Last week the National Retail Federation (NRF) issued its annual forecast concerning holiday related spending which painted a very optimistic picture regarding the upcoming holiday sales period.  We advise B2C and B2B retail planning teams to be very cautious and diligent regarding the applicability of such data. Actual retail sales activity pegged to each channel, coupled with end-to-end supply chain visibility and agility as to sudden shifts in demand will be far more important to planning and execution.

The NRF forecast indicates that it expects this year’s holiday sales, excluding automobiles, fuel and restaurant sales will increase 3.6 percent above last year’s levels. That amounts to approximately $656 billion in physical store and online retail sales.  Keep in-mind that the NRF is a trade organization made up of retailers, and thus has a track record for being fairly optimistic. Last year, the organization predicted holiday related retail sales to grow by 3.5 percent, but the actual number was closer to 3 percent. Once more, the organization literally missed on gauging the increased dependence of consumers towards online holiday sales, which grew dramatically last year. From the period of November 26 thru December 20 2015, one forecasting firm had indicated that online sales grew nearly 12 percent in just that period.

Retailers are betting that current levels of low inflation and dramatically lower costs of gasoline and heating oil will drive more optimistic holiday buying. That was relatively the same assumption as last year. However, we continue with our stated belief late last year that consumers have already fundamentally shifted their retail buying habits in favor of online purchases. Even the NRF acknowledges that consumer spending patterns are shifting, favoring more personal based experiences such as travel and customized unique experiences. Unless online buyers are provided an incentive for visiting a brick and mortar store, there will be little incentive for impulse buying.  In August, we issued our Research Advisory, The Beginning of a New Phase of Online and Omni-Channel Fulfillment for B2C and Retail Supply Chains, that in essence questions the long-term presence of existing brick and mortar storefronts.

Operationally, the retail industry as a whole is struggling with high levels of inventory. Muted U.S. economic growth and consumers’ increased desire for immediate availability and delivery on online goods have driven such trends to-date. If you have recently visited a physical retail store of late, you will see a visual manifestation of that challenge with lots of merchandise on the shelves but little of it moving.  Our recent mall visit provided such evidence as to markdown sales or sales promotional activities especially concerning clothing and accessory items.

Retail focused sales and operations planning, along with respective supply chain planning teams therefore need to constantly be diligent in their context of current optimistic retail sales forecasts for the upcoming holiday fulfillment holiday surge period. Evidence continues to indicate that costs of online fulfillment continue to rise and thus planning resources by means of sales forecasting expectations could well lead to more margin erosion and lost profits.

Transportation and logistics challenges will be yet another concern since major parcel carriers FedEx and UPS continue to experience some of the flaws of major hub and spoke networks during periods of high volume, as was experienced gain last year. Similarly, Amazon continues to build out its own transportation and logistics fulfillment capabilities to support massive holiday surge volumes, placing more pressure on the major parcel carriers to make their profit goals as the expense of shippers.

In all cases, being product demand driven vs. forecast-driven is fast becoming table-stakes. Advanced inventory management pegged to Omni-channel product demand levels and broader visibility to supply chain wide inventory exposure applies.  Once again, when multi-echelon inventory optimization is supported by higher and deeper levels of supply chain wide inventory visibility, better informed planning and supply chain wide decision-making can help in determining the various impacts on financial line-of-business business outcomes such as margins and profitability.

Bob Ferrari

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