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What are Operating Expenses? A Guide for Retail Entrepreneurs and Managers

What are Operating Expenses? A Guide for Retail Entrepreneurs and Managers

If you run a retail business, it never hurts to brush up on your understanding of the various expenses involved in running your business. In this article, we’ll focus on operating expenses. 

We’ll answer retailers’ common questions about operating expenses. We will cover:

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What are operating expenses? 

Operating expenses are the essential costs you pay to run and operate your business. Most of them tend to encompass short-term or day-to-day expenses. 

They include expenditures such as rent, inventory costs, marketing, and payroll, said Hillary Senko Cullum, a wholesale and retail consultant operating at HSC Advisors

“While these are unavoidable costs to keep your business running it is important to be diligent about the level of expenditures and ensure they are workable within your cash flow,” she said. 

Is inventory an operating expense?

This question has a bit of a complicated answer. Once your inventory is sold, it becomes a COGs expense (otherwise known as cost of goods sold). But before that, inventory is reported on your balance sheet as a current asset. 

Inventory isn’t all that simple, though: it encompasses raw materials, transportation and delivery, manufacturing, storage and overhead are all essential components of inventory. 

Good to know

  • Operating expenses are what it costs you to run your business. Financial experts and other business owners sometimes use the term OPEX to mean the same thing.
  • Some common operating expenses in retail include inventory purchases, product shipping, marketing and advertising, and payroll.
  • Maintaining monthly bookkeeping and reviewing expenses regularly will help retailers  manage and control operating expenses.


Capital expenses vs operating expenses: what’s the difference?

Business expenses can be a little confusing, whether you are considering starting a new retail business, or up-and-running but handling your own bookkeeping and accounting.

They fall into two basic categories: OPEX and CAPEX. Here’s how they differ.

Understanding CAPEX

Capital expenses include costs for long-term benefits such as equipment purchases, building improvements, or technology, explains Jessica Distel, a certified public accountant (CPA) and a managing director at Buckingham Advisors. “Capital expenditures are often not effectively budgeted for and can result in unexpected depletions of cash flow,” said Distel.

Examples of capital expenses include:

  • Expanding your current retail space
  • Opening a new brick-and-mortar store
  • Replacing air conditioning or a roof 

“Setting aside a percentage of revenue or profit into a savings account specifically designated for capital expenditures is a great way to plan for future costs that may be on the horizon,” said Distel.

Understanding OPEX

To recap, operating expenses are the costs of running a business and may include costs such as rent, utilities, marketing and payroll. “Operating expenses are a necessary component of a business and should be analyzed and budgeted for,” said Distel. 


Your cost of goods sold (COGS) are expenses tied to sourcing or making your products and bringing them to the place where you will sell them. “That usually includes the cost of the inventory, freight, duties, shipping and packaging, said Abir Syed of UpCounting. “Expenses incurred during the process of selling the inventory are usually excluded from COGS, such as rent for a showroom or salaries of the salespeople or marketing.”


How do you calculate OPEX and CAPEX?

Retailers can calculate OPEX and CAPEX using the following formulas.

operating expense

“Operating expenses are typically more important for a retailer as they are indicative of the health and performance of the business,” said Syed. “Capital expenditure isn’t irrelevant, but in a lot of cases as long as it’s not egregious, strong operations can cover CapEx requirements, or they can be financed through loans or equity.” 

Senko Cullum suggests retail businesses carefully evaluate the goals and purpose of any capital expenditure, before spending, to understand the expected value or growth potential.

How to track CAPEX and OPEX

If you’re not already using accounting software for your expenses, now’s the time. 

Track all expenses in accounting software like QuickBooks, suggests Armine Alajian (CPA), founder of the Alajian Group. “When you make a purchase from a debit or credit card, categorize that expense in the proper expense account.”

Syed agrees it’s best to regularly calculate expenses by using accounting software, so you know where certain cash outflows belong in the records. 

And Distel echoes this advice, adding that tracking and reporting historical costs are integral components of budgeting for (and forecasting) upcoming costs and projected profits. “Performing a routine overhead cost analysis may help a business owner determine ways to reduce costs or make the business run more efficiently,” she said.

We also recommend budgeting for operating expenses and capital expenses separately. That will allow you to be more organized and prioritize each expense separately. 

Understanding cash flow is also critical. Factoring in operating expenses provides a realistic view of the company’s financial health and its ability to sustain operations. Amortisation refers to the gradual writing off of intangible assets, like patents, over their useful life. It’s a non-cash operating expense that impacts the income statement.

Ecommerce stores might have lower rent and utilities but might incur higher IT and shipping costs. Brick-and-mortar stores, conversely, have physical presence costs but may not spend as much on digital infrastructure. 

Understanding competitors’ expenses can provide insights into market standards, potential areas of efficiency, and competitive pricing strategies.

Incorporating these details gives a comprehensive overview of operating expenses, aiding retail entrepreneurs and managers in making informed financial decisions.

How to track capital expenses

Capital expenditures require a different approach than operating expenses. CAPEX consists of long-term expenses such as maintenance and anything that involves investments for future growth. As a result, capital expenses require long-term budgetary planning. Think of this as tracking future projects for growth. 

Tracking CAPEX involves creating deadlines, identifying the scope of the project and accounting for budgetary needs. Include important details such as materials, funding requirements, labor costs, and other necessary information.

Accounting software, rather than manual bookkeeping, will give you more freedom when mapping out your capital expenses. 

How to track operating expenses

Operating expenses are the ongoing day-to-day expenses that are involved in keeping your business running. We will discuss more examples later, but they include costs such as utilities, wages and property tax. 

Spreadsheets can be a good starting point for tracking business expenses when you first open your business. But as you scale and your expenses become more complicated, you’ll need a more sophisticated way of tracking your expenses. 

That’s where accounting software comes in: not only will you save time on bookkeeping, but you’ll get a better overview of your expenses compared to your overall revenue. This can help you understand where you need to cut costs, and how to streamline your expenses to maximize revenue. 

If you’re transitioning from Excel spreadsheets to a software that comprehensively tracks expenses, don’t stress about losing data. These sheets can easily be imported to most accounting software. 

By eliminating manual entry of your daily and monthly expenses, you’ll reduce the risk of errors and make your life (and your accountant’s life) much simpler when it comes to tax time.

What are some examples of retail operating expenses?

Direct operating expenses are directly linked to the core business operations, such as salaries for salespeople. Indirect operating expenses, on the other hand, are not directly tied to the core business activities but are essential for the business’s overall function, like office supplies. Operating expenses can be tax-deductible, reducing a company’s taxable income. However, it’s vital to ensure that these expenses meet tax authority guidelines and are necessary for business operations.

Typically, the top retail operating expenses include:

  • Salaries: Payroll costs typically make up a significant portion of your budget. Your business also has to factor in taxes and benefits for employees here. 
  • Store rent: You might pay more in rent for a prime location with high foot traffic, while an online retailer might not have to think about this expense at all. Renting usually comes with added expenses for maintenance, cleaning, utilities and tax.
  • Marketing and ad spend: This covers all your spending on traditional channels like television adverts, print coupons, Google Ads, and social media promotion.
  • Product deliveries: Delivery costs for retailers can vary significantly depending on the size and weight of the product being shipped, as well as the distance it needs to travel. 

Like other businesses, retailers are also likely to spend recurring monthly amounts on:

  • Software subscriptions 
  • Ecommerce platforms
  • Website maintenance
  • Merchant and bank fees
  • Telephone and internet bills
  • Light, heat, cooling, and energy
  • Commercial rent
  • Transport
  • Consulting

It is easy for operating expenses like marketing to grow quickly, said Senko Cullum. “For this type of expense, it is essential to evaluate the return-on-spend, meaning are you receiving a positive sales impact based on what you have spent?

“Expenses like marketing have a more direct tie to revenue, making it easier to build metrics around the return on investment. But all OPEX should be evaluated to see if it is positively impacting topline sales while not degrading bottom-line profits,” she said.

What’s excluded from operating expenses?

Operating expenses do not typically include one-time costs such as capital investments or long-term debt payments. These business costs, and a range of others, are what are known as non-operating expenses.

Understanding non-operating expenses

Non-operating expenses are not related to a company’s core business operations. These can include:

  • Fees for legal services
  • Charges for interest on loans
  • Gains or losses from asset sales

Non-operating expenses still need to be monitored closely, so you can make financial decisions and accurately calculate your business’s earnings.

How to manage OPEX

When it comes to managing your operating expenses, one of the most important things to do is manage your budget efficiently. 

Senko Cullum believes the best way to manage OPEX is to set quarterly budgets, then evaluate actual expenditures against budget. “This allows you to understand what areas are spending more and where you can potentially cut back,” she said.

Here are a few other ways to effectively manage your operating expenses: 

  • Take advantage of cheaper marketing methods, such as email outreach and social media posts 
  • Remove third-party providers and embrace technology to cut costs by using an integrated POS and payments platform 
  • Assess areas where you can reduce waste 
  • Review all subscriptions and cancel anything redundant or unused
  • Be efficient – regularly review supplier contracts, reduce wastage, and streamline operations to reduce costs without sacrificing quality.

What’s going to happen with retail operating costs in 2023?

First, let’s clarify what is operating income. Operating income is the profit left after deducting operating expenses from gross income. It gives a clear picture of how effective a company is in its primary operations.

As we all know, it’s expensive to run a retail business – now more than ever. Retailers are experiencing a general increase in expenses across the board, said Lee Whitaker, general manager at the Parker Avery Group. 

“General global unease related to conflicts in Europe and threats in the Pacific is driving this through price inflation,” said Whitaker. “Interest rate increases have made access to capital more difficult than in recent history.  

Both day-to-day expenses and long-term expenses like facilities, equipment and infrastructure are seeing price increases related to supply chain issues and legacy impacts from COVID-related interruptions or delays, he explained.

Preparing for rising retail operating expenses

A well-defined budget ensures that all operating expenses are covered, and the business remains profitable. Consider seasonal fluctuations, potential market changes, and unexpected costs.

Amid such rising costs, retail stores may be forced to increase the pricing of their merchandise or recognize a reduced profit margin, said Distel. 

“When making such decisions, I would highly recommend that business-owners research performance metrics and key performance indicators for their specific industry and market. Doing so can help the business stay competitive,” she added.

If you want to learn more about owning and operating your business, talk to a Lightspeed expert today.

Editor’s note: Nothing in this blog post should be construed as advice of any kind. Any legal, financial or tax-related content is provided for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for obtaining advice from a qualified legal or accounting professional. Where available, we’ve included primary sources. While we work hard to publish accurate content, we cannot be held responsible for any actions or omissions based on that content. Lightspeed does not undertake to complete further verifications or keep this blog post updated over time.

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