When Does It Make Sense to Use a Purchase Order?

A Guide to Using Purchase Orders to Support an Effective, Compliant Purchase-to-Pay Process

In the dynamic world of procurement and vendor management, purchase orders (PO) are critical in achieving efficiency, cost control, and compliance.

A purchase order is a document that ensures goods and services are acquired, tracked, and paid for effectively. But how does it fit into an efficient purchase-to-pay workflow? And is a PO necessary for every type of purchase?

In this comprehensive guide, I’ll answer these questions and more as I help you navigate the intricacies of using POs to support an effective P2P process within your organization.

What is a Purchase Order?

A purchase order is a legally binding document issued from a buyer (your organization) to a seller (third-party supplier/vendor) when making a purchase. It serves as a reference point for both parties, ensuring that goods, services, pricing, and other commercial terms are communicated and agreed upon.

Once the seller receives the purchase order and accepts its terms, the PO becomes a legally binding contract between your organization and the seller.

Benefits of Using Purchase Orders

Purchase orders offer several benefits to both buyers and sellers. These benefits contribute to smoother and more efficient procurement processes, improved financial management, and enhanced communication between parties.

Here are some of the advantages of using purchase orders:

Formal Documentation: Purchase orders provide a written record of the details of the purchase transaction. The use of formal documentation ensures expectations are clearly communicated, which reduces misunderstandings and disputes between your organization and the seller.

Budget Control: When a purchase order is created and approved, it effectively reserves a portion of the budget for that purchase. Budget control helps ensure that funds are set aside and earmarked for the intended procurement, preventing overspending and ensuring funds are available when needed.

Order Tracking: Purchase orders provide a reference number that facilitates easy tracking of orders, shipments, and deliveries so you can readily stay informed about the transaction’s progress.

Inventory Management: Purchase orders provide accurate information about the quantity and timing of expected deliveries, allowing for better planning and stock control.

Streamlined Receiving and Invoicing: Goods or services received can be matched with the details on the purchase order, streamlining the process of receiving and processing invoices.

Vendor Accountability: Sellers are bound by the terms and conditions outlined in the purchase order, which holds them accountable for delivering goods or services as agreed.

Audit Trail: Purchase Orders create a clear audit trail for financial and compliance purposes, making it easier to demonstrate adherence to procurement policies and regulations.

Vendor Centric helped us design and operationalize our end-to-end vendor management program. We now have policies, procedures and a system to support all of our activities, and a program that complies with regulations.

Justin Holden
VMO, Legal & General America

Key Elements of a Purchase Order

Purchase orders are relatively straightforward documents. Key components commonly found in a purchase order include:

  • Buyer and Seller Information: Names, addresses, and contact information of your organization (the buyer) and the vendor (the seller).
    Purchase Order Date: The date on which the purchase order is issued.
  • Delivery Date: The expected delivery date or a timeline for the delivery of the goods or completion of the services.
  • Purchase Order Number: A unique identification number assigned by your organization that helps to track and reference the order in the future.
  • Description of Goods or Services: A detailed description of the products or services being ordered, including quantities, specifications, and other relevant details.
  • Price: The agreed-upon fee for each item or service, as well as the total amount for the entire order, plus tax, freight, and other applicable charges.
  • Payment Terms: The terms for paying the seller, including discounts, due dates, or payment methods.
  • Shipping and Handling Instructions: Instructions regarding the shipping method, carrier, and any special handling requirements for the goods.
  • Terms and Conditions: Details of all standard terms and conditions of the purchase, such as warranties, return policies, or penalties for late delivery. These can be part of the PO document or provided as a referenced attachment.
  • Reference to Associated Contracts: If a separate Master Services Agreement (MSA) or Statement of Work (SOW) was negotiated with the vendor, the PO should reference those agreements. This agreement communicates that the terms and conditions of those agreements govern the PO.
  • Signature and Authorization: Some organizations require that an authorized representative of the buying organization sign the PO. The need for authorization will depend on your organization’s policies and practices.

Where Do Purchase Orders Fit Into the Purchase-to-Pay Process?

Purchase orders are a critical component within the broader purchase-to-pay (P2P) process, as they provide control once a purchase has been approved.

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An effective purchase-to-pay process helps to streamline and optimize procurement, ensuring that purchases align with budgetary constraints, organizational policies, and compliance requirements while fostering efficient communication between your organization and your vendors.

Here’s a step-by-step overview of the purchase-to-pay process, including where purchase  orders fit in.

Step 1: Purchase Requisition
The P2P process typically begins when someone in the business (the Purchaser) identifies a need for a good or service and submits a purchase requisition (PR) to initiate the process.  The PR is an internal document outlining the requested items’ requirements, specifications, and estimated costs.  In cases where the Purchaser has already selected a vendor, the PR will collect information on the vendor, along with documentation of any bids or quotes the vendor has already provided.

Step 2: Purchase Requisition Approval
The purchase requisition is then routed for approval based on predefined approval authority.  The approver will review the request and any supporting documentation, such as formal bids or quotes, to ensure the goods or services are needed and within budget.

Step 3: Purchase Order Creation
The purchasing department (or relevant personnel) create the purchase order based on the approved purchase requisition. The PO is an external document sent to the vendor to authorize the provision of the requested goods or services.

Step 4: Purchase Order Approval
The purchase order typically requires approval from authorized personnel, such as department heads or procurement managers, to ensure it aligns with budgetary constraints and organizational policies.  Once approved, the PO is sent to the vendor to initiate the transaction formally.

Step 5: Goods or Services Delivery
Upon accepting the purchase order, the vendor prepares and delivers the specified goods or services within the agreed-upon time frame.

Step 6: Receipt and Inspection
The purchaser (or receiving department) checks the delivered items against the details in the purchase order to verify the quantity, quality, and condition. Any discrepancies are documented and remediated.

Step 7: Invoice Processing
Once the goods or services are received and accepted, the vendor sends an invoice, typically referencing the purchase order number. The invoice matches the purchase order (and the receiving report, when applicable), ensuring all details align.

Step 8: Payment 
After the invoice is verified and matched, payment is authorized and sent to the vendor using the agreed-upon payment method, such as check, ACH, wire, or virtual card.

Does Every Purchase Need a Purchase Order?

The short answer is No. 

The decision to use a purchase order depends on your goals for controlling costs and reducing risk.  Many organizations find there is a diminishing return when requiring POs for every type of purchase. Here are some key considerations:

Low-Value Purchases: Some organizations establish a threshold for purchase orders where transactions below a specific dollar amount don’t require a PO. They’ve determined that the benefits gained from controlling these low-cost transactions through a PO aren’t worth the effort.

Emergency Purchases: Most organizations do not require purchase orders in urgent situations when immediate action is needed to address critical issues or safety concerns. However, they also limit these situations by establishing clear policies and guidelines for what constitutes an emergency.

Preferred Vendor Agreements: Lastly, some organizations do not require purchase orders when formal contracts are already in place. This agreement is because the control has already been established with the contract, so they don’t see the need for additional controls through a purchase order.

Ultimately, deciding when to use purchase orders should align with your organization’s specific policies and procedures and legal and regulatory requirements.

Case Study: American Councils

Read how the American Councils for International Education boosted compliance and transformed procurement operations with a comprehensive program and centralized system.

Using Purchase-to-Pay Software to Enforce Purchase Order Controls and Streamline Processes

Depending on the size of your organization, you may issue hundreds to thousands of purchase orders annually.  It isn’t practical to manually process purchase orders. You must utilize purchase-to-pay software to enable an efficient, cohesive PO process.

P2P software helps you manage and streamline purchasing and accounts payable processes and is part of the broader suite of vendor management software applications

P2P software provides a wide range of functions and features, including:

  • Vendor Management – Maintaining a central database of your vendors and tools for vendor onboarding, evaluation, and performance monitoring. 
  • Purchase Requisition – Creating purchase requisitions and enabling automatic routing for approval based on pre-established workflows.
  • Purchase Orders – Automatically generating purchase orders from approved purchase requisitions.
  • Receipt and Inspection – Managing the receipt and approval of goods to ensure they meet quality and quantity requirements. 
  • Invoice Processing – Receiving and processing invoices electronically, including data entry automation and three-way matching to ensure compliance with contractual terms.
  • Payment Processing – Paying invoices checks or electronic payment. 
  • Spend Analytics & Reporting – Analyzing spend data to gain insights into spending patterns, identify cost-saving opportunities, and make more informed procurement decisions.
  • Compliance Monitoring – Monitoring compliance with procurement policies to ensure internal and external (regulatory) compliance requirements.
  • Integration – Connecting with other enterprise applications, such as ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and financial systems, to provide a seamless data flow across the organization.

Are you interested in Learning More About P2P software?  Vendor Centric works with many of the leading P2P software providers.  We can help you define requirements, identify solutions in the marketplace, and find the one that best fits your organization’s needs and budgets.  Schedule a free consultation to learn how we can help.

P2P software is essential for managing purchase orders and the entire purchase-to-pay process, saving your organization time and money while helping to enforce controls.

There are dozens of P2P software products on the market.  It’s important to clearly document your requirements and thoroughly research the marketplace before buying P2P software.


Using purchase orders is a fundamental component of a well-structured purchase-to-pay process, offering many benefits to procurement and vendor management organizations. These benefits include formal documentation, budget control, order tracking, inventory management, streamlined receiving and invoicing, vendor accountability, and providing a clear audit trail.

While not every purchase requires a purchase order, their use should align with your organization’s specific policies and procedures, considering factors such as transaction value, preferred supplier agreements, and the nature of the purchase. 

Your ultimate goal when using purchase orders should be to balance efficiency and compliance in your procurement process!!

Want to learn more on this topic?  Be sure to check out Procurement Risks and How to Manage Them and How to Perform a Procurement Excellence Assessment.

Vendor Centric can help your organization streamline your procure-to-pay process, including finding and implementing the right procure-to-pay software.

Contact us to schedule a free, no-hassle consultation to explore your needs and how we can help.

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