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Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway!

The title of this article is used with the kind permission of Susan Jeffers, Ph.D., author of Feel the Fear and Do It anyway!®.

This is a self help, green article on business intelligence (BI) in retail. In this article, I am going to suggest that you throw away some of the props that you have been relying on over the last few years. I am also going to do my bit to save the planet by suggesting that we can also save a few trees along the way. I am going to challenge some assumptions that seem to be common in the analysis of retail performance and talk about how today’s BI tools can help you to find new ways to view your data.

But first of all, what’s this about fear? Well to put quite simply, if a little unkindly, much retail BI reporting is simply sclerotic. End users receive regular fixed format reports that they seldom read and which they may not even have asked for in the first place. These reports often contain data that is too generalised to be of more than passing interest or utility. They are sent to vast distribution lists and account for reams of print outs that end up in recycle bins every week without serving any useful purpose in a large number of instances. Am I exaggerating? Take a walk around your merchandise department tomorrow and count the heaps of print outs that are piled on the desks! However, if you try to ask someone if they mind if you delete them from a distribution list, you often expose a powerful mixture of anxieties and neuroses. “Knowledge is power” as Francis Bacon famously wrote (well he actually wrote it in Latin, which demonstrates that he knew exactly what he was talking about), and people are very loth to give up anything that might weaken their position - even when they are not really sure if they need it. As one vendor wrote to me recently in response to a previous article, we often see senior management demanding “standard” weekly reporting, but they can often not articulate why they want it.

What these users perhaps don’t realise fully enough is that whilst “knowledge is power”, “power is knowledge” as well. What do I mean by that? Well, quite simply, I mean that in a “delivered information” culture, it is the people in charge who decide exactly what information gets delivered and in what format. Very often, the gatekeepers to the information restrict what is available in arbitrary or self-serving ways to the detriment of the organisation as a whole. I am not trying to suggest here that everybody should have access to all of the information, or that you should adopt a paranoid attitude and assume you are being purposely excluded in some way from the distribution of information. What I am trying to point out is that when someone decides what you see and how you see it, they automatically restrict your ability to interpret what is going on. In many cases that I have seen, users are not unhappy with this state of affairs because it reduces the responsibility that they would otherwise have to accept, forcing them to be proactive in their use of data. When, instead of presenting users with standard data sets, you say, “What questions do you want to ask?”, you are moving them from a comfort zone into an exposed situation where they can risk being seen as ineffective and undiscerning.

These attitudes, whilst understandable, are symptomatic of businesses that have not seen the benefits of self service business intelligence, or who have not been able to manage the change toward these new ways of looking at things. So how can we persuade executives to let go of these outdated support structures and free dive into the data using the new and powerful tools that are out there?

First of all, we don’t have to take away their entire support structure. The process can be gradual and graduated. Most of today’s BI tools allow a sliding scale of flexibility. This means that inexperienced users, or those with easily defined and relatively stable informational needs, can be spoon-fed with dashboard-style briefing books. These briefing books are normally made up of parameterised pre-canned reports with limited interactivity. Users can normally change the context of the reports by changing the time or the product being viewed, and may be able to switch between tabular and graphical views. These books can often be embedded live into presentations allowing the Monday morning meeting to become interactive and, as a result, far more meaningful.

More advanced business users can be taught to interact more flexibly with the data sets delivered to them on screen using a combination of dashboarding and screen-based multidimensional ad hoc query tools. The important thing here is that it is end users and not analysts who are taught to trawl the data looking for insight to help with real business problems and are provided with the tools to make this sort of ad hoc investigation possible.

For example, a merchandiser might query a merchandising data mart to find out which stores had sales of a particular item last week but no stock this week. This would provide a quick indication of where real availability problems exist. An area manager might compare the expenditure on telephone calls from one store with the average for the region for that particular type of store and query why it is relatively high. It is in this sort of reporting that flexibility becomes essential. Let’s continue with the example of a store having a high telephone cost this period. What sort of questions need to be asked to place this in context? How does the cost compare to last period and last year? Is it part of an upward trend over time? How does it compare to other local stores? How does it compare to other stores of the same type? This kind of dicing and slicing of the data cube is quickly taught and can speedily reveal valuable information to support tactical decisions in a way that static standardised paper-based reporting never can. Certainly it places the onus on the user to make active use of the data, and it takes the rigid structure of the standard weekly reports away, but this is seldom a bad thing.

Turning your end users from passive consumers of data into active investigators of information has got to be worth the effort of overcoming the initial reluctance that is often demonstrated. Of course having advanced and proactive end users can sometimes disturb the comfort zones of people in other areas like IT at the same time, but that is perhaps the subject of a different article.