How are retail sales forecasts like baby due dates?

Q. How are retail sales forecasts like baby due dates.

A. They both provide an improper illusion of precision and cause considerable consternation when they’re missed.

Our first child was born perfectly healthy almost two weeks past her due date, but every day past that less than precisely accurate due date was considerably more frustrating for my amazing and beautiful wife. While her misery was greater than many of us endure in retail sales results meetings, we nonetheless experience more misery than necessary due to improperly specific forecast numbers creating unrealistic expectations.

I believe there’s a way to continue to provide the planning value of a sales forecast (and baby due date) while reducing the consternation involved in the almost inevitable miss of the predictions generated today.

But first, let’s explore how sales forecasts are produced today.

In my experience, an analyst or team of analysts will pull a variety of data sources into a model used to generate their forecast. They’ll feed sales for the same time period over the last several years at least; they’ll look at the current year sales trend to try to factor in the current environment; they’ll take some guidance from merchant planning; and they’ll mix in planned promotions for the time period, which also includes looking at past performance of the same promotions. That description is probably oversimplified for most retailers, but the basic process is there.

Once all the data is in the mix, some degree of statistical analysis is run on the data and used to generate a forecast of sales for the coming time period — let’s say it’s a week. Here’s where the problems start. The sales forecast are specific numbers, maybe rounded to the nearest thousand. For example, the forecast for the week might be $38,478k. From that number, daily sales will be further parsed out by determining percentages of the week that each day represents, and each day’s actual sales will be measured against those forecast days.

And let the consternation begin because the forecast almost never matches up to actual sales.

The laws of statistics are incredibly powerful — sometimes so powerful that we forget all the intricacies involved. We forget about confidence intervals, margins of error, standard deviations, proper sampling techniques, etc. The reality is we can use statistical methodologies to pretty accurately predict the probability we’ll get a certain range of sales for a coming week. We can use various modeling techniques and different mixes of data to potentially increase the probability and decrease the range, but we’ll still have a probability and a range.

I propose we stop forecasting specific amounts and start forecasting the probability we’ll achieve sales in a particular range.

Instead of projecting an unreliably specific amount like $38,478k, we would instead forecast a 70% probability that sales would fall between $37,708k and $39,243k. Looking at our businesses in this manner better reflects the reality that literally millions of variables have an effect on our sales each day, and random outliers at any given time can cause significant swings in results over small periods of time.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we won’t still need sales targets to achieve our sales plans. But if we don’t acknowledge the inherent uncertainty of our forecasts, we won’t truly understand the size of the risks associated with achieving plan. And we need to understand the risks in order to develop the right contingency and mitigation tactics. The National Weather Service, which uses similar methods of forecasting, explains the reasons for their methods as follows:

“These are guidelines based on weather model output data along with local forecasting experience in order to give persons [an idea] as to what the statistical chance of rain is so that people can be prepared and take whatever action may be required. For example, if someone pouring concrete was at a critical point of a job, a 40% chance of rain may be enough to have that person change their plans or at least be alerted to such an event. No guarantees, but forecasts are getting better.”

Imagine how the Monday conversation would change when reviewing last week’s sales if we had the probability and range forecast suggested above and actual sales came in at $37,805k? Instead of focusing on how we missed a phantom forecast figure by 1.7%, we could quickly acknowledge that sales came in as predicted and then focus on what tactics we employed above and beyond what was fed into the model that generated the forecast. Did those tactics generate additional sales or not? How did those tactics affect or not affect existing tactics? Do we need to make strategic changes, or should we accept that our even though our strategy can be affected by millions of variables in the short term it’s still on track for the long term?

Expressing our forecasts in probabilities and ranges, whether we’re
talking about sales, baby due dates or the weather, helps us get a
better sense of the possibilities the future might hold and allows us
to plan with our eyes wide open. And maybe, just maybe, those last couple weeks of pregnancy will be slightly less frustrating (and, believe me, every little bit helps).

What do you think? Would forecasts with probabilities and ranges enhance sales discussions at your company? Do sales forecasts work differently at your company?


  • By John Brimacombe, September 8, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

    After spending the majority of my career in retail in planning and analysis, it is refreshing to read a different way to think about sales forecasting. In my experience, the decision makers would become so focused on the number in the forecast column, that when actual results missed the forecast, they ended up spending more time trying to figure out what was wrong with the forecast than thinking about changes that could be made to impact the business going forward. I’m not sure if your proposed method will make it easier to achieve our sales plan (I’ll still have to noodle on it a bit) but I like the idea, and I definitely think it would improve the sales discussions, and help to put the long term and short term objectives in the appropriate perspective.

  • By Kevin Ertell, September 8, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

    Thanks for your comment, John. My hope is that anything that improves the quality of the discussion around sales will also help to improve the tactics designed to improve sales. Certainly, discussing the sales-driving tactics instead of the methodology used to generate the forecast is a step in the right direction. 🙂

Other Links to this Post

  1. Wanna be better with metrics? Watch more poker and less baseball. | Retail: Shaken Not Stirred — January 6, 2010 @ 7:55 pm

  2. Why most sales forecasts suck...and how Monte Carlo simulations can make them better | Retail: Shaken Not Stirred — January 12, 2010 @ 11:51 am

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