Many firms sell items to customers on credit or advance a product with the expectation that payment will be made soon after. We should establish from the outset the fact that, depending on the industry, many companies' sales are sold with terms of payment (credit sales), typically ranging from 30 to 90 days.

Obviously, the use of cash versus credit sales and the duration of the latter depend on the nature of a company's business. With consumer goods and services, the credit card has turned most retailers' sales into cash sales. However, outside the consumer field, virtually all sales by business involve, at a minimum, some payment terms, and, therefore, credit sales. In modern times, credit sales are the norm and dominate virtually all business-to-business transactions.

If a company does have a mix of cash and credit sales, a breakdown of this nature would only be found in the notes to the financial statements or in the Management Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) section of a publicly traded company's annual report or Form 10-K. However, we have seldom seen this type of disclosure.

Key Takeaways

  • Credit sales are payments that are not made until several days or weeks after a product has been delivered.
  • Short-term credit arrangements appear on a firm's balance sheet as accounts receivable and differ from payments made immediately in cash.
  • To determine the percent that is credit sales, divide the accounts receivables by sales.

Timely Payments

Implied in this question is an important analytical point for investors to consider when measuring the quality of a company's operations and balance sheet. In the case of the latter, the accounts receivable line in a company's current assets records its credit sales. It is important for a company's liquidity and cash flow that accounts receivable be collected—or turned into cash—in a timely fashion.

For companies with a high percentage of credit sales, the average collection period may give a better indication of how successfully the company is converting its credit sales to cash. Effectively run businesses generally aim for an average collection period of about a third less than the maximum credit terms. For example, if terms stipulate payment within 30 days, the business would aim to collect within 20 days. 

The average collection period is calculated by dividing total annual credit sales by half the sum of the balance of starting receivables and the balance of ending receivables. The average collection period, as well as the receivables turnover ratio, offer useful insight into assessing the company's cash flow and overall liquidity.