The Art of Balancing: How to Manage a Supply Chain for Fads

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Years ago, I was asked by one of my clients to make their business go viral. Essentially they wanted to create a fad so that their brand and associated products would fly off the shelves.

I remember being a bit stumped as the emphasis of my business consulting and the reasons for the success of my earlier ventures was to plan for and implement long-term marketing and business development processes. I was more interested in the long-distance course of business. In my experience, running a successful business is a marathon with lots of peaks, valleys, and plenty of monotonous flat sections along the way. Running a business as a sprint was not in my lexicon.

The lessons I learned in researching my book, HyperLeverage, about the approach that Disney took in creating movie tie-in trends for toys informed me how to market and merchandise products with pre-planned intentionality.  Disney’s process sets in motion the activities that could create a fad and possibly a trend. And they established the supply chain to handle the anticipated demand accordingly.  Disney didn’t want to be caught with an inadequate supply chain and lose revenue and profits from being unable to fulfill the demands of their customers.

Rarely can a business pull off these types of preplanned strategies like Disney. They require significant expense and significant risk. More often than not, trends and certainly fads happen organically and pop up like mushrooms after a spring rain shower.  Generally, without any planning or advance notice.

In the past years, the global supply chain has changed in two distinct ways. First, life cycles of products have shortened considerably, and second, time-to-market has been compressed. Add to that the fickleness of retail buying fads and trends and you can see how difficult it is to create and manage a supply chain that can handle a fad without significant issues.

The Disney approach to trendsetting may be a rare example of leveraging existing supply chain mechanisms. The more prevalent approach of ‘winging it’ is the one that poses the biggest supply chain challenge. It’s a balancing act that often goes awry and leads to losses, excess inventory, and lost opportunities.

What are buying trends and retail fads?

Before we delve into the art of balancing supply chain management for fads and trends, let us first understand what buying trends and retail fads are and then progress to how to create an effective supply chain system.

 Buying trends refer to the direction in which consumers are purchasing products or services. It could be influenced by various factors such as changing consumer preferences, economic factors, or technological advancements. Paco Underhill in his seminal book on the subject, Why We Buy, observes the behavior patterns of consumers and presents advice on how to design and tweak retail establishments to optimize the shopping experience. It’s a good foundational book for understanding how a fad or trend can be leveraged.

Retail fads are temporary and often short-lived buying trends that emerge quickly and disappear just as fast. They are often associated with specific products, services, or events and are not always sustainable.  Trends are longer lasting and become ensconced as a societal norm. Think of the concept of the 5 o’clock happy hour. Starting as a social gathering in the Navy, it became a full-fledged trend and then an institution during the period of prohibition.

Classic Supply Chain Techniques are not up to the task

Retail fads and buying trends are mostly unpredictable, making it challenging to manage supply chains effectively. However, with the right strategies, tools, and technologies, it is possible to balance supply chain management for fads and trends effectively.

Managing a supply chain that can adapt to fads and trends requires a unique approach. Unlike traditional supply chain planning it requires a more agile and adaptable strategy. Retailers and their suppliers must be able to respond promptly to meet the demand. A pre-requisite is an integrated end-to-end approach, from sourcing to delivery, to ensure that the products are available to consumers when they need them.

Responsiveness is crucial

One of the most effective supply chain management strategies is to establish strong relationships with suppliers with an emphasis on responsiveness. Having a reliable supplier network that can quickly respond to changes in demand is essential in managing supply chains for products that have a meteoric rise in popularity and a free-falling dive at the end of the fad cycle. Retailers must work closely with their suppliers to ensure that they can quickly adapt to changes in demand and supply the products as and when required.

This requires a dedicated strategy focused on identifying and forecasting demand in real time. Retailers must constantly monitor buying trends predict future demand and capture the most upside as possible. Accurate demand forecasting can help retailers to manage their inventory better and avoid stockouts.  Leveraging big data analytics has become the go-to approach, rather than the “gut feeling” pattern of decades past.  Trend forecasting that uses  machine learning algorithms to identify patterns will become a pre-requisite tool for companies to predict future demand accurately.

The challenge of managing a fad

The biggest supply chain challenge is uncertainty.

Turning this uncertainty into predictability is the holy grail of logistics – how to understand and control demand.  And, it’s the magic grease that lubricants a supply chain to have optimum responsiveness. 

A further challenge in this specific case is the need for speed. Retail fads and buying trends can emerge quickly and disappear even faster. Businesses must be able to respond promptly to meet the changing paradigm. This requires a supply chain that is agile and adaptable and can quickly respond to changes in demand.

The balancing requires a tightrope walk between the need to respond while also avoiding either overstock or understock. The balance between speed and accuracy and reliability is fragile and tenuous. A deep understanding of the areas of supply chain vulnerabilities will reveal the bottlenecks or areas of inefficiency.  Having backup suppliers and vendors is almost a necessity if there is not responsiveness built into the existing supply chain system.

And these can be shored up to provide additional supply chain muscle.  Bulking up on cross-training of employees to ensure flexibility and sharing of better data analysis with all partners proactively will yield the flexibility that is a cornerstone support of handling product fads.

Tools and technologies for managing fads and trends

One tool that is emerging as essential in managing supply chains is blockchain technology. Blockchains can help retailers track the flow of products from the supplier to the end consumer, ensuring transparency and accountability. They also help retailers to identify potential bottlenecks in the supply chain and respond quickly to changes in demand.

Another technology that retailers will lean on in the future is the Internet of Things (IoT).  IoT has matured considerably in the past decade along with data flow that can be analyzed and interpreted from a plethora of devices.

In the context of the increasingly responsive supply chain, devices that can help retailers track inventory levels in real-time and identify potential stockouts or overstocking are manna from heaven. They will help retailers to manage their inventory levels better and avoid wastage, helping manufacturers plan for optimal resource configurations. And inform first and second-tier suppliers of support to have the necessary variable capacity.

Conclusion

Managing supply chains for fads and trends in the retail industry requires the art of balancing. Retailers must be agile and adaptable and be able to respond quickly to changes in demand. They must also have a deep understanding of their supply chain and be able to identify potential bottlenecks or areas of inefficiency. Leveraging the right tools and technologies can help retailers manage their supply chains for the uncertainty that is the hallmark of fads and trends.

Joel Goobich
Joel Goobich is a recognized business thought leader and an accomplished entrepreneur, executive, and management consultant with extensive experience in marketing, sales, business strategy, and innovation. He is a published author, blogger, veteran podcaster, and contributing writer to Forbes, Martech Cube, Martech Outlook, Business2Community, and other online publications. His latest book - HyperLeverage: Do More With What You Have For Exceptional Results provides a systematic methodology to uncover and unleash your leverage.

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