What Is Inventory? Definition, Types, and Examples


Investopedia / Mira Norian

What Is Inventory?

The term inventory refers to the raw materials used in production as well as the goods produced that are available for sale. A company's inventory represents one of the most important assets it has because the turnover of inventory represents one of the primary sources of revenue generation and subsequent earnings for the company's shareholders. There are three types of inventory, including raw materials, work-in-progress, and finished goods. It is categorized as a current asset on a company's balance sheet.

Key Takeaways

  • Inventory is the raw materials used to produce goods as well as the goods that are available for sale.
  • It is classified as a current asset on a company's balance sheet.
  • The three types of inventory include raw materials, work-in-progress, and finished goods. 
  • Inventory is valued in one of three ways, including the first-in, first-out method; the last-in, first-out method; and the weighted average method.
  • Inventory management allows businesses to minimize inventory costs as they create or receive goods on an as-needed basis.

Understanding Inventory 

Inventory is a very important asset for any company. It is defined as the array of goods used in production or finished goods held by a company during its normal course of business. There are three general categories of inventory, including raw materials (any supplies that are used to produce finished goods), work-in-progress (WIP), and finished goods or those that are ready for sale.

As noted above, inventory is classified as a current asset on a company's balance sheet, and it serves as a buffer between manufacturing and order fulfillment. When an inventory item is sold, its carrying cost transfers to the cost of goods sold (COGS) category on the income statement.

Inventory can be valued in three ways. These methods are the:

  • First-in, first-out (FIFO) method, which says that the cost of goods sold is based on the cost of the earliest purchased materials. The carrying cost of remaining inventory, on the other hand, is based on the cost of the latest purchased materials
  • Last-in, first-out (LIFO) method, which states that the cost of goods sold is valued using the cost of the latest purchased materials, while the value of the remaining inventory is based on the earliest purchased materials.
  • Weighted average method, which requires valuing both inventory and the COGS based on the average cost of all materials bought during the period.

Company management, analysts, and investors can use a company's inventory turnover to determine how many times it sells its products over a certain period of time. Inventory turnover can indicate whether a company has too much or too little inventory on hand.

Special Considerations 

Many producers partner with retailers to consign their inventory. Consignment inventory is the inventory owned by the supplier/producer (generally a wholesaler) but held by a customer (generally a retailer). The customer then purchases the inventory once it has been sold to the end customer or once they consume it (e.g., to produce their own products).

The benefit to the supplier is that their product is promoted by the customer and readily accessible to end users. The benefit to the customer is that they do not expend capital until it becomes profitable to them. This means they only purchase it when the end user purchases it from them or until they consume the inventory for their operations.

Inventory Management

Possessing a high amount of inventory for a long time is usually not a good idea for a business. That's because of the challenges it presents, including storage costs, spoilage costs, and the threat of obsolescence.

Possessing too little inventory also has its disadvantages. For instance, a company runs the risk of market share erosion and losing profit from potential sales.

Inventory management forecasts and strategies, such as a just-in-time (JIT) inventory system (with backflush costing), can help companies minimize inventory costs because goods are created or received only when needed.

Types of Inventory

Remember that inventory is generally categorized as raw materials, work-in-progress, and finished goods. The IRS also classifies merchandise and supplies as additional categories of inventory.

Raw materials are unprocessed materials used to produce a good. Examples of raw materials include:

  • Aluminum and steel for the manufacture of cars
  • Flour for bakeries that produce bread
  • Crude oil held by refineries

Work-in-progress inventory is the partially finished goods waiting for completion and resale. WIP inventory is also known as inventory on the production floor. A half-assembled airliner or a partially completed yacht is often considered to be work-in-process inventory.

Finished goods are products that go through the production process, and are completed and ready for sale. Retailers typically refer to this inventory as merchandise. Common examples of merchandise include electronics, clothes, and cars held by retailers.

How Do You Define Inventory?

Inventory refers to a company’s goods and products that are ready to sell, along with the raw materials that are used to produce them. Inventory can be categorized in three different ways, including raw materials, work-in-progress, and finished goods.

In accounting, inventory is considered a current asset because a company typically plans to sell the finished products within a year.

Methods to value the inventory include last-in, first-out (LIFO); first-in, first-out (FIFO); and the weighted average method.

What Is an Example of Inventory?

Consider a fashion retailer such as Zara, which operates on a seasonal schedule. Because of the fast fashion nature of turnover, Zara, like other fashion retailers is under pressure to sell inventory rapidly. Zara's merchandise is an example of inventory in the finished product stage. On the other hand, the fabric and other production materials are considered a raw material form of inventory.

What Can Inventory Tell You About a Business?

One way to track the performance of a business is the speed of its inventory turnover. When a business sells inventory at a faster rate than its competitors, it incurs lower holding costs and decreased opportunity costs. As a result, they often outperform, since this helps with the efficiency of its sale of goods.

Article Sources
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  1. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 538 (01/2019), Accounting Periods and Methods: Items Included in Inventory.”

  2. Harvard Business School (HBS), Digital Initiative. "Zara: Disrupting the Traditional Cycle of Fashion."