Even though both merchandising companies and service companies conform to generally accepted accounting principles or GAAP, there are differences in the ways each type of firm prepares its financial statements, especially income statements, where most differences center around the existence of inventory.

Merchandising Company vs. Service Company

A merchandising company engages in the sale of tangible goods to consumers. These businesses incur costs, such as labor and materials, to present and ultimately sell products. Service companies do not sell tangible goods to produce income; rather, they provide services to customers or clients who value their innovation and expertise. Examples of service companies include consultants, accountants, financial planners, and insurance providers.

Differences in the Income Statements

The income statement shows financial performance from operations first and then separately discloses gains and losses that fall outside the regular scope of operations.

The differences in income statements can be further understood by examining the balance sheets of both types of companies. For instance, inventory is a large percentage of the assets category for a merchandising company. As such, they tend to have less cash on hand than service businesses, since their capital is tied up in relatively illiquid assets. By contrast, service businesses' assets tend to be weighted toward accounts receivable. For a service business, the absence of inventory means receivables is a greater proportion of total assets.

Both service and merchandising companies may experience gains or losses from non-operational sources. However, sources of the gains or losses differ between the two business types. For instance, a merchandiser might decide to redecorate a retail store and sell off fixtures for a profit. A service company might have a one-time gain from the sale of a patent. Lawsuits may be a factor for both types of businesses...for merchandisers, lawsuits are often related to defective goods. Meanwhile, a service provider might be more likely sued for breach of contract.

Both merchandising companies and service companies prepare income statements to help investors, analysts, and regulators understand their internal financial operations. Merchandising companies hold and account for product inventory, which makes their income statements inherently more complicated. Much of the inventory calculation is manifested through the line item cost of goods sold, which is an expense account describing the cost of purchasing inventory and delivering it to customers. If you look at an income statement for a service company, you will not see a line item for the cost of goods sold.

The nature of increases or decreases in net revenue for each type of company is also different. Service companies do not typically have enormous expense accounts, meaning that fluctuations in net revenue are almost entirely a function of generating sales. Manufacturing companies are less certain since a decrease in net revenue could be an increase in expenses or a decrease in revenues.