Beyond Spreadsheets: What We Learned at the “Future of Merchandise Planning” Panels

Panel discussion (OC)

Some say the birth of electronic spreadsheets paved the way for merchandise planning in modern retail—the data-driven role dedicated to critical inventory decisions connecting merchandising, finance, production, and supply chain. It is therefore no surprise that spreadsheets continue to be the dominant technology supporting most planning activities even at multi-million or multi-billion dollar companies.

Now 30 some years after the birth of electronic spreadsheets, the world of retail has gone from mom-and-pop stores on the street corner, to powerful chains, global brands, and all things digital. I am curious: how has the highly analytical profession of merchandise planning changed (or not)? With the enormous amount of data now collected by retailers, how are planning experts upgrading the way they analyze and react to data for better decisions? What are new opportunities for planning technology beyond spreadsheets? What does the future hold?

Fortunately, we got to ask some of these questions to real experts and practitioners at a recent panel series we at 7thonline co-hosted with Kalypso in southern California. The events were themed “The Future of Merchandise Planning and Technology”, and we had a room full of planning, supply chain and retail IT professionals from companies like Oakley, Toms, Callaway Golf, 5.11 Tactical, Patagonia, BCBG, AG Jeans, Pacific Sunwear, Billabong and more. Over breakfast and basking in the unmistakable California sunshine, we got the conversation going about all things planning, and here are some highlights:

For today’s apparel/footwear/accessories brands and retailers, how has the profession of merchandise planning changed in the past decade and what is driving the change?

  • At its core, the end consumer has changed and is changing. And this is driving most shifts in the industry. Consumers now demand more products, at a faster pace and more tailored to their needs. The changing consumer is driving a series of changes at a brand from marketing, product development, planning, and all the way to supply chain;
  • As brands and organizations grow in size, the way merchandise planning has to interact with other departments is also changing. They are now playing an increasingly important and central role in driving collaborative decisions with product development as well as supply chain. Kelley Graham from 5.11 Tactical sees the importance for planning to help breakdown internal silos to better collaborate with merchandising, supply chain, and other departments.
  • The amount of data that a retailer and a planner has to work with has also grown exponentially. But the challenge remains in terms of being able to interpret the data in meaningful ways. In addition to historical sales data, which remains the basis of analysis for planning, many are speculating the use of social media and other consumer insights into planning. Although it is not immediately clear yet how best to “translate” Facebook “likes” into quantitative inventory decisions today, there might be opportunities for machine learning to help us understand the hidden connections and their potential business impact in a quantitative way.
  • For many companies growing in scale, many have started the migration off from spreadsheets and onto a systematic planning platform for greater data visibility and analytical power.

For companies who aspire to take on today’s challenges such as omnichannel retailing, what’s the best way to start the journey of transformation?

  • “Starting with a clear vision” is what Sonia Parekh from Kalypso believes is the most important based on her years of experience working with retailers to embark on transformation projects. This vision will help lay the foundation for the necessary people, process, and technology improvements required.
  • Oakley’s Rob Lauzon, coming from a technology and IT perspective, welcomes system upgrade and technology improvements for planning. He also highlights the critical importance of aligning business processes with new solutions for successful implementation and sustained business results. He also believes in finding a good technology partner because “your business requirements will change, but a good technology partner will adapt with you, and more importantly, bring best practices into the process. And that’s what you really want.”
  • Chris Bonner from TOMS and Callaway Golf also commented on the importance of ensuring the health of data: with retailers often struggling with disjointed systems, business units like planning, merchandising, and supply chain might be looking at different numbers thus coming up with disconnected decisions that negatively impact the business. Making sure there is consistent data and accurate picture of the business is an important step to start. Having modern planning systems that are integrated with the other enterprise systems (ERP, PLM, etc.) presents a clear opportunity.

What is the role of technology in enabling modern merchandise planning to adapt to new opportunities?

  • Having smart planning systems can lend critical help in calculating risks and uncovering opportunities at a large scale that humans cannot easily achieve. However, all the panelists agree even with all the advancement in modern planning technology (e.g. the user of algorithms and Artificial Intelligence, etc.), there is no substitute for human in business decision-making and the art of retailing.
  • Dave Ryan of Concepts in Technology suggested that for multichannel apparel/footwear/accessories brands, better integration between retail and wholesale planning on a common platform remains a area of opportunity. Traditionally these channels are planned for separately on disjointed spreadsheets which created large inefficiencies in production, supply chain and impacted margins. Today, modern solutions are available for brands to unite these formerly separate planning silos for more visibility in inventory decisions.

What does the future hold?

  • When asked “what super power do you wish to possess to achieve better planning”, our rooms quickly came to two answers: the crystal ball emerged with nodding heads, and the power to get everyone collaborate came with knowing smiles. Given these answers, it is probably safe to say no one really knows the answer to our theme question. Never the less, the participants were eager to exchange thoughts and comments with each other about better data, improved processes, system upgrades, and greater collaboration.
  • The future of retail planning and technology, as I see it, is being created everyday by these practitioners, industry analysts, consultants, us technology vendors, and our collective selves as consumers. At least from where 7thonline stands, we hope to help create the kind of breakthrough that the first electronic spreadsheets generated for the industry: a data-driven world view and analytics-rich business practices that could change how the apparel/retail industry comprehend and take actions towards the ever-evolving consumer demand.

Photo credit: Thomas Adams

The Future of Merchandise Planning and Technology

header_breakfastpanelConnecting finance, design, supply chain and sales, the world of merchandise planning is quickly evolving: bidding farewell to human guesses and spreadsheets, modern merchandise planning is becoming more data-driven, tech-savvy and forward-looking. The fast-moving industry of apparel, footwear, and accessories, in particular, is constantly seeking innovation in planning and technology to better decipher demand signals and improve financial results.

In today’s new retail reality, how is merchandise planning evolving to address the growing business complexities? How are the planning professionals taking advantage of analytical insights to transform their processes and improve accuracy? What is the future of merchandise planning and technology? We are constantly seeking answers, and we invite you to come share yours along with like-minded merchandising and planning leaders. Join us in Orange County and Los Angeles later this month for breakfast and discussions. It will be a gathering of local apparel, footwear, and accessories leaders, and hope to see you there!

Follow link below for more information on the events and RSVP today!


Orange County Breakfast

  • 8:30am – 10:30am PST, 4/27
  • Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising – Orange County Campus
  • Panelists: Kelly Graham (5.11 Tactical, Quiksilver), Rob Lauzon (Oakley), Sonia Parekh (Kalypso)


Los Angeles Breakfast

  • 8:30am – 10:30am PST, 4/28
  • Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles
  • Panelists: Chris Bonner (TOMS, Callaway Golf), Sonia Parekh (Kalypso)


Webinar Time: How Best to Integrate Merchandise Planning with Product Development

Webinar - Collaborate to WinYour customers are constantly demanding more and more new products whenever, wherever they shop. This pressure to continuously innovate poses a tremendous opportunity as well as significant challenge for branded manufacturers, vertical retailers and private labels alike in the world of apparel, footwear and accessories. The need for better integration between product development and merchandise planning, as a result, has never been greater.

How to overcome silos of the past and enable greater collaboration between these two critical functions? How best to improve your organization, process, and technology to enable and sustain such integration? Join us to hear from retail innovation experts from Kalypso and 7thonline on the best practices.





How Smart Planning Helps Patagonia Minimize Waste and Maximize Growth

How does Patagonia do it?Vintage Patagonia label

One of today’s fastest growing and most innovative companies, Patagonia is also well known for taking its commitment to the environment very seriously. This past month, Susan Reda, editor in chief of STORES magazine shared with retail readers an inside look into one of Patagonia’s smart engines: its global demand planning team and their partnership with us at 7thonline. The team’s phased roll out of 7thonline is all about using analytics and forecasting to accelerate their global pursuit of business excellence and strengthen their commitment to the environment.

Quite a good read. Enjoy and let us know what you think!



Direct-to-Consumer Retail: How Best to Drive Growth?

Fashion shoppingThis might just be the best time for consumers like you and I.

Previously only accessible from department stores or a few coveted boutiques, your favorite brands are setting up shop in your neighborhood; they are also sending you e-coupons for shopping at their newly launched ecommerce site; even your favorite celebrity spokesperson for the brand is coming to the store opening, no longer restricted to the glossy print ads or light box displays only at the department stores.

Your favorite retailers are also sending their love your way almost daily—special promotions in store, online, in outlet stores only or limited time sales on special sites. Some of them are offering easy returns and speedy deliveries almost as good as Amazon!

It is truly an exciting time for the shoppers as brands and retailers are investing big in their Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) strategies. But if you are the said retailer or brand, are you ready to capitalize on all the growth and margin opportunities your DTC strategy promises?

As the shoppers move across traditional “channels”, stores, apps, websites, wholesale outlets, to shop your brand, many retailers struggle to keep up with such “omni-channel” demand: traditional demand planning, set up in a top-down and silo-ed way, can no longer suffice and only leads to a reactive supply chain. Smart companies are beginning to look at demand planning in a wholistic way across channels and devise the appropriate assortment strategies that can best fulfill local demand—perhaps your local stores are going to supplement regional DCs to fulfill ecommerce needs, perhaps it makes more sense to have smaller stores that focus on certain category of the business while eCommerce presents your widest assortment … rethinking demand planning for greater fulfillment is the starting point to DTC success.

What are your thoughts on capitalizing DTC opportunities? Join the conversation at the upcoming webinar where Kurt Salmon partner Brian Ehrig and 7thonline discuss best practices to fuel your DTC growth in today’s omni-channel environment. 2pm EST, 12/2.





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