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The bullwhip effect refers to a logistics supply chain inefficiency when there is either too much or too little inventory. Usually, this comes as a response to incorrectly reacting to or forecasting customer demand.
Small fluctuations at any point along the supply chain can have a major impact on the rest of the logistics chain. Most partners only understand and address their specific orders without considering how the overall chain has to function together to deliver the best service with the most minimal waste.
The truth of the matter is that each partner influences the entire chain, especially when it comes to forecasting inaccuracies. One minor order inaccuracy or inefficiency can create a butterfly or bullwhip effect that impacts the entire chain. This is one reason that it is critical that companies partner with a reputable 3PL such as Redwood Logistics to help ensure good supply chain health and accuracy of operations.
When one supply chain partner has a change in demand or ordering, it can create a massive ripple effect in the rest of the chain. It’s like cracking a bullwhip (hence the name). Although the movement of the wrist is small, it creates an amplified chain reaction with a large swing at the end of the whip.
This occurs when, most often, there is a change in demand at the retail level. This change disrupts all the other partners, including distributors, wholesalers, manufacturers, and raw material suppliers, who are now also working to meet that new demand.
Although you want all of the partners to adjust production according to changes in demand, the bullwhip effect refers to the negative side of over- or under- reacting to those fluctuations in a way that leads to loss.
Here’s a basic example of how even one small reaction can have a major and exponential ripple effect on the entire supply chain.
Let’s say a pet store sells on average 100 packs of a particular dog bone brand every week. One week, though, they sell 300 packs of those dog bones. This might be because they ran a promotion, an article came out raving about the product, a dog rescue suddenly decided to buy up all the store’s stock, or it was just simply a good week for dog bones.
The retailer now assumes that its customers want more of that product because the demand increased drastically. So, they decide to order 300 packs instead of 100 to meet the higher projected forecasted demand. Their distributor then orders 500 on their end to make sure they don’t run out, since their retailer has now upped their demand so dramatically and quickly. The manufacturer then produces 600, just to be on the safe side for demand and quality control.
The average demand is 100 dog bones. Even the now-increased demand to 300 is half of what the manufacturer ends up making (600 packs of dog bones).
This can also happen with a lowered demand, like if the retailer orders less and all the other supply chain partners also order less, but later down the road the demand increases again.
The bullwhip effect either creates excess or a lack of inventory. A surplus of inventory is expensive and wastes resources, while insufficient stock leads to unfulfilled orders and poor customer service (which can result in lost business in the short- and long-term).
There may also be secondary impacts of the bullwhip effect, like a breakdown of communication, loss of the partnership, or shipping delays. Overall, it sets off a chain reaction that impacts the processes of every logistics partner, which in turn means loss and expense is nearly inevitable.
As we saw in the last example, there were a few things that can easily “go wrong” and cause this bullwhip effect.
First, the retailer amplified their expectations with regard to the product. They simply saw a higher number of units sold without looking at the why behind that week’s demand. For example, if the product were on sale, it would push people to buy; once the units aren’t on sale anymore, though, demand might go back down. Or if it were a single purchaser who bought up an extra amount, they may not have this continued demand moving forward.
Not only that, but each partner created their own “buffer” of inventory. This, in turn, created a major excess of inventory production. Each party was relying solely on information and orders from the partner immediately next to them in the supply chain without consulting additional factors or enhancing the overall communication of the chain.
What are some of the causes of the bullwhip effect?
Most of the issues boil down to this incorrect demand forecasting. It’s challenging to try to predict demand while accounting for all of the complex factors that go into delivering the right product, at the right time, in the right places. There are always going to be fluctuations and disruptions—some expected and some unexpected—that will impact the supply chain, especially as logistics process becomes more global and purchasing moves to the web. Forecasting is a challenge for so many retailers, distributors, and manufacturers, even in relatively stable markets. Incorrect forecasting ultimately leads to a lot of guessing games that can kick off this bullwhip effect.
Some common concerns that can launch this effect:
A breakdown of communication is one of the key causes of the bullwhip effect. For example, two managers within the same retailer may identify demand differently and thus order different quantities from their supplier. Or the retailer may not explain the rise in demand to their distributor, so the distributor doesn’t know the permanency (or lack thereof) of the new manufacturing production quantities he should ask for.
It’s critical for there to be a strong alignment between all the stakeholders along the supply chain to minimize loss and inefficiencies.
“Order batching” occurs when retailers wait until orders build up before placing a new request with the supplier. The supply chain partners then round up or round down based on their needs. For example, they might round down if they have equipment constraints, or they might round up if they want an inventory buffer in case of product quality checks. The more partners who do this rounding and batch-ordering, the more the original demand quantity gets distorted.
If a retailer is holding a special discount or deal, it can disrupt buying patterns for a short period of time. These fluctuations can alter what demand looks like from the outside. These need to be planned for in advance to minimize understocking during the promotional period, while acknowledging that demand will likely decrease again once the event is over. This relates back to the vital aspect of communication along the supply chain to ensure every partner knows what demand looks like and why.
Return policies, particularly free returns, and reverse logistics can also create an amplified bullwhip effect. A lot of ecommerce consumers will buy more goods than they need, like multiple sizes of the same pair of shoes, to try it on and then send it back. If retailers don’t appropriately consider these multiple buys and returns, they can exaggerate demand and end up with surplus stock once it’s sent back.
Let’s look at how we can address the causes of the bullwhip effect most effectively to reduce loss and cost.
Incorrect demand forecasting is the primary cause of the bullwhip effect. Implementing enhanced means of forecasting is critical to ensuring that one incorrect order doesn’t upset the entire chain. There are a lot of advanced technologies that simplify and accurately predict forecasting demand from the consumer all the way back to manufacturing and raw materials.
These technologies include:
A lot of supply chains have started exploring a more demand-driven approach to inventory management. This requires a strong implementation of both technology and partner communication to react quickly to occurrences along the supply chain, especially with regards to short-term and long-term fluctuations in demand. For this to work, supply chain visibility and advanced procedures are vital.
Supply chain partners have been striving to improve communication, visibility, and transparency for the past few years, but now it’s even more important than ever. To accomplish this, partners should normalize daily and weekly contacts between one another as well as implement consistent technology across the board that everyone agrees upon and uses regularly.
Blockchain technology is especially useful as it radically opens up the transparency of the supply chain, giving minute-by-minute updates on a product’s whereabouts and how demand fits into the overall demand of the vendor.
Learn more about how blockchain is revolutionizing supply chain communication with the following resources:
Vendors and supply chain partners should consider creating contracts and processes for smaller, more specific orders rather than large order batches. As opposed to waiting for orders to come in from consumers and then rounding up or down, supply chain partners may want to consider utilizing a smaller receipt with more frequent deliveries.
Partners should also discuss means of eliminating shipping delays and other transportation concerns. Often, holdups during the transport process can lead to vendors re-ordering or ordering at new demands to address their consumers’ needs, which creates even more inventory friction along the chain.
Deals and discounts work well to move stock and gain new clients, but they can also create major surges in business that are difficult to track. These sorts of fluctuations have to be adequately prepared for and strategized in advance. Consistently offering good product prices minimizes sale swells that lead to incorrect demand orders, ultimately resulting in a negative bullwhip effect.
Customer service is key to understanding what customers want while also reducing canceled or returned orders. A good customer service team can radically reduce returns, which strengthens the line of demand. This creates a smoother ordering pattern where demand is accounted without guesswork, loss, or damages.
The bullwhip effect can be fixed if the right tools are put in place. However, it’s the understanding and implementation of the appropriate tools that can be the challenging part for a lot of supply chains.
Our team at Redwood Logistics creates custom solutions to meet the on-demand world of logistics. We not only offer shipping fleets, but we also utilize an extensive array of inventory and transportation management software that we can leverage for your business.
If you’re looking to stop the loss and minimize the damages that come from the bullwhip effect, you need flexible technology integrated along your supply chain. We can help. Representatives are available to take your call to help get your inventory, customer service, and transportation on the right track.
Contact us now to get moving.