What Does "Make to Order" Mean?

Maggie Worth

The term make to order describes the manufacture of goods upon customer demand. It contrasts with make to stock, in which goods are fully manufactured and stocked in inventory, awaiting a customer order. The make to order production strategy offers a number of benefits, including reduced inventory space and the ability to offer product customization. There may also be tax-related reasons why a business would choose this strategy. On the downside, products take longer to complete and ship.

Make to order wait times may be significant if an assembly line is already filling a different order.
Make to order wait times may be significant if an assembly line is already filling a different order.

In a make to order strategy, the components of each product are kept in stock. Once the facility receives a customer order, the product is assembled, packed, and shipped. Such orders might be for single units or large batches, depending on the company's policy, the type of item, and the customer's needs.

Some restaurants make food when it is ordered instead of preparing it in advance.
Some restaurants make food when it is ordered instead of preparing it in advance.

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One main benefit of this production strategy is the ability to offer customers a custom or semicustom product. This might include the option to choose colors, materials, and even size. It might also include the ability to add upgraded features, particularly in the case of a technology product.

A common illustration, known to most, of make to order versus make to stock involves fast-food or quick-service restaurants. In many cases, the various sandwiches, sides, and other menu items are prepared in advance, wrapped, and kept in food warmers until a customer places an order. Other restaurants use the make to order concept as a marketing tool, stating that their items are prepared with the toppings customers prefer when they make their orders. A similar situation exists with other types of companies as customization can be a strong brand component.

In some cases, make to order may offer economic advantages to the manufacturer as well. Assembled goods often require more warehouse space than do their individual pieces and parts. Delaying assembly until order also reduces the labor cost incurred prior to payment. In addition, finished good inventory may be taxed differently than component inventory.

The main disadvantage of make to order production is lead time. Products are not simply waiting on the shelf, so the customer's order is delayed while the product is assembled. If many orders for the same product come in at once, or the assembly lines are already engaged in another order, this wait can be significant. In some cases, price or customization advantages are enough to offset this inconvenience to the customer. Other customers may choose to order from a company that offers quicker delivery, perhaps due to a make to stock production model.

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Discussion Comments


@Grivusangel -- Yeah, I knew that about fast food. I worked at a hamburger place when the norm was to make a fair amount of food ahead of time. The service was marginally faster, but it also made for a shocking amount of wasted food. It was criminal how much food was wasted every day.

I was really glad to see a more "cook to order" philosophy come into vogue in that industry. There's going to be waste in any food service, but I'm betting they've cut it in half or more since they're not filling a bin with a bunch of food ahead of time. I know it's better for their bottom line.


"Make to order" has also become more popular in fast food places. There aren't as many sandwiches and other menu items sitting pre-made, in a sorting bin. Instead, the food is cooked as it is ordered.

There are even clothing companies that make clothes to order, and customize them according to style and size. This has become very popular in a world of ready made clothing, and no one knowing how to alter clothing anymore. I've ordered a couple of dresses from such a company and they've been great.

I've found the quality of make to order goods just tends to be better. Not always, but frequently.

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