Your guide to inventory forecasting and tracking

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In today’s fast-paced retail landscape, being in tune with your customer’s needs isn’t just about intuition. 

It’s about marrying that intuition with hard data and strategic foresight.

Sure, understanding what they want is a huge part of the equation, but ensuring you’ve got that desired item in stock when they’re ready to click ‘buy’ or walk into your store? That’s where the real magic happens when you can predict future demand.

Accurate inventory forecasts aren’t just nice to have; it’s the engine that powers successful, modern retail operations in predicting future demand.

In an age where competition is increasingly fierce and consumer loyalty is linked ever closer to convenience, being on top of your inventory game is more crucial than ever.

Now, if you’ve found yourself scratching your head about how to get ahead in this game, or if you’ve felt the sting of stockouts or the weight of overstock, or if you’re simply curious about upping your inventory forecasting management game, you’re in the right place. This guide is set to become your trusted companion.

We’re not just touching on the basics, we’re taking a detailed look at everything inventory forecasting. You’ll gain insights into robust inventory tracking, explore various inventory forecasting methods, and we’ll even help steer you toward the best method for your unique business needs. Coupled with accurate inventory forecasts, you will be able to predict future sales with precision.

But the benefits don’t stop there. 

By mastering these techniques, you can not only meet but anticipate your customers’ needs. Simply put, this translates to optimized stock levels, reduced holding costs, and a healthier bottom line.

Ready to move beyond guesswork and make precision your mantra? Let’s get started…

What is the inventory forecasting process?

Inventory forecasting is the process by which retailers predict the number of products they need to stock to meet future demand. 

This is achieved by analyzing sales data, market trends, and other factors, so businesses can ensure they have adequate stock levels at all times.

What is forecasting inventory? Definition and significance

So, we’ve had a quick look at the process, but what exactly is inventory forecasting? 

At its core, it’s the art and science of anticipating the demand for products to ensure that stock levels are neither too high nor too low. But it’s more than just gazing into a crystal ball; it’s about leveraging data, understanding market dynamics, and aligning stock levels with anticipated sales. 

Inventory forecasting plays an instrumental role in optimizing supply chain management. 

By accurately predicting product demand, retailers can streamline operations, align purchases with sales predictions, and maintain a harmonious flow of goods, from suppliers right through to the end customer.

Benefits of accurate forecasting

Let’s talk benefits.

Reduced costs: by accurately forecasting demand, you can optimize your stock levels. This means you won’t have excess inventory eating up storage space or tying up funds. Keeping inventory levels lean means that you avoid unnecessary storage and holding costs – it’s a win-win.

Minimized stockouts: there’s nothing more frustrating for customers than discovering that their desired product is out of stock. With precise forecasting, stockouts become a rare occurrence, ensuring you capture every potential sale.

Improved customer satisfaction: when customers know they can rely on you to have what they want when they want it, their trust and loyalty to your brand grow. Accurate stock forecasting ensures product availability, enhancing the overall customer experience.

In a world where customer expectations are ever-evolving, precise inventory forecasting isn’t just a strategic move; it’s essential for survival. 

Through understanding and harnessing its power, retailers can drive efficiency, boost customer satisfaction, and ultimately, supercharge their bottom line.

Steps in effective inventory forecasting

Let’s dive into the core steps that lead to inventory forecasting success, from leveraging historical data to tapping into the collective expertise of cross-functional teams.

Historical sales analysis

Inventory forecasting significantly hinges on historical data analysis. 

It’s akin to time-traveling into your business’s past, sifting through old sales records, and piecing together a narrative based on lead time demand and sales trends.

This isn’t merely a numerical exercise; it’s about understanding the ebb and flow of your business over various seasons and events using both quantitative forecasting and qualitative forecasting techniques.

You start to spot patterns. Maybe a particular product consistently sees heightened sales in summer or during certain festivals? Or perhaps another item has seen a slow but steady decline over the years? 

Such information is gold when planning for future demand.

Historical data essentially acts as a compass, guiding businesses in anticipating how to meet customer demand. It aids in tailoring inventory planning strategies, adjusting reorder thresholds, and even phasing out or ramping up certain products based on projected future sales.

Market research

While historical data offers introspective insights, market research catapults businesses into the broader ecosystem. This involves a careful examination of current market dynamics, competitor movements, and evolving consumer demand and preferences using qualitative forecasting insights.

Is there a sudden surge in popularity for a new type of product? Maybe there’s a shift toward more eco-friendly or tech-driven items? Such trends can signal the need for inventory adjustments.

Furthermore, understanding competitors is key. Are they introducing innovative products? Maybe they’re offering deep discounts on certain lines? Staying alert to such movements allows businesses to pivot and strategize proactively.

Also, never underestimate the power of direct feedback. Today’s consumers are vocal. They leave reviews, talk to their friends and family, and don’t hesitate to share their wishlists. By tuning into this feedback and using quantitative forecasting tools, businesses can fine-tune their product offerings and inventory levels.

Demand forecasting methods

As previously mentioned, forecasting demand is an art underpinned by science. Various methods, both quantitative and qualitative, can aid this process and help predict future demand.

Quantitative methods

Let’s look at quantitative forecasting methods first.

Moving averages, for instance, take a straightforward approach by averaging out sales over a set forecast period. It’s a reliable method for products with stable demand patterns.

On the other hand, exponential smoothing is a tad more intricate. It prioritizes recent data, making it highly adaptive to sudden changes or trends in demand.

Qualitative methods

While data is crucial, there’s also room for human intuition. 

Industry veterans or in-house experts can often predict demand based on their experience, especially for novel products with no sales history.

Moreover, market research, which leans heavily into qualitative forecasting insights, can be invaluable. Direct interactions, be it through surveys or focus groups, can unveil consumer preferences and potential demand.

Collaborative forecasting

Two heads (or more!) are often better than one. Collaborative forecasting champions this idea.

Imagine creating a forecast with input from various departments. The sales team can highlight upcoming promotions or collaborations. The marketing team might be gearing up for a significant product launch, while procurement could flag potential supplier issues. Integrating inventory forecasting software can further streamline this collaborative process.

When these diverse insights converge, the resulting forecast is richer, more informed, and aligned with the company’s broader objectives.

Incorporating an inventory forecasting software solution ensures accurate predictions, making the business ready to cater to the dynamic nature of consumer needs in each forecast period.

Factors influencing inventory forecasting

Inventory forecasting is as much about understanding external influences as it is about analyzing your internal data. 

While number-crunching offers a firm foundation, it’s a myriad of unpredictable factors that often throw a wrench into the best-laid inventory forecasts. Effective inventory management requires a holistic approach, considering both data-driven insights and the broader landscape.

Every retailer understands the cyclical nature of customer demand. 

Seasonality, in particular, plays a pivotal role. Winter may usher in a surge for coats and heaters, while summer could see a rise in customer demand for swimwear and air conditioners. These predictable patterns, shaped by the calendar, provide retailers with a roadmap to determine how much inventory to stock optimally.

But trends are a different ball game. 

They are far more unpredictable, driven by factors like pop culture, viral social media content, or even global events. One viral TikTok video can make an obscure product fly off the shelves overnight – you can find out more about which TikTok trends to watch in 2023, here.

Beyond social media, fashion weeks, celebrity endorsements, or even significant news events can sway public interest, driving demand in unexpected directions.

Accurate forecasting, therefore, demands a keen eye on these fluid shifts. Retailers must blend historical data with a pulse on current cultural shifts, ensuring that they’re never caught off guard by sudden market shifts, be it a product’s soaring popularity or its unexpected decline.

Promotions and events

Promotional campaigns and special events can significantly influence sales, but they also introduce unpredictability into the inventory planning equation. Black Friday or Cyber Monday, for instance, might lead to a sudden surge in demand, necessitating a stockpile – for example, Black Friday sales broke $9 billion in online sales in 2022.

Conversely, overestimating the impact of a less-known promotional event might lead to overstocking, tying up capital, and increasing holding costs.

Success here lies in diligent post-event analysis. 

Retailers should continuously review historical promotional performances. Was there a stockout during a sale last year? Or did a promotion lead to excess inventory? Such post-mortems help in refining future forecasts, guiding strategies, and inventory decisions.

External factors

Internal decisions and strategies play a significant role in inventory management. However, the broader, external environment wields substantial influence.

Economic conditions, for example, can directly impact consumer purchasing power. A recession might reduce spending, while economic booms can lead to splurging.

Furthermore, geopolitical events like trade wars, diplomatic tensions, or sanctions can disrupt supply chains, affecting product availability and cost. It’s paramount for retailers to stay updated on global events, understanding the potential ripple effects on their operations and inventory.

Another aspect is unexpected global disruptions, exemplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. This particular global event spelled success for some retail areas and disaster for others. 

While overall ecommerce sales grew an additional 19% in 2020 compared to previous estimations, supply chains were heavily disrupted.

A study by McKinsey found that 93% of senior supply chain execs intend to make their supply chains far more flexible, agile, and resilient as a result of the pandemic’s disruption.

Such significant events can overturn established consumer behaviors and market dynamics. Preparing for such uncertainties, while challenging, underscores the importance of flexibility in forecasting strategies.

While data-driven analytics offer a strong backbone for inventory forecasting, a comprehensive approach that factors in external influences is indispensable. 

The retail landscape is intricate and evolving. Success lies in the delicate balance of data insights and broader market understanding. Businesses need to be agile, responsive, and always prepared to recalibrate their inventory strategies based on a continuously changing environment.

Technology and tools for inventory forecasting

Stock forecasting feature Linnworks

In an era dominated by data, inventory forecasting has not only stepped into the limelight but has become an essential tool for businesses everywhere. 

This evolution, undergoing a metamorphosis, is mostly thanks to the rapid pace of technological advancements and a globalized market’s demands.

The bridge between traditional methods and this new era isn’t merely built with sophisticated technologies and inventory forecasting methods; it’s fortified with the ambition to drive business growth and enhance customer satisfaction.

Forecasting software

Gone are the days when inventory management meant endless spreadsheets and manual calculations. 

Now, it seems archaic to think of those times when today’s specialized inventory management software solutions have become the game changers. These platforms offer more than just the power of automation; they represent a revolution in business management. They have transformed a once daunting task into an efficient, dynamic system that seamlessly integrates with various business operations.

The core strength of these tools goes beyond their unmatched speed and precision in data analysis. 

They offer an ecosystem where human intuition and data-driven insights coalesce. While our natural instincts and experience are irreplaceable, inventory management software tools are breaking boundaries, identifying sales trends and patterns that might go unnoticed in manual observations, thereby amplifying our inherent skills.

Consider platforms like Linnworks. This type of inventory management software platform is more than just their integrative approach. Beyond tracking sales, they amalgamate data from multiple sales channels, giving businesses a unified, granular perspective. This interconnectedness is vital in today’s multi-channel retail environment.

Couple this with the marriage of sales history data and predictive analytics, and businesses have a robust system in place. This ensures that enterprises are neither burdened with overstocking costs nor faced with the reputational risks of stockouts.

Machine learning and AI

As the tech world continues to evolve, terms like Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are no longer just buzzwords; they’re the driving force behind many innovations.

Their application in inventory forecasting is transformational. It’s like switching on a high-powered floodlight in a previously dim warehouse. Moving away from a static approach of solely relying on past metrics, ML and AI technologies are the game-changers that ensure inventory management is proactive rather than reactive.

Their capabilities extend to areas previously untouched. Their comprehensive data analysis does not only focus on traditional sales figures but delves deeper into factors like market fluctuations, global events, and even real-time social media trends. 

This kind of holistic view ensures forecasting accuracy which was once thought near-impossible.

Big data analytics

With the term ‘big data’ becoming almost ubiquitous, its significance in inventory forecasting is revolutionary.

It’s not just about the massive volume of data anymore; it’s about making this data work for businesses. Big data analytics stands out for its ability to trawl through seemingly insurmountable amounts of information, deriving actionable insights that are both micro and macro in scope. 

From understanding specific consumer demand and buying habits to broader insights influenced by external factors like regional festivities or global events, this form of analytics is reshaping inventory management.

Integration and cloud computing

In today’s interconnected world, integration, and cloud computing play pivotal roles. 

Businesses are no longer isolated entities. With the rise of ecommerce giants and multi-channel retailing, integration becomes essential. 

Cloud-based forecasting tools ensure that data is accessible anytime, anywhere, and can be updated in real-time, providing businesses with a competitive edge.

The integration of advanced technologies and precision tools in inventory forecasting is not merely a fleeting trend; it’s evolving into an industry standard.

For forward-thinking retailers, embracing these technological marvels isn’t just about staying updated; it’s about leading the charge. The potential benefits are manifold: from always being in sync with customer demand and market shifts to optimizing operations for peak efficiency, culminating in robust profitability.

Best practices for accurate inventory forecasting

Efficient inventory management can make or break success in retail.

To ace your inventory forecasting game, it’s not just about harnessing advanced tools and technologies; it’s about instilling smart habits, fostering collaborative efforts, and consistently seeking improvement.

Ask: how much inventory do you need?

What is the simplest inventory forecasting process?

Inventory forecasting at its base is using past sales data and market insights to predict future stock needs. 

Fundamentally, it involves evaluating past sales figures, recognizing current market movements, and then drawing a calculated prediction about what items will sell and in what quantity. 

However, while the principle may seem uncomplicated, execution demands careful scrutiny. Implementing a streamlined forecasting process can mean the difference between a stellar sales season and an overburdened warehouse and too much inventory.

Data quality and cleansing

Data is undeniably the foundation of accurate inventory forecasting. 

But it’s important to understand that quantity doesn’t trump quality. Huge volumes of data are only beneficial if they are clean, relevant, and accurate. That’s why the practice of data cleansing, which involves methodically combing through data to identify and correct errors, is indispensable. 

By regularly refining your data, ensuring its purity, and removing inconsistencies, you establish a solid base for precise inventory planning. Think of it like prepping a canvas before a masterpiece; with a flawless canvas, the painting process is smoother.

Continuous monitoring and adjustments

The retail world thrives on change. As trends oscillate, consumer preferences shift, and new contenders enter the market. 

Solely depending on annual forecasting is as perilous as navigating a maze with only sporadic glances at a map. For those aiming for mastery, active monitoring of forecasting models within specific forecast periods is paramount. 

When the landscape transforms, so should your strategy. 

Being proactive in responding to new insights, whether they indicate a rising star product or a dwindling trend, ensures that businesses can nimbly adapt, enhancing stock management and seizing sales prospects, without accumulating too much inventory.

Collaborative approach

Holistic inventory forecasting requires the confluence of insights from varied departments. 

Sales teams, with their direct customer interactions, can offer frontline feedback. Meanwhile, marketing might possess crucial knowledge about promotional drives which can affect demand. And the procurement division? They’re your go-to for understanding supply chain dynamics and lead time demand.

By weaving a tapestry of insights from varying sources, businesses can elevate their inventory planning game. When every department contributes its expertise, the resulting strategy is not only robust but also intricately detailed, enhancing prediction accuracy to meet customer demand.

By integrating these best practices, businesses ensure they’re not merely making educated guesses but laying out strategies grounded in meticulous data, continuous oversight, and the collective intelligence of their teams. 

With these pillars in place, the path to inventory success becomes clearer and more achievable, without the risk of holding too much inventory.

Key inventory forecasting metrics to use

Having a comprehensive understanding of key inventory forecasting metrics is crucial to achieving precision and ensuring smooth business operations.

Here’s a closer look at five essential metrics to incorporate into your strategy:

1. Average daily sales

The foundation of any inventory forecasting model begins with understanding your average daily sales.

This metric provides a snapshot of how many units of a particular item are sold on an average day. It’s calculated by taking the total sales over a specific period (typically a month or year) and dividing it by the number of days in that period.

Understanding average daily sales helps retailers gain insights into their daily demand, aiding in more accurate projections and better inventory decisions. It also forms the base for various other metrics, including safety stock calculations.

2. Average lead time

Average lead time refers to the average amount of time taken between placing an order with a supplier and receiving the products into your inventory.

This metric is paramount for retailers, as longer lead times can impact stock availability, potentially leading to stockouts.

When combined with average daily sales, businesses can estimate the amount of inventory needed to cover the sales during the lead time. Ensuring you have adequate stock during this period is where safety stock comes into play, offering a buffer against uncertainties.

3. Safety stock levels

Safety stock is a crucial concept in inventory forecasting, acting as a safeguard against unexpected spikes in demand or potential supply chain disruptions.

Determining the optimal safety stock level involves considering factors like lead time variability, demand variability, and desired service levels.

The primary purpose of safety stock is to ensure there’s a buffer of inventory to meet customer demands, even when sales exceed expectations or replenishments are delayed.

It’s a proactive measure that’s especially valuable in the unpredictable realm of ecommerce, where external factors like competitor promotions or global supply chain issues can cause sudden demand surges.

While the goal isn’t to maintain excessive amounts of safety stock (as it can tie up capital), neglecting this metric can lead to stockouts, affecting customer satisfaction and brand reputation.

When contemplating types of inventory forecasting, it’s clear that safety stock plays an indispensable role in striking the balance between too much and too little stock.

4. Reorder point

The reorder point is the inventory level at which a new order should be placed to replenish stock before it runs out.

It’s a critical metric, ensuring there’s continuous product availability while minimizing excess inventory costs. Calculating the reorder point involves factoring in the average daily sales, average lead time, and, importantly, the safety stock levels.

When inventory levels hit the reorder point, it’s an indication that it’s time to place a new order, factoring in lead times and safety stock to prevent potential stockouts.

5. Inventory turnover

Inventory turnover is a measure of how many times a business sells and replaces its inventory over a particular period, often a year.

A higher inventory turnover rate indicates efficient sales and stock management, suggesting that products are being sold quickly and not sitting on shelves. Conversely, a low turnover might hint at overstocking or challenges in product demand.

While inventory turnover offers valuable insights into sales performance and product demand, it’s also essential to consider safety stock levels. An exceptionally high turnover might mean the business is operating with too low a safety stock, risking potential stockouts.

A successful ecommerce business thrives on precision, especially when it comes to inventory forecasting.

By understanding and actively using metrics like average daily sales, lead time, safety stock, reorder points, and inventory turnover, businesses can optimize their operations, reduce costs, and most importantly, ensure customer satisfaction.

What are the problems with inventory forecasting?

Inventory forecasting, while invaluable for businesses, isn’t without its set of challenges. 

Factors like unpredictable demand, issues with data accuracy, and evolving market trends can introduce complexities, making forecasting both an art and a science. 

Yet, with the right strategies and tools, these hurdles can be effectively managed.

Demand volatility

It’s not uncommon for demand to be unpredictable. 

Factors such as sudden market trends, unforeseen global events, or even local occurrences can cause unexpected spikes or drops in demand. For example, a social media influencer endorsing a product can lead to sudden demand surges, while negative publicity can drastically reduce it.

Solution: to counteract demand volatility, businesses need a flexible approach to inventory forecasting. This involves frequently revisiting and adjusting forecasts, keeping abreast of potential external influencers, and having contingency plans for unexpected scenarios.

Data accuracy

Reliable inventory forecasts hinge heavily on the quality of the underlying data. 

If sales data is riddled with inaccuracies, or if there are gaps, forecasts can go astray, leading to overstocking or stockouts.

Solution: periodic data cleansing and validation are critical. Investing in quality assurance for data sources and using modern inventory management systems that automatically validate and correct data inconsistencies can greatly improve forecasting accuracy.

The retail environment is dynamic. 

Consumer preferences change, new competitors enter the market, and technological advancements reshape how products are promoted and sold. Relying solely on historical data without considering these changes can lead to off-mark forecasts.

Solution: businesses need to incorporate regular market analysis into their forecasting processes. This involves tracking consumer behavior, monitoring competitor activities, and staying updated on technological and industry trends. Periodically revisiting and updating forecasting models to include these variables is also crucial.

How Linnworks can help with inventory forecasting

Linnworks stands at the forefront of the evolving world of inventory management. 

Recognizing the inherent challenges businesses face, it offers advanced solutions to streamline the forecasting process. With Linnworks, retailers can harness the power of real-time data analysis, ensuring accuracy while taking into account both historical data and emerging market trends. 

Its tools are designed to handle demand volatility by providing insights into potential demand influencers, aiding businesses in proactive decision-making. 

Additionally, Linnworks places a heavy emphasis on data quality, offering features that validate and cleanse data, ensuring the integrity of forecasts. By acting as both a safeguard and guide, Linnworks assists retailers in navigating the intricate maze of inventory forecasting with precision and confidence.

Want to try out Linnworks for inventory forecasting? Try out this tutorial.

Master your forecasting with Linnworks

Inventory forecasting isn’t just about predicting stock levels – it’s about making informed decisions that align with your business goals, keeping your customers satisfied, and ensuring operational efficiency. 

From understanding the nuances of seasonality to harnessing the power of AI and big data, it’s clear that modern forecasting is a blend of art, science, and technology. 

But remember, even the most sophisticated inventory management software and techniques can only be as effective as the data they’re built upon. Maintaining data accuracy, adapting to ever-changing market dynamics, and fostering collaboration across teams will make the difference between a good forecasting system and a great one.

Yet, venturing into the intricate realms of inventory forecasting doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. 

Solutions like Linnworks are designed to streamline this journey, leveraging technology to provide actionable insights and more accurate predictions. And the best way to truly understand the power of a tool? 

Experience it firsthand. 

We invite you to take a self-guided product tour of Linnworks and see how it can elevate your inventory forecasting game. Because when you move beyond guesswork, you pave the way for business growth and customer delight.

Inventory forecasting FAQs

1. What is forecasting inventory?

Forecasting inventory refers to predicting the quantity of products or materials that a business will need in the future based on historical sales data, trends, and other influencing factors.

2. What is an example of inventory forecasting?

If a retailer sold 100 units of a product in June, 120 in July, and 140 in August, they might forecast selling 160 units in September, assuming a consistent upward trend.

3. What is the best method for inventory forecasting?

The “best” method varies by business needs, but often includes time series analysis, causal methods, or machine learning techniques. Some businesses use a combination of these based on product type, market conditions, and data availability.

4. What is the simplest inventory forecasting method?

The “moving average” method is among the simplest. It calculates the average sales for a set number of periods, usually months, and uses this average as the forecast for the next period.

5. What are the problems with inventory forecasting?

Challenges with inventory forecasting include inaccuracies due to unforeseen market changes, reliance on historical data which may not always predict future trends, and potential complexities in managing multiple product lines or seasonal variations.

6. What is the inventory forecasting process?

The process typically involves collecting historical sales data, identifying patterns or trends, selecting an appropriate forecasting method, making predictions for future demand, and then adjusting strategies based on actual sales and external factors.

Claire Rhodes

Author

Enthusiastic tech translator. Ecommerce storyteller. Claire has worked in the B2B SaaS and tech space for the last 6+ years. With a love for words, grammar and tech, she prides herself on her product know-how and the inner workings of the complex solutions her clients offer. When not crafting B2B tech content, Claire spends her time traveling around the world, freediving, scuba diving, and making friends with the local critters.