Planning with worn out tools won’t work in retail anymore

Anyone in tech will tell you that anyone trying to prise planners, merchandisers and buyers away from their spreadsheets is on a hiding to nothing. Beloved of planners for more than 30 years, Excel has been showing its age for at least 10.

Now, anyone in the planning software business, and there are some significant players out there boosted by the powers of AI, will I hope see that the current crisis will be another nail in the coffin for Excel.

I hate it because I’m not very good at it, whilst fans are positively maniacal in their dedication to it, and therefore blind to the benefits of what has come after. But now, the need for agile, transparent and shareable data and planning has become critical as retailers move to a level of uncertainty never seen before.

Caught in the middle

Here’s the proof. Look at all the retailers that are still in the middle of a five year plan for reinvention that is just not going very well. Look at all the mid market retailers that went from a great Black Friday to a crap Christmas to a January surge to a collapse even before the Lockdown. This number of peaks and troughs within such a short space of time is unprecedented, even for retail which has had to get used to a much rockier sales terrain over the last 10 years.

Hard rock, paper, scissors

Naming no names, although I am sure you are already filling in the gaps, I want instead to call for the adoption of planning tools that will help retailers to plan better for uncertainty. For example, how will retailers plan for a reduced number of SKUs if they lose the profit opportunity afforded by products that are simply not in demand during a crisis and even possibly beyond. How will they work with the manufacturers to adjust allocation, ranging, assortment, merchandising and promotions in a changed retail environment brought on by both Coronavirus and the continued march of ecommerce?

The answer of course is that they will, because that is what retailers do, but some will simply drown in a tsunami of spreadsheets, each containing a grain of truth but with no one to bring it all together into plans and forecasts. And if AI is simply tacked on tactically, in order to fight a fire, it will not deliver on its promise and it will likely not get more widely adopted once the new normal kicks in.

Automation is easy to adopt

I’m asking too much I know, to ask an army of experienced planners to put down their spreadsheets and adopt automation en masse, but consider this; there are a handful of AI software companies that are offering AI as a service. Ask a question, pull out the relevant data and get the answer, ready to apply. Obviously, software tools are then needed to run the data and this should not be an excuse for another spreadsheet attack, but the software industry has done a lot to make adoption easier.

The benefits are significant. By reducing overstocks and understocks, retailers boost sales and margin, and cut down on waste which not only protects margin, it satisfies the consumers’ demand for retailers to be more sustainable. Unusual demand patterns can be fed into these tools instantly, to create better forecasts that can be acted on immediately, assuming the manufacturers are prepared to play ball, which the should given that a retailer’s AI-enabled demand forecast should always beat a Nielsen report.

Ultimately, the most compelling benefit is that planning automation is a survival issue; how much longer can retailers manage demand through so many channels, fickle customers and a constant stream of unforeseen events, using paper?

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