved in managing inventories are basically the same as those in managing other assets, including cash. A basic stock must be on hand at all times. Because the unexpected may occur, it is also wise to have safety stocks; these represent the little extra needed to avoid the costs of not having enough. Additional amounts—anticipation stocks—may be required for meeting future growth needs.

Finally, some inventory accumulation results from the economies of purchasing in large quantities; it is always cheaper to buy more than is immediately needed, whether of raw materials, money, or plant and equipment.

There is a standard procedure for determining the most economical amounts to order, one that relates purchasing requirements to costs and carrying charges (i.e., the cost of maintaining an inventory).

While carrying charges rise as average inventory holdings increase, certain other costs (ordering costs and stock-out costs) fall as average inventory holdings rise. These two sets of costs constitute the total cost of ordering and carrying inventories, and it is fairly easy to calculate an optimal order size that will minimize total inventory costs.

The advent of computerized inventory tracking fostered a practice known as just-in-time inventory management and thereby reduced the likelihood of excess or inadequate inventory stocks.