We provide a contextual follow-up to our ongoing Supply Chain Matters observations and insights regarding the current holiday focused surge period among retail supply chains. This week, The Wall Street Journal observed (paid subscription required) that unsold goods and added inventories are piling up on retailer’s shelves possibly making it challenging for some retailers to hit their earnings targets in this critical quarter of performance.

We have previously called attention to the implications for this year’s expected online fulfillment volumes, a recent consumer sentiment survey indicating shoppers may elect to shop earlier this season, and the important technology enabling considerations for the rapidly changing Omni-channel world.

The WSJ report cites supplier sources and industry watchers as indicating that some department stores have experienced an overhang of inventories in anticipation of the coming holiday period, and beliefs that with far lower energy prices and higher employment levels, consumers will spend more on gifts in the upcoming holidays. The publication indicates that specialty stores and apparel manufacturers are each experiencing a “build-up in inventories beyond the natural increase ahead of the holidays.”

Separate reports this week indicate specific retailers such as Macy’s and Wal-Mart specifically stepped-up inventory buying activity to offer more attractive promotions and selection for consumers. Earlier this week, Cowan and Company published a warning to investors indicating that inventory is above sales growth across the retail industry.

Amidst this collective optimism among many retailers, the WSJ observes that industry executives are beginning to question whether this year’s sales predictions have been too optimistic. While the gap is reportedly not as wide as that in 2013, it is concerning, since new inventory brought in for the holidays must compete with unsold inventory overhang, some as a result of last year’s U.S. West Coast port debacle which had holiday goods arriving after the holiday period had passed.

The implication remains that retailer’s, and their associated customer fulfillment teams will need to promote and fulfill merchandise orders earlier in the holiday period rather than later. The upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and the days leading into early December will be critical determinants of whether inventories will be sufficiently depleted among both online and physical stores, and whether sales and profits will meet business expectations.

The ability for sales and operations teams (S&OP) to quickly assess multi-channel sales volumes, remaining network-wide inventory levels associated and profitability outcomes will likely differentiate winners from losers, especially when considering that online fulfillment costs may be prove to be more than traditional sales channels. Waiting to discount merchandise later in December could be troublesome because retailers will likely be aggressively competing among themselves for limited consumer interests in categories such as apparel, footwear, jewelry and home goods vs. electronics and gadgets while risking added or peak-period shipment costs among parcel carriers.

Supply chain wide visibility, analytical and intelligent fulfillment capabilities have never been as important as they are for this holiday surge.

Bob Ferrari