Industry Trends – Beer Distribution and Improving Profit Performance

Beer Distribution is an interesting business: High margin, protected by regulation that has traditionally limited most forms of competition, which leads to an overall lack of incentive to innovate technologically.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of innovation incentives there are some activities occurring that signal the status quo may be changing a little bit; for example, the recent foray of Berkshire tossed into the mix through the purchase of a couple of distributors.

If the current dynamic were to change, for whatever reason, forecasting would be one area that would allow distributors to rapidly improve – even advance – their bottom line performance outcomes.  Currently, on average, there is not a lot of focus on forecasting. Basic practices involve sales people “working” their on- and off-premise customers, while the inventory people make sure they keep enough stock on hand to ensure customer order fulfillment is met. Inventory managers look for opportunities to take advantage of strategically ordering from suppliers that game prices increases, etc.

A heightened focus on improving forecasting and ordering would allow distributors to lower working capital invested in inventory, while maintaining and/or improving customer service.

Customer service could improve in a number of ways; better order fulfillment being the most basic upgrade. On the more advanced side of the equation; distributors could work together with bars and liquor stores to make sure the products stocked, or on offer, respond and adapt to seasonal changes, trends, pricing, promotions, and holidays – making the distributor a value-added supplier.

In turn, the end merchant will become an even more valued customer by providing a more accurate forecast to their suppliers. This helps distributors and their supply chains become more efficient. Ultimately, this virtuous cycle helps set the distributor apart as a better supply partner – making it one that beer manufacturers will want to work with and which has the capacity to make a product successful in a new market.  This allows the distributor to negotiate more favorable terms with suppliers, thereby increasing margin performance. Everyone benefits.

Improving the forecast model will require improvements in technology and process systems – something that owners will have to support. Since distribution sales people are singularly focused on driving volume and taking care of their customers, they do not take kindly to activities such as supply chain forecasting. But their input is critical in order to achieve a “big picture” point of view that will help the entire company. When forecasting is tied directly to how it will help sales people earn more money (working for a higher margin distributor), a critical component of improving forecasting will be realized.

How improved execution-level forecasting delivers layers of value

Business cases, ROI, improved performance – all are nifty catch phrases used to justify investments in people, equipment and software. In our Nov. 18 post, we highlighted the importance of defining what “execution-level” means in your business’ particular case. But what is the value? Where does the measurable improvement come from?

The obvious answer is: in inventory and/or inventory turns and their associated impact on working capital. I think everyone will agree that an improvement in forecasting will improve the amount of inventory carried.

But this doesn’t begin to fully describe the size of the opportunity. Improved execution-level forecasting is the gift that keeps on giving.

More stuff that customers want
An improvement in execution-level forecasting empowers you to improve the makeup of that inventory, thereby increasing customer satisfaction. In addition, it creates the chance to address issues such as perishability, which has significant performance implications in the food and beverage industry; and old or slow-moving inventory, which can greatly impact the cost line of industries like high-tech and fashion. Issues like these almost bankrupted Cisco back in the early 2000s.

Greater production efficiency
Taken further, improvements in execution-level forecasting also allow companies to address production efficiencies by optimizing the mix and duration of each run for manufacturers, as well as purchase orders for distributors. Reduced changeovers, lead times and overtime are other ways that improved forecasting pays off.

Optimize shelf space for revenue
You can also drill down another level to the management of your bill of materials (BOM) and work in progress (WIP). A perfect production plan is useless if the materials or subassemblies are not where they’re needed, when they’re needed.

If your company deals with big-box retailers and their service level agreements, improved execution-level forecasting gives you the best chance to generate the most revenue possible from available shelf space without running the risk of a large end-of-season return or write-off.

And this does not even begin to explore the opportunities for improving the forecasting and demand planning process and the associated efficiency improvements, or the improvement potential in the area of effective marketing spend.

These results are based on a history of obtaining 1, 2 or maybe 5 percent improvement in forecasting — often at levels higher than execution level, such as brand family or category. Imagine the opportunities if the execution level improved by 25 percent or more.