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Accurate forecasting is vital for supply chains in the COVID-19 era and beyond

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Accurate forecasting is vital for supply chains in the COVID-19 era and beyond 1

By Andrew Butt, co-founder and CEO of Enable,  a modern, cloud-based software solution for B2B rebate management.

All companies have to know how to prepare for an uncertain future – from shifts in the market and consumer behavior to the possibility of reduced revenue or increased overhead, it's often necessary to adapt to changing circumstances as quickly as possible. This is particularly true when companies are attempting to navigate the economic consequences of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. If a company doesn't have robust forecasting tools, it will continually be forced to respond to new developments and crises in a reactive instead of proactive way.

Forecasting is especially important for the management of rebate contracts, which are typically negotiated on the basis of last year's performance and expected growth. This presents a significant problem for companies that aren't capable of accurately predicting supply and demand or how other shifts in economic conditions will affect their business. This problem is even more serious in the COVID-19 era, which has thrown existing projections about consumer spending patterns and the state of the economy into disarray.

COVID-19 has been a stark reminder that rigorous forecasting is vital for negotiating rebates, facilitating alignment between manufacturers and distributors, and planning for the future in many other ways. However, despite the existence of increasingly powerful and accessible digital forecasting resources, many companies are still relying on antiquated methods to anticipate and prepare for the future.

The forecasting status quo isn't working for many companies

Consumer behavior drives supply chains – when distributors submit an order to manufacturers, they do so based upon predictions about what volume of products and materials they need to satisfy demand. This is why it's striking that, according to survey data from EY, only 20 percent of consumer products companies are "confident they can rapidly align their supply chain activity with changes in demand."

At a time when 94 percent of Fortune 1,000 companies are experiencing supply chain disruptions due to the economic consequences of COVID-19, the ability to identify which adjustments are necessary to avoid costly inefficiencies and missed opportunities is paramount. However, too many companies are trying to make predictions with a limited set of tools. They're using simple linear extrapolations which don't take into account seasonality and other fluctuations (much less the effects of a crisis like COVID-19); many of their forecasting efforts are manual, which means they're subject to human error (they also use up valuable human capital); and they're not updated with the latest industry data or other relevant information.

But all these problems are solvable. Companies have never had more access to digital platforms that can help them collect and analyze the data necessary to generate detailed forecasts and align their production and distribution processes with the market.

Why forecasting is necessary for rebate negotiations

When a merchant or other distributor purchases products from a supplier, it's important to determine which goods will be required in which locations and quantities. Rebates are retrospective payments that help buyers and sellers align their transactions with each others' objectives – i.e., if a buyer purchases the seller's target quantity, the seller can provide additional rebate as a bonus. This incentivizes continued trading with a partner and ensures that neither party is wasting resources.

Andrew Butt

Andrew Butt

While this may sound like a simple concept, rebate negotiation and management can actually be quite complex. For example, some rebates are based on year-to-year revenue growth, in which certain forms of purchases are eligible and others aren't. Other rebates are contingent on an array of other elements, such as product-specific incentives and the maintenance of certain margins, promotions, etc. In these cases, forecasting is essential to account for many different variables over time, which will allow buyers and sellers to sign agreements underpinned by accurate pricing calculations.

When rebate forecasting is systematized and data-driven, the chances of a dispute are much lower. And if a dispute does arise, there's an audit trail that allows companies to resolve it more quickly and fairly. The ability to predict which rebate structures and pricing make the most sense doesn't just strengthen relationships between suppliers and distributors – it increases margins and cash flow, allows companies to allocate human capital more productively, and ultimately leads to stronger and more sustainable growth.

Accurate forecasting in the COVID-19 era

As economies around the world saw massive contractions amid COVID-19, supply and demand across many industries and sectors swung wildly. An analysis from the U.S. Federal Reserve pointed out that the "massive lockdown of the economy represents a large negative demand shock" while "supply chains in a number of industries have been affected not only internationally, with international trade in general greatly reduced, but also domestically, resulting in price increases for many goods and services."

It's extremely difficult to negotiate and manage rebates amid this economic uncertainty, which makes it much likelier that anticipated rebate thresholds (and the attendant pricing tiers) won't be met. This could lead to a lack of motivation from buyers, which would result in lost profits all around. For some product categories, however, the recovery will be surprisingly fast, which means sales will quickly outpace their thresholds and pricing tiers (thereby eliminating the incentive to make rebate deals in the first place).

To address these issues, suppliers and distributors should renegotiate their rebate agreements after considering several potential scenarios for the next few months (and for 2021 more broadly). This is where technology comes in – digital rebate management platforms don't just provide the ability to compare multiple forecasts, but they also make the process of renegotiation (and adherence to the terms of a new deal) more streamlined.

COVID-19 has demonstrated how important it is for supply chains to become as data-driven and flexible as possible, and forecasting is an integral part of that process. We'll never know exactly what the future holds, but we can come closer to predicting it than ever before.

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