The Bullwhip Effect: Managing Swings in Demand

The “Bullwhip Effect” is a term often used to describe a phenomenon that quickly turns otherwise accurate forecasts into outdated information, amplifying misinformation along the supply chain. The dust was brushed off this broad concept, and it returned to the shelves not long after COVID-19 began disrupting global supply chains.

“Supply chains allow companies to focus on their specific processes to maintain maximum probability,” Osmond Vitez writes in The Bullwhip Effect in Supply Chain. “Unfortunately, supply chains may stumble when market conditions change and consumer demand shifts.”

That’s exactly what happened when an abrupt change in customer demand plus factory shutdowns put companies in the tight spot of having to forecast demand in the middle of an unprecedented, worldwide pandemic.

With demand for certain items amplified, the tiniest crack of the bullwhip’s handle caused an uncontrolled, snapping motion at the tip of that whip.

Balancing Demand Effects and Available Inventory

“When major swings in inventory occur from panic buying and hoarding, the impact of this sudden demand is magnified as it moves upstream in the supply chain (similar to the way a bullwhip’s thong amplifies in a wave as it moves away from the handle),” Jenny Reese explains in “Preparing for COVID-19 and the bullwhip effect: What happens to the supply chain when you buy 100 rolls of toilet paper?” The customer feels the anxiety of empty aisles, the retailer loses sales, and customer service suffers. “Distributors are left scrambling to determine who should get how much of a given product in a shortage,” Reese continues, “and manufacturers are overwhelmed with sudden, unanticipated spikes in demand.”

With little or no visibility into demand patterns to lean on, many companies wind up flying blind and hoping for the best.

How Does the Bullwhip Effect Work?

Without accurate, accessible, and strong communication across the various partners in the supply chain, the bullwhip effect can occur in any business environment. In a supply chain made up of a factory, a distributor/wholesaler, retailer, and end customer, for example, the retailer and customer tend to be closely aligned. For instance, a customer places an order and a retailer reacts accordingly.

Continue further up that supply chain, however, and that alignment begins to diminish.

Manufacturers don’t always align their forecasts with retailers’ own projections and distributors are, frequently, caught in the middle of two entities that have zero communication with one another.

These gaps widen during events like COVID-19, with even a small variance creating a Bullwhip Effect. In fact, Jay Forrester, who first conceptualized the Bullwhip Effect in these terms, says that even a 10 percent change at either end of the supply chain can result in a 40 percent fluctuation in the middle. That’s when the wheels fall off the cart; all players in the supply chain make quick adjustments to compensate for the problem.

Why Should You Care?

Virtually every organization must address or, at least be aware of, the Bullwhip Effect. Without up-to-date and wide supply chain communication, companies risk having it adversely impact their operations and their customers. Since no organization is an island, even the most vertically-integrated companies should know the signs of the Bullwhip Effect and how to deal with it effectively.

It’s easy to recognize the Bullwhip Effect in retrospect, as customers are cancelling or returning orders that they were clamoring to buy because they bought too much, overestimating their need. In order to meet perceived demands, erratic production, excessive inventory and depletion of resources highlight this effect. During COVID 19, suppliers most at-risk from the Bullwhip Effect included makers and distributors of PPE, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and other hard-to-find items.

As a Supply chain professional you’ve been exposed to the Bullwhip Effect. The costly consequences materialize quickly and immediately erode your profitability.

Are you able to make informed decisions based on real time data?

Transportation Insight allows your business to make evidence-based decisions. We amass data about your supply chain to give you a comprehensive understanding of your logistics network. Our expertise and tools enable contingency planning through “what if scenarios” that address the Bullwhip Effect before it impacts your bottom line. Transportation Insight monitors multiple key performance indicators that measure your business activity and reveal threats and opportunities to drive continuous optimization of your supply chain.

Tame the Bullwhip: Manage the Demand Waves

We offer more context around the Bullwhip Effect in our Supply Chain Masters Digital Event. Watch the webinar today and learn how you can manage demand fluctuations with a responsive supply chain management system:

  • Best practices for collecting, retaining and analyzing supply chain data.
  • Processes that encourage scalability and readinesss for decline, recovery and even growth.

Learn the supply chain strategies that minimize risk and protect your profitability today and tomorrow.

Buy Online Pickup In Store: Retail in Evolution

Yet, the store remains a core focus of the buying experience. That’s how it should be. The in-store customer is typically more loyal and tends to buy more than the online shopper.

A robust strategy for “Buy Online, Pick Up In Store,” or BOPIS, can offer the best of both worlds. BOPIS expands a retailer’s online exposure while preserving and deepening the in-store experience. In fact, retailers find that is common for shoppers to buy more product once they arrive at the store to retrieve their online orders. 

A well-designed BOPIS retail program also helps reduce delivery costs because the customer is going to the product, not vice-versa. Consumers prize the ease and convenience of the transaction, especially when the COVID-19 pandemic has made contactless interactions more of the rule than the exception.

Responding to a New Retail Landscape

For retailers with limited resources and insufficient time spent mastering alternate fulfillment methods, the real world suddenly became a very different place in 2020. Many have been challenged to adjust to an unfamiliar “fractured fulfillment” model where products are ordered, fulfilled, and distributed from anywhere to anywhere. It is difficult for retailers to strike the right balance of inventory levels that satisfy in-store shoppers and ensure product availability to support online channel growth.

Retailers often over-order store inventory to avoid the risk of stock-outs. This raises carrying costs, and shrinks inventory  available to allocate to online channels. 

Moving ahead with an ill-vetted BOPIS strategy can make things worse. Customers assured of a product’s in-stock status on a retailer’s website will be displeased if they take time to visit the store only to find the item isn’t available. This could damage a brand’s reputation, especially if word spreads quickly on social media.

Visibility is the pain point. Many retailers lack proper visibility into the inventory flow from their partners to effectively plan and execute an error-proof BOPIS strategy. Without visibility, retailers will continue to prioritize avoidance in-store stock-out scenarios, and will continue to absorb excess and costly inventory.

A strong 3PL provider arms retailers with superior, actionable data that improves inventory visibility without forcing them to increase levels of safety stock. The endgame is to manage appropriate safety stock thresholds for both in-store and BOPIS experiences so the customer is satisfied in either scenario. 

Personalized Solutions Require Visibility

Each retailer is unique, and each shipper-retailer partnership is unique. Working with good data, an experienced 3PL partner creates customized plans to achieve optimal results. Progress and outcomes are constantly measured and refined so fill rates achieve acceptable thresholds. Changes to the plan can be implemented quickly should circumstances change – and they often do. 

For example, a plan could require the partners to issue electronic order acknowledgements indicating changes to item quantities and arrival dates within a specified time of receiving an order. It could call for transmission of advance ship notices within two hours of a shipment’s departure so visibility is optimized. Fully leveraging distribution center connections to stores optimizes shipping flexibility to react quickly to customer behavior. 

It is still most profitable for stores when customers pick up their orders in-store, but the busy holiday season could make it difficult for consumers to get to the store. Data generated by zip codes can identify areas of strong online ordering and in-store activity. This offers retailers insight into how to best position inventory for timely and accurate distribution.

For example, a retailer wants to offer one- to two-day deliveries but its transportation providers are challenged to consistently hit those targets. It may be more feasible to ship that order out from a store versus a fulfillment center. This could require shippers to invest in a drop-shipping strategy to support an e-commerce strategy where goods are brought directly to the store level. All this strategy is grounded in visibility.

This holiday season will be like no other. In-store buying will still be prevalent. However, more consumers have adopted online ordering after being required to do so in the early days of the pandemic. BOPIS utilization will be strong this holiday, but it will continue long after peak season and even after the virus passes. Consumers want options. It is critical for retailers to comply, but to do so efficiently.

Master Your BOPIS Revolution

The last mile is the most complex part of e-commerce fulfillment. It is also the most important. The last mile makes or breaks everything that came before it. That final delivery is the moment your customer will remember your brand most. How well do you finish?

A BOPIS strategy is just one of several last-mile offerings that shippers and retailers are expected to deliver. Done right, it reaps brand loyalty, lower costs and profitable opportunities for new market share. However, it requires a specialized level of resources and knowledge. It also requires skills and vigilance to ensure flawless execution.

We created The BOPIS Revolution: Navigating the New Never Normal to highlight some of the things you need to keep in mind when approaching – or modifying – your BOPIS strategy. Watch our SME Roundtable for a deeper dive into the ways we drive top line revenue results through personalized solutions driven by technology and expertise.

To continue the conversation, reach out to one of our supply chain experts. Let’s talk about how we can help you evolve solutions that support final delivery strategies to control cost and consistently wow your customers.