Image of the Retalon logo.

How Leading Retailers Do Merchandise Planning in 2023

Reading Time: 5 minute(s)
retail merchandise planning

Retail merchandise planning is the strategic process retailers use to determine what products to stock, in what quantities, and where to allocate inventory across stores and e-commerce channels.

It’s essentially the playbook for retail success.

But in today’s rapidly evolving retail landscape, the traditional methods of relying on past sales data, gut feelings, and intuition often miss the mark. With shifting consumer trends and preferences, retailers need agile planning approaches that can pivot to align with changing times.

This is where predictive analytics comes in – providing data-driven visibility so retailers can dynamically adapt plans while confidently shaping the future.

In this article, we’ll unpack:

  • The art and inherent ambiguity in old-school retail planning
  • How data and predictive analytics are elevating the process
  • Major pain points solved by predictive analytics
  • Key retail KPIs boosted through demand forecasting

By the end, you’ll understand how today’s savvy retailers leverage predictive analytics to craft nimble merchandise strategies, optimize inventory, and exceed shopper expectations.

The Art and Limitations of Traditional Retail Merchandise Planning

Merchandise planning sits at the core of retail success. When done right, it entails artfully assorting the optimal product mix to align with customer demand. But retailers have traditionally relied on intuition and historical sales rather than data-driven insights. This leaves significant room for error.

The legacy approach:

At its essence, traditional merchandise planning uses past performance to predict future demand. If navy dresses sold well last March, retailers assume they will again this March. This institutional knowledge can provide a solid starting point.

But solely relying on the rearview mirror limits agility in adapting to changes in consumer behavior, emerging trends, and market conditions. It’s like navigating unfamiliar streets with an outdated map – you may reach your destination eventually, but likely via a suboptimal route.

The problem with gut instinct:

Retail veterans laud “trusting your gut” when making inventory decisions. But intuition in isolation paints an incomplete picture. For instance, a merchant may have a hunch that fluorescent tracksuits will trend this season. But without concrete data on early sales signals, social media buzz, and customer demographics, it’s impossible to validate whether that hunch is on target.

Mismatched inventory troubles:

Since traditional planning methods lack real-time visibility into demand shifts, they often yield inventory mismatches. Retailers frequently overstock declining products and understock rapidly emerging trends.

It’s like packing an umbrella for a trip when the forecast suddenly calls for sun. Without data-driven agility to pivot plans, retailers get stuck with misaligned inventory – too much of what isn’t selling and not enough of what customers want.

The Data Advantage – Navigating Retail’s Modern Landscape

In today’s increasingly complex retail ecosystem, data provides a reliable compass to guide better merchandise strategies. Predictive analytics takes it a step further – leveraging data science to forecast demand with precision.

The data deficiency in traditional retail:

Just a few decades back, retailers made “guesstimated” inventory decisions since customer data was scarce. Even when sales data existed, retailers lacked the analytical tools to glean actionable insights. They were data rich but information poor.

Data as a retail GPS:

For today’s retailers, data offers a detailed map of the consumer landscape. Granular analytics provide clarity into:

  • Customer sentiment, behaviors, and motivations
  • Micro-trends bubbling up in specific regions or demographics
  • Optimal inventory needs and production timelines

With data as their guide, retailers can navigate the right assortment strategies to delight customers and drive sales. It’s akin to upgrading from a folded paper map to a high-precision GPS.

Predictive analytics unlocks data’s potential:

But simply amassing mounds of data isn’t enough. Retail winners approach data scientifically. Predictive analytics employs statistical modeling and machine learning to extract actionable forecasts from massive datasets. This provides retailers with a dynamic system to shape decisions rather than just document past events.

Predictive Analytics – The Retail Crystal Ball

Predictive analytics acts as a retail crystal ball, anticipating future demand with remarkable accuracy. It analyzes past and present signals to determine the highest-probability scenarios for the weeks and months ahead.

How predictive analytics forecasts the future:

Predictive analytics evaluates historical sales patterns, product attributes, marketing efforts, economic trends and even weather data to discern demand probabilities. It identifies correlations that humans might miss.

Powerful machine learning algorithms continuously improve forecast accuracy by detecting subtle shifts in customer behavior. This allows retailers to peek into the future with much greater certainty.

Benefits of demand forecasting:

Armed with predictive demand forecasts, retailers gain a competitive edge to:

  • Plan optimal inventory levels down to the product-store level
  • Identify emerging trends and capitalize ahead of the pack
  • Enable proactive supply chain strategies
  • Minimize costly overstocks and stockouts

Rather than just predicting future outcomes, predictive analytics enables retailers to strategically shape them.

From reactive to proactive planning:

Without demand forecasts, retailers often find themselves in reaction mode – chasing sold out products or marking down excess inventory. Predictive analytics flips the script to proactive planning – ensuring the right products are in the right places at the right times.

Even when disruptions hit, predictive models rapidly adapt to recalibrate guidance. It allows retailers to pivot swiftly from defense to offense.

Solving the Biggest Pain Points for Retail Leaders

Retail executives grapple with immense complexities – from unwieldy legacy systems to supply chain volatility. Predictive analytics eases these headaches with data-backed guidance at every turn.

Modernizing rigid legacy systems:

Most established retailers rely on inflexible legacy tech stacks that can’t respond quickly to market changes. Predictive analytics provides a data layer to guide these outdated systems. It acts as a digital upgrade to transform rigid planning.

With demand forecasts, retailers can develop agile strategies while incrementally moving to more adaptive architectures over time.

Taming unrelenting workloads:

Retail leaders juggle endless meetings, cross-functional requests, reports, and planning cycles while aiming to develop visionary strategies. The nonstop tactical whirlwinds leave little air to focus on long-term priorities.

Predictive analytics lightens the burden by automating data analysis and forecasting. Leaders gain on-demand access to insights to streamline decision-making while spending time on bigger-picture growth.

Smoothing volatile supply chains:

From unexpected customer demand swings to geopolitical events, supply chain disruptions seem inevitable. But predictive analytics offers a smoother ride.

By monitoring data signals in real-time, predictive models spot potential bottlenecks early. Retailers gain foresight to adjust production schedules and logistics to sidestep volatility.

Predictive Analytics Supercharges Vital Retail KPIs

Retail winners realize success hinges on moving the needle on vital performance metrics. Predictive analytics is key to accelerating these retail KPIs:

Driving sales revenue:

The imprecise nature of traditional forecasting leads to lost sales from stockouts or stale inventory. With predictive analytics, retailers optimize inventory assortments and placement to maximize revenue. Models rapidly incorporate new data like promotions and local events to refine guidance.

Improving inventory turns:

Excess slow-moving inventory drags down performance. Predictive analytics tailors stock to actual demand signals, ensuring on-trend products fly off the shelves. Retailers gain data-backed signals to dynamically shift buys across locations, reducing write-offs.

Optimizing stock-to-sales ratios:

High inventory stockpiles result in working capital inefficiencies. Predictive analytics aligns inventory investments with demand forecasts, right-sizing stockpiles. Retailers minimize excess stock while averting stockouts that impact service levels.

Increasing gross margins:

Incorrect forecasts lead to profit-sapping markdowns. Predictive analytics optimizes merchandising plans and intelligent pricing to improve margins. Retailers avoid over-buying, resulting in less discounting and secrecy.

For retail leaders laser focused on driving results, predictive analytics is indispensable. It provides the visibility needed to deploy capital and resources for maximum ROI.


In the fast-changing world of retail, success depends on balancing art and science – combining merchant intuition with data-driven automation. As consumer preferences and market conditions continuously evolve, predictive analytics enables retailers to shape inventory strategies versus just react.

With predictive analytics as their guide, leading retailers make reliable forecasts, optimize stock levels, minimize waste, and maximize profits. Data empowers them to cost-effectively give customers exactly what they want when and where they want it.

The future is uncertain. But predictive analytics provides retailers with ample confidence and clarity to dynamically adapt plans while growing sales and profitability. It’s how smart retailers turn unpredictability into a competitive advantage.

Table of Contents

People Also Read

Looking to stay up to date on the latest in retail?

Get the latest in retail, artificial intelligence, and business by joining our newsletter.