A Guide To Going Paperless With Digital Purchase Orders (+ How To Get Started)

January 20, 2023
13 min read

In this article:

Paper purchase orders are so passé. Moving to electronic purchase orders not only streamlines your PO workflow, but cuts costs, waste, and lead times.

No matter how big or small your retail brand is, you’ll be submitting purchase orders regularly. The question is: Will you draft those orders by hand, or will you digitize the process, making your life a whole lot easier? (Warning: There is a correct answer here.) 

If you haven’t already, it’s high time to ditch these antiquated, hand-filled order forms. By switching to a digital purchase order system, your brand can save tons of time, money, and energy. Here's how. 

What is an electronic purchase order?

Digital purchase orders (DPO) are electronic documents that outline all the purchasing terms for buyers and sellers. This includes details about any inventory you're requesting (SKU number, item descriptions, quantities, and so on).

Cogsy digital purchase order flow provides Shopify merchants visibility from end-to-end

However, unlike traditional POs, your purchase order software builds electronic purchase orders on your behalf – not someone on your operations team. 

To do this, your PO software centralizes all that handy purchasing data. That way, you maintain accurate records of your inventory purchases, inform future purchasing decisions with past DPOs, and draft purchase orders much faster.

Why it’s time to switch: digital vs. paper purchase orders 

Electronic purchase orders boast many benefits proving paper-based POs don’t stack up. These advantages include cutting down on printed materials (save the trees!), minimizing human errors, and even reducing overhead costs. 

To give you a sense of the key differences, we’ve put together a convenient table compiling a DPO’s many advantages – plus the many downsides of sticking with the old-fashioned paper route.

Paper purchase ordersDigital purchase orders
Involves stacks of physical paperworkEliminates paper waste and reduces your company’s carbon footprint
Prone to all kinds of human errors, inaccuracies, and inconsistenciesAvoids errors (like incorrect prices or product quantities) and promotes greater accuracy 
Requires additional storage costs and employee time to manage paper documentsSaves time and resources by giving you more control over the ordering process
Little-to-no process visibilityIncreases transparency and helps prevent duplicate orders and discrepancies
Requires consistent, manual follow-up throughout the entire PO processAutomates entire workflows, like establishing reorder points and sending replenishment alerts
Takes a lot of time to complete, which can delay lead times and order fulfillmentMakes it easy to draft, submit, and adapt POs (which cuts down on lead times) 

Eliminate paper waste

Perhaps the most obvious win with electronic purchase orders is that you eliminate untold amounts of paper waste. It’s better for the environment and makes your carbon footprint that much smaller. 

Yes, you save a small forest of trees, but you also cut down on additional expenses. After all, paper and ink costs add up over time. Not to mention that electronic POs make managing your records a heck of a lot easier. When you safely store your digital purchase orders in your PO software, there’s much less chance you’ll duplicate or lose order forms – both of which disrupt the order fulfillment process.

Purchase order software ensures all your docs are accessible and well-organized, so you can reference past and present orders with just a few clicks. No need to comb through stacks of paperwork to find the information you’re looking for (and no one needs to risk getting a paper cut). 

Even better, digital workflows offer greater security than paper-based systems. With paper documentation, there’s always a risk of your orders being misplaced or accidentally destroyed. But when your purchase orders are digitized, all your data is safely stored in the cloud and only accessible by authorized team members.

Minimize human error

Manual PO processing (via spreadsheets and paper-based systems) requires a lot of manual data entry. (Yuck.) The problem with these manual tasks (besides being tedious and time-consuming) is that they’re susceptible to all kinds of human errors, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies. Yes, even when you take the time to double-check your work.

Meanwhile, paperless purchase order systems help you avoid these common errors (think: incorrect prices or product quantities). In other words, electronic POs improve the overall accuracy of your orders and minimize those small mistakes that could lead to big costs for your brand. 

This accuracy is the key to ordering the right amount of stock at the right time, preventing those pricey stockouts and overstock situations. Just so you know how expensive this can be: Stockouts cost retailers an average of about $1 trillion annually. Yes, that’s trillion with a “T.”. 

Ever since supply chain challenges hit in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many brands have overordered to get ahead of any stockouts. And now, they find themselves overrun with extra inventory. In an interesting turn of events, this excess inventory is expected to cost brands even more than stockouts have historically.

Reduce costs

Relying on manual purchase orders is an expensive choice. Prepare yourself for some serious sticker shock. According to a 2020 study from the American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC), manual PO processing costs businesses upwards of $506.52 per purchase order

Now, imagine creating dozens of POs each year with that hefty price tag. Needless to say, that’s buckets of cash down the drain. 

Paper POs also come with additional storage costs, are a time-suck for your employees, and have a much higher error rate (as we’ve already mentioned above).

In contrast, an electronic process helps you manage your costs more effectively. Electronic POs give you greater cash flow control since you can monitor your spending relative to previous POs. That way, you can safely stay within budget. 

The best part? With this increased control, you only order the necessary inventory, so you’re not wasting money on products with little-to-no demand. But we’ll dig deeper into this kind of financial transparency below.

Increase transparency 

Transparency is such a big part of a successful PO system. And yet, paper purchase orders simply don’t offer anywhere near the level of transparency as electronic orders do. 

📝 Note: Having visibility within your PO system gives you clarity into past sales and helps you accurately forecast future demand. If you lack this transparency, you won’t know when your products are at risk of stocking out. And it’ll be almost impossible to forecast customer demand.

It’s tough to keep up with transactions and PO records when you’re stuck with paper documents – especially since you could store all this paperwork in different places. This makes your records difficult to access, at best. 

But with a digital PO system, you can easily oversee your PO process from start to finish and manage your inventory levels. Purchase order software offers instant access to past and present POs. That way, you can quickly double-check any details or compare order changes month-over-month (or year-over-year). 

The increased transparency from paperless POs also prevents discrepancies and duplicate orders altogether. Meaning, the visibility from digital purchase orders puts you on the fast track to better inventory accuracy and efficiency, so every PO is fulfilled on time (and within budget).

Streamline your purchasing workflows

Let the robots do the heavy lifting for you. With digital PO systems and software, you can automate nearly every step of the purchase order process.

For instance, an ops optimization software (like Cogsy) automatically calculates your reorder points (ROP) based on your current inventory levels and real-time demand trends. Then, it tracks how your real-time inventory levels stack up against that replenishment point.

When any of your SKUs hit their reorder point, Cogsy will send you a replenish alert, reminding you that it's time to restock and what to reorder. These notifications take all the guesswork out of stocking your shelves. And they help you place POs at the perfect time to prevent stockouts. 

On top of that, replenish alerts and restock recommendations ensure you don't order more inventory than you need. So, excess inventory and dead stock are a thing of the past for your brand.

Decrease lead time

Simply put, manual purchase orders take forever to process and are downright inconvenient. Manual POs can take several hours to fill out from start to finish, and you might have several days of back-and-forth with your vendor if you need to amend your order. 

Think about it: With the manual process, someone has to fill every field out (from purchase order number to the specific SKUs to the quantities). And then, they have to double-check that all the details are correct. That takes a lot of time, no matter how you slice it. 

What’s worse, it’s easy to make mistakes when filling out these order forms, which inevitably delays your shipments. 

Manual POs also leave room for confusion and can put your vendor relationships at risk. Let’s say you only want 1,000 units of a SKU, but some scribbled handwriting on an order form makes it look like you want 10,000 units. This sort of mix-up takes time and money to fix while putting a big strain on your supplier relationships.

On the flip side, digital POs decrease your lead times in a big way. Purchase order software makes it almost effortless to draft, submit, and adapt your POs (because it requires little to no data entry on your part).

By accelerating your PO process and eliminating errors, you can share orders with suppliers in less time (and with less back-and-forth). This way, they can reduce lead time by getting your products out the door faster.

🔥 Tip: Cogsy automatically drafts POs based on your historical and real-time inventory data. All you need to do is check that everything looks right and hit submit. It’s as simple as that. Try Cogsy free for 14 days.

How to build an electronic purchase order system

Want to build a paperless purchase order system for your own brand? Get started with just a few steps. 

Step 1: Create digital forms

The first step in designing electronic purchase orders is to create the digital forms you'll need. These will act as templates for you. That way, you're not starting from scratch every time you make an order. This includes forms like purchase requisitions along with the actual purchase order template

You submit purchase requisitions (PR) to your finance team to get permission to replenish your inventory. POs formally order the stock on your approved PR from your suppliers.

Think of purchase requisitions as giving you the green light to buy the goods you want. While you're not ordering anything (yet), you're getting internal permission to do so when needed.

Your PR will include details like the date you're requesting, the type of inventory you want to order, the quantity, and a brief description of what stock you want to buy. 

Keep in mind that your purchasing request might involve some back-and-forth if finance flags (or even outright rejects) your request. If this happens, you'll have further discussions with the finance department. But once your purchasing request is approved, you can shift into PO mode.

You can either create your PR form from scratch or use pre-made purchase order templates to compile all the order details. You can even use your PO template as a PR by noting that it's a "draft" (similar to writing "void" on a check). That way, you're using one form template for PRs and POs and not creating double work for yourself.

Taking the time to create digital forms means all your POs will follow the same format. This consistency not only helps you stay organized but reduces ordering errors, too.

Step 2: Design PO workflows

Once you’ve built your templates, the next step is to design your purchase order process

Using purchase order software makes planning this workflow a whole lot easier. The best software allows you to add rules that check that all your information is correct. For example, you set rules that automatically match data formatting, adjust currency, and remove duplicate entries or line items.

You can also automate data export and storage tasks so that all your POs are archived properly. That way, they are easy to access whenever you need them. 

What’s more, this is a perfect time to add rules that flag mistakes or inaccuracies – and even fraud. Procurement fraud is when a buyer or supplier tries to gain an unfair advantage during the purchase order process (like when suppliers send inflated invoices, for example).

But installing checkpoints in your PO workflow helps you avoid procurement fraud before it ever happens. Preventing this means bypassing any profit loss and saving yourself the headache of sorting through legal documents to figure out where things went wrong.

Step 3: Set up permissions

After establishing your PO process, you’re ready to assign roles and grant permissions for the approval process. Don’t take this step lightly – this is one of the most important parts of a digital PO system.

Roles determine who can create drafts, approve requests, and order products from your suppliers. On the flip side, permission levels (based on each person’s assigned role) determine how much access and control a person has over confidential data.  

Your approval chain, for instance, are the stakeholders who need to have eyes your inventory purchasing. For instance, a business manager, procurement manager, or appointed budget holder will typically draft the DPO.

Then, your Chief Financial Officer (CFO) may have final sign-off in the PO process. Alternatively, this will be whoever oversees your brand’s spending and keeps your brand’s expenses in check. Regardless of who is appointed, these roles validate your POs and pass them on to your suppliers. 

Meaning, for your purchase orders to become legally binding contracts, they need to receive internal approval from the aforementioned folks. As such, these crucial roles typically have the highest permission level since they’re the ones who approve your POs.

Step 4: Test and implement your system

After you’ve created purchase forms, automated your tasks (with online workflows), and established specific roles and responsibilities, it’s finally time to put your system to the test. 

Before your digital PO system goes live, share the workflow with your purchasing team to check for any errors (within the workflow itself). This includes ensuring all stakeholders receive real-time notifications.

From there, you can make any necessary changes or adjustments to your ordering system. After making any updates, test your system once more (just in case). Once everything is running smoothly, you can fully launch your electronic PO system.

Step 5: Improve the process regularly

No electronic purchase order system is ever perfect. Luckily, you can (and should) continue improving it over the long run.

Once you introduce your system to a wider audience, it's easier to collect valuable feedback, including insights on process gaps, pesky errors, or any lags in functionality.  

If you or your colleagues discover major issues (like a batch of duplicate orders), hit the brakes on your digital POs while you make improvements.

On the other hand, if your PO system lacks a few minor features (like data formatting, for example), you can likely work on those changes as you go. 

Iterating on your process regularly helps reduce inefficiencies so you can create and approve POs in as little time as possible. 

How Cogsy streamlines your purchase order process

As we’ve alluded to in previous sections, teaming up with an ops tool like Cogsy makes building your PO process a breeze. Thanks to Cogsy’s user-friendly platform and real-time inventory insights, you can generate POs that are equal parts accurate and effective.

Get full visibility into your inventory needs

Brands typically start the purchase order process with a pulse check of their inventory needs. You often have to dig through mountains of data to determine what stock you need, how much, and when those items must come to avoid a stockout. 

Thankfully, Cogsy can help you with forecasting and demand planning so you know exactly what inventory you need to order, how much, and when. (Plus, if you have multiple warehouses, where to send that incoming shipment.) 

Cogsy tracks your inventory around the clock and gives you 24/7 visibility into all your product movement. From there, Cogsy uses these real-time inventory insights (coupled with historical sales trends) to create accurate demand forecasts on your brand’s behalf. 

By replacing manual spreadsheets with proactive sales predictions, you’ll know exactly what to expect (and can prepare accordingly). 

Cogsy’s forecasts provide an accurate picture of your replenishment needs, so you only order what will actually sell. Nothing more, nothing less. Accurate forecasts are also the key to placing orders faster, reducing stockouts, and minimizing excess stock.

What’s more, Cogsy offers to restock recommendations that account for your suppliers’ minimum order quantities and demand forecasts, so your POs are on the nose every time.

Draft digital order forms in just seconds

You can draft your digital order forms with your inventory needs in the bag. Cogsy makes it easy to create purchasing requests and purchase orders at the same time. Cogsy's electronic PO drafts can double as a purchase requisition. 

That's right – you can draft a PO in Cogsy and then slide that draft across finance's desk for final approval. This approach is a great way to save time and streamline the whole PO process.

🔥 Tip: Getting advanced approval via purchasing requests can reduce errors, help you stick to your budget, and speed up the ordering process to avoid a costly stockout.

Access reliable PO workflows

Cogsy’s automated workflows are vast and varied. For one thing, Cogsy automatically calculates reorder points and sends automatic replenish alerts once you hit that ROP. 

In other words, Cogsy’s predictive inventory intelligence notifies you with details of when (and what) you need to replenish long before you run out of stock. This removes all the headache and hassle from the inventory replenishment process so you can make proactive purchasing decisions that benefit your bottom line.

Plus, as you already know, Cogsy can also automatically draft POs. You just need to check that everything’s right and click submit. Easy, right? 

📝 Note: If you’d rather build your POs from scratch, you can do that, too! Cogsy supports your brand however you like to put your orders together.

With the help of these expedited orders, Cogsy customers (like Caraway) save an average of 20+ hours per week. This is time save that brands can then reinvest in their business growth.

Better yet, Cogsy’s automation eliminates human errors that pop up during manual PO processing, so you can feel confident your orders are as accurate as can be.

Build a seamless electronic PO system

If you’ve followed Steps 1 through 3, you’ll be in good shape to pull the trigger on your digital PO system. And the right ops tool helps you set this new system in motion.

When you work with Cogsy, you can create, submit, and adapt your electronic POs whenever you want. So, you can constantly monitor and modify your process to better suit your unique needs. 

Partnering with Cogsy also accelerates your purchase order routing and approval. But there’s also the added advantage of Cogsy’s adaptability. Cogsy was specifically designed to grow with your brand and scale right alongside you. 

So, no matter how much you increase your revenue (or how many SKUs you add to your catalog), Cogsy can help you create accurate purchase orders at the click of a button.

Ready to say goodbye to guesswork and hello to efficient purchase order management? Try Cogsy free for 14 days!

Digital purchase orders FAQs

Get answers to the most common digital purchase order questions below.

How is a purchase order obtained?

Purchase orders are created by a buyer, then submitted to a supplier. This legally binding contract contains details about the types and quantities of products the buyer needs (as well as information on payment terms and delivery timelines). 

Once the supplier approves the purchase order request, they’re responsible for fulfilling the order by the designated delivery date.

What are the benefits of using digital purchase order software?

Digital purchase orders are vital to your overall purchase order system, as they offer several benefits that paper-based POs can’t claim. The advantages of using digital POs include eliminating paper waste, minimizing human errors, and reducing overhead costs.  

How should I choose digital purchase order software?

When it comes to digital purchase order software, Cogsy is head and shoulders above the rest. Cogsy automatically drafts purchase orders based on your historical and real-time inventory data. All you need to do is check that everything looks right and hit submit. Cogsy even automatically calculates your reorder points, so you never miss the perfect time to restock.

Reach your most audacious revenue goals

See how you can generate 40% more revenue and save 20+ hours a week with Cogsy. Try it free for 14 days.
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