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By Vinay Chaturvedi | November 17, 2022

Replenishment: New Thoughts on an Old Problem

You need to right-size your inventory, but what does that even mean anymore? This is what many retailers get wrong about “what’s right.”

A replenishment system's purpose is to place the right amount of inventory at the right place at the right time. It's a basic process yet requires complex execution. Over the years, product explosion, location additions and contractions, omnichannel shopping, and fulfillment option expansion have made replenishment challenging. And while there has been technological assistance, additional automation, and process refinement, they've all been building on the same premise of adjusting service levels, order points, up-to points, and mix/max guardrails. It's time for a new approach.

The word "right" is obscure. What is the "right" amount of the inventory at the "right" place at the "right" time? Does "right" mean to maximize the sales volume? Does it mean customers can walk into any location and buy the items they want, or that you have all items in stock when the store opens? Or is the term “right” only used to ensure customers can get what they want or something similar, in a timely manner, even if those items aren't in the store at this moment? There is no correct answer to these questions.

But there are trade-offs to getting things "right,” regardless of what is right for you and your customers.

For example, you must consider:

  • what costs are acceptable to achieve the "right" inventory experience.
  • how much inventory you are willing to carry.
  • how much inventory is needed to fill the space – and how much the space can hold.
  • what incentives vendors are offering you to take that space.

You must also understand the realities of making "right" happen. How long does it take to deliver to each location? How reliable is the supplier, and what happens when demand shifts dramatically?

Defining what’s "right" is hard. Getting "right" right is even harder.

In response to this dilemma, replenishment systems have concentrated on optimizing service levels and using rules and guardrails such as presentation minimums, lead times, and case pack sizes. But service levels have generally been the focal point. Yet, this can be problematic.

Let's set the stage.

Suppose you had an item you always wanted available. You'd set the service level to 98%, which means you want a 98% probability that item will always be in stock over the replenishment cycle. It's not saying that you will fulfill 98% of customer orders.

Here is another way to look at the service level, as presented by Peter L. King, CSCP, author of Lean for the Process:

At a 98% service level, expect that 50% of the time, not all cycle stock will be depleted. For 48% of cycles, the safety stock will suffice. But in 2% of replenishment cycles, expect a stockout.

The service level definition is confusing, but it determines the inventory amount. Mathematically, there is a hyperbolic relationship between service level and inventory, as seen in the graph below.  

Inventory Level vs Service Level

What does this have to do with anything? As you can see, every 1% improvement in service level becomes exponentially more expensive, and the difference between 95% and 97% is significantly more than 85% and 87%. But retailers want high service levels to maintain customer loyalty. And so often, when service levels are set to meet these goals, high inventory and additional costs are the outcomes.

But why wouldn't people then pull back the service level to 95% or 90%?

Well, in some cases, they do. But when and what is that trigger? What is the "right" inventory level to maximize profitability across the enterprise, region, or store? And shouldn't that service level change over time to optimize the inventory and profitability? 

These are the questions we ponder. How do you connect financials to inventory? Or conversely, how can you connect your replenishment decisions to financials? Rather than optimizing service levels and keeping your inventory levels in check, you focus on maximizing profit with the same amount of inventory investment. Strategically, you would want to designate a higher preference for some items. But imagine the flexibility you gain as your service levels, order points, and order-up-to points adjust to meet your financial goals.

There are other benefits to this approach too. When retailers tighten their belts, they can lower inventory investment while maintaining profitability. If they want to invest in a location, they could increase their inventory levels to see if they can increase profitability.

Much of this approach requires forecasting demand and predicting outcomes. After all, it requires data crunching, analysis, and AI and machine learning. But herein may be a concern for retailers. Wouldn't this approach be restricted if a good percentage of a retailer's assortment uses min/max settings for replenishment?

Simply, yes. But let's back up some.

Even before this approach, min/max replenishment settings were never ideal. Generally, they are used for slow-moving items where forecast predictability is questionable. But today, forecasting enhancements have increased the forecast accuracy of slow-moving items. "Dynamic aggregation" is one method we use at to help retailers and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies scour the data and determine the right level to forecast.

Additionally, our demand calculations include non-traditional leading indicators such as weather, pollen, or local events that can generate more responsive and accurate forecasts. It opens the door to items and categories that people once considered unforecastable – this isn't your dad's forecasting tool.

Driving retail decisions through financial metrics is not a foreign concept, as markdown optimization solutions have applied this convention for years. Rather than using predefined discount levels at specific times (25% at 12 weeks, 50% at 16 weeks), markdown optimization solutions use sell-through and margin goals to determine when and how deep to discount. The same financial decision logic also has found its way into allocation decisions, where markdown costs and lost sales are evaluated as part of the inventory allocation decision. Even size profile optimization solutions consider financial benefits and pitfalls as shoppers push for more size inclusion.

Most traditional technology systems automated an existing process. But as technology advanced and external market conditions have changed, new systems have brought a fresh approach to solving an old problem. Due to AI advancements and new data sources, rapidly shifting market replenishment systems are ready to take that next leap.


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Vinay Chaturvedi
Vinay Chaturvedi

Vinay Chaturvedi manages the retail replenishment and supply chain products at 

Prior to joining, Vinay worked for over fifteen years with the SAS institute in retail and supply chain product management. During that time, he helped develop SAS’ Demand-Driven Planning and Optimization suite of products. 

Vinay has hands-on experience with manufacturing, automation, production planning, and supply chain management in automotive and consumer electronics industries. At, he has helped develop expertise in Demand Planning, Direct Store Delivery Order management, CPG Order Promising, and Retail Replenishment. 

An ardent customer advocate, he is a recognized expert in Demand Planning and Replenishment Optimization.

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