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What is a purchase order? A guide for small businesses

3-minute read

Sam Bromley

Sam Bromley

11 May 2021

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A purchase order is a document that shows a business’s intention to buy goods from a supplier.

The British Business Bank describes it as an invoice in reverse, because it lists the items a business is agreeing to buy, alongside prices and quantities.

And because a purchase order clearly lists items, quantities and prices, there’s also less risk of suppliers getting orders wrong.

What is a purchase order?

The purpose of a purchase order is to help businesses keep track of what they’ve bought, because the purchase order number is also listed on invoices and delivery notes. This makes them an important part of record keeping.

Purchase orders are beneficial for all parties. The buyer has a document that clearly states which items they bought, minimising the risk of supplier errors. And because the purchase order number will correspond with invoices and delivery notes, suppliers should receive prompt and accurate payments.

Purchase orders help the buyer to keep track of cash flow, as they know what’s going to be paid out and when. Purchase orders are also vital when monitoring stock levels, because they track the quantity of items and when they’ll be delivered.

The purchase order can be a legally binding document alongside a contract, so if it comes to a dispute, each party will be able to prove that there was an agreement in place for items at particular prices and quantities.

Types of purchase order

  • single-use purchase order – this is an agreement for one order, which remains in place until all the items have been received by the buyer
  • planned purchase order – similar to the above, but this is usually a longer-term agreement that doesn’t include the delivery date, so it allows the buyer to anticipate future requirements
  • blanket purchase order – larger businesses may use blanket purchase orders to track all items ordered for particular departments or projects

You might also choose to draw up a contract, which makes purchase orders legally binding. This could be useful for long-term agreements.

Download your free purchase order template

This article explains how to create a purchase order, but what about getting a purchase order example you can use straight away?

Below you'll find a free template that you can use to create your own professional purchase orders. Our editable template includes all the key information needed on a purchase order.


How to raise a purchase order

Raising a purchase order can be as simple as putting all the relevant details into a purchase order template, then sending it to your supplier by email or letter (we have more on how to create a purchase order below).

If you have an employee who deals with accounts, raising a purchase order will usually be their job.

That being said, many accounting software packages can raise a purchase order quickly, which should simplify the process for you if you don’t have a dedicated finance team. The software usually lets you track deliveries and invoices alongside purchase orders, so you have your records in one place.

Here’s what raising a purchase order looks like step-by-step:

  • the buyer creates a purchase order and sends this to the supplier
  • the supplier agrees to the purchase order
  • the supplier sends the necessary goods or services
  • the supplier issues an invoice
  • the buyer pays within the agreed timeframe

What is a PO number?

A purchase order number (PO) is a unique number that you include on a purchase order. This number is an important part of creating a purchase order as it allows all parties to check and reference their purchases.

As we’ve mentioned above, your PO number also appears on invoices and delivery notes.

As a small business, you'll probably find creating a PO number yourself a manageable and simple process. You can number your purchase orders in ascending order, starting with ‘001’, then ‘002’ and ‘003’ for example.

As you grow, you may find it time-consuming to manually create unique PO numbers for the number of orders you're getting and it may be worth considering cloud based accounting software.

How to create a purchase order: step-by-step

What does a purchase order look like? Here’s what it needs to include:

  1. Purchase order (PO) number – this is the important part, because it allows all parties to cross check purchase orders with deliveries and invoices
  2. Buyer details – including business name and relevant contact details
  3. Shipping details – the address of where the goods and services need to go, as well as the shipping method, date, and how long delivery is likely to take
  4. Supplier details – as above, but with the appropriate contact details of someone in the supplier’s business who’ll be dealing with the order
  5. Relevant terms – including payment terms and any other terms, for example shipping agreements
  6. List of items – including any catalogue numbers, the quantity, prices, and the net total
  7. Description of goods and services – to add extra context to the list of items

You can download our purchase order template, or use aforementioned accounting or invoicing software to raise purchase orders quickly and easily.

Do you use purchase orders in your small business? Let us know in the comments below.

More useful articles for small business owners

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Sam Bromley

Written by

Sam Bromley

Sam has more than 10 years of experience in writing for financial services. He specialises in illuminating complicated topics, from IR35 to ISAs, and identifying emerging trends that audiences want to know about. Sam spent five years at Simply Business, where he was Senior Copywriter.

We create this content for general information purposes and it should not be taken as advice. Always take professional advice. Read our full disclaimer

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