March 18, 2024
March 18, 2024

How to Forecast Inventory

Inventory forecasting is a process requiring quality data, mathematical skills, and knowledge of your specific industry. Explore the methods and strategies to maintaining optimal stock levels and learn how warehouse automation improves accuracy.


Key takeaways

What is inventory forecasting?

Inventory forecasting is the process of predicting the optimal amount of inventory a business needs to maintain over a specific period to meet anticipated customer demand without overstocking or understocking. This process involves analyzing past sales data, market trends, seasonal fluctuations, and current inventory levels to estimate future product demand. By doing this, companies can plan ahead and make sure they have enough products to meet demand.

Difference between inventory forecasting and replenishment

To fully understand the concept of inventory forecasting, let’s distinguish it once and for all from the related term inventory replenishment, which is yet a different process within the supply chain management framework:

Inventory forecasting: Again, this is the predictive process used to determine the amount and timing of future inventory requirements based on historical sales data, trends, and external factors. Its primary goal is to predict customer demand to ensure that the business maintains optimal inventory levels to meet this demand without overstocking.

Inventory replenishment: This process, on the other hand, involves the actual ordering or production of stock to refill inventory levels. Replenishment is based on the inventory forecasts and existing stock levels, with the aim of maintaining inventory at the levels needed to meet anticipated customer demand, while also considering lead times and reorder points.

In essence, inventory forecasting is about predicting future needs, and inventory replenishment is about fulfilling those needs through ordering or manufacturing more products.  

Why is inventory forecasting important?

It can come as no surprise that inventory forecasting plays a pivotal role in the operational and financial health of a business. Here’s the main reasons why inventory tracking is highly beneficial:  

  • Cost optimization: Reduces holding costs by preventing overstocking and the associated waste of resources.
  • Customer satisfaction: Ensures products are available when customers need them, enhancing service quality.
  • Efficiency: Streamlines purchasing and production planning, leading to more efficient operations.
  • Risk management: Mitigates the risk of stockouts and lost sales, securing revenue streams.

Having defined what inventory forecasting means, how it differentiates from inventory replenishment, and why it’s such an important area of focus, let’s continue the exploration of the different methods and types of forecasting, and how to pick the right one — a crucial first step to take.  

Five types & methods of inventory forecasting

Inventory forecasting can be categorized into different types and methods, each with its unique approach to predicting future inventory needs. Here's a breakdown of the types and methods mentioned, focusing on their application in inventory forecasting:

1. Quantitative methods

Quantitative forecasting uses historical data and mathematical models to predict future inventory requirements. It's data-driven and relies on the assumption that past patterns will continue.  

Quantitative methods include:

Time series analysis: Looks at past sales data to identify patterns or trends over time, which are then extrapolated into the future.

Causal models: These models, such as regression analysis, identify correlations between sales and one or more independent variables (e.g., economic indicators, marketing efforts) to predict future demand.

2. Qualitative methods

Qualitative forecasting relies on expert judgments rather than numerical data. It's often used when data is limited or when forecasting new products.  

Methods include:

  • Delphi method: A structured communication technique where a panel of experts provides input on inventory levels through a series of questionnaires, with feedback provided in between rounds.
  • Market research: Involves gathering insights from potential customers about their future purchasing intentions.

3. Trend analysis

Trend analysis is a quantitative method that involves identifying patterns in data over time. It focuses on establishing a trend line that represents the general direction in which inventory levels are moving, to forecast future demand.

4. Graphical methods

Graphical methods use visual tools, such as line charts or bar graphs, to represent historical data and visually identify trends, patterns, or seasonal variations in inventory levels. These methods help forecasters intuitively predict future demand by extrapolating from the visual trends.

5. Seasonality analysis

Seasonality analysis identifies regular, predictable patterns or fluctuations in inventory levels that occur at specific intervals, such as weekly, monthly, or quarterly. This method helps businesses prepare for seasonal demand spikes or declines by adjusting inventory levels accordingly.

Each of these methods has its strengths and applications, and often, businesses use a combination of several approaches to achieve more accurate inventory forecasts. The choice of method depends on the nature of the inventory, the availability of data, and the specific dynamics of the market and industry.  

Choosing the right inventory forecasting method

Selecting the most effective inventory forecasting method hinges on understanding the unique characteristics and demands of your business and industry. Some businesses are better off by looking at trends over time, some use simple math, and others use advanced computer programs to make predictions. Each method has its own benefits, so let’s have a look from a business and industry perspective:

  • Retail businesses: If you're in retail with seasonal sales patterns, prioritize seasonality analysis to manage inventory around peak shopping periods. Retailers with stable, year-round sales might lean on trend analysis for consistent stock levels.
  • E-commerce: If you’re an e-commerce business, particularly one with a wide range of SKUs, you should consider quantitative methods like time series analysis to manage the diverse demand across products. Graphical methods can quickly identify trends in fast-moving items.
  • Manufacturing: If you're in manufacturing, especially with products that have long lead times, causal models can help understand how various factors (like raw material availability or economic trends) impact your inventory needs.
  • Startups/new product launches: If your business is launching new products or is a startup entering the market, you might rely on qualitative methods, such as market research or the Delphi method, to forecast demand in the absence of historical data.
  • Service industry: For service-oriented industries, like hospitality or software as a service (SaaS) where physical inventory might not be the focus but predicting demand for supplies or resources is key, qualitative insights from market analysis or expert opinions can guide inventory decisions.
  • Seasonal businesses: (e.g., holiday goods, gardening supplies): Seasonality analysis is critical for businesses heavily influenced by seasonal factors, ensuring that inventory levels are adjusted to meet the surges in demand.
  • High-tech and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG): Companies in fast-paced markets should use a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods. The rapid innovation cycle in tech or the quick turnover in FMCG markets means staying ahead with a blend of data-driven forecasting and market insights.

Overall, the choice of inventory forecasting method should reflect your business's specific circumstances, including industry trends, customer behavior, and the maturity of your market presence. Adapting your approach as your business evolves is also key to maintaining inventory efficiency.  

Once you’ve selected the right method for your business needs, it’s time to delve into what it’s all about: How to forecast inventory as accurately as possible.


How to forecast inventory

Forecasting inventory effectively involves a structured approach that combines data analysis, industry insights, and strategic planning. Here is a step-by-step guide with formulas and tools commonly used, followed by a simple example to illustrate the process.

Step-by-step guide to inventory forecasting

1. Gathering historical sales data

The foundation of any good inventory forecast is reliable sales data. Collect sales figures from the past few years to identify patterns and trends. This historical data will serve as the basis for your forecasting efforts.

2. Analyzing trends and seasonality

Once you have your sales data, the next step is to scrutinize it for any identifiable trends, such as seasonal fluctuations or consistent growth or decline in sales. Understanding these patterns is crucial for predicting future inventory needs.

3. Considering market and external factors

Beyond your sales data, external factors like market trends, economic conditions, and upcoming events can significantly impact demand. Incorporating these insights into your forecasting model will enhance its accuracy.

4. Choosing a forecasting method

Based on your data analysis and the nature of your business, select the most appropriate forecasting method as we went through a few sections above. As mentioned, your choice could range from simple quantitative models to more nuanced qualitative approaches, depending on the complexity of your inventory and the predictability of your sales.

5. Applying the forecasting model

With a method in hand, apply it to your data to generate your inventory forecast. This could involve calculations by hand, using spreadsheet formulas, or leveraging specialized software.

6. Reviewing and adjusting

Forecasting is not a set-and-forget task. Regularly compare your forecasted sales against actual figures to identify any variances. Use these insights to refine your forecasting model for future accuracy.  

Formulas for forecasting

There are different formulas to use for forecasting. These include:  

Simple moving average (SMA)

This formula calculates the average sales over a specific period, smoothing out fluctuations to identify trends. It's particularly useful for businesses with stable, predictable sales patterns.


Imagine a store records its monthly sales (in U.S. dollars) over four months:

  • January: $200
  • February: $240
  • March: $180
  • April: $300

To calculate a three-month SMA for April, you would average the sales from February, March, and April because the SMA looks at the most recent three months:

So, the three-month SMA for April is $240. This smooths out the sales data, showing a trend without the monthly fluctuations.

Exponential smoothing (ES)

ES adjusts forecasts to account for more recent sales data, giving it more weight than older data. It's effective for quickly adapting to changes in sales trends.


Using the same monthly sales data but applying ES, let's say we choose a smoothing factor (α) of 0.5 for simplicity. This factor determines how much weight is given to the most recent sales data.

The formula for the first forecast (starting from February and assuming January is the base) would be:

Since it's the start, February's forecast is just January's sales, so let's move to March:

This method gives more weight to the most recent month (February) and less to the older data, dynamically adjusting as new data comes in.

Linear regression  

This more complex method predicts future sales by analyzing the relationship between sales and one or more independent variables, such as marketing spend or economic indicators.


Assume a business wants to predict future sales based on its marketing spend. Over several months, they've recorded the following data (in thousands of U.S. dollars):

  • Marketing Spend: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
  • Sales: 1.5, 2.5, 3.5, 4.5, 5.5

Using linear regression, we try to fit a line that best predicts sales based on marketing spend. The equation for a line is y = mx = b, where y is sales, x is marketing spend, m is the slope of the line (effect of marketing spend on sales), and b is the y-intercept (base sales without any marketing).

The goal is to find the values of m and b that minimize the difference between the predicted sales and the actual sales. For simplicity, let's say our line equation turns out to be:

This means for every $1,000 increase in marketing spend, sales increase by $1,000, plus a base sale of $500.

Each method suits different scenarios: SMA for stable trends, ES for quickly changing trends, and linear regression for understanding relationships between variables.

Tools for forecasting

Various tools and software are available to assist companies in forecasting, each suited to different needs and complexities. Here's a look at the key tools that can help businesses anticipate the future with greater precision:

  • Spreadsheets: Excel and Google Sheets are versatile tools for implementing basic forecasting models, suitable for small businesses or those just starting with forecasting.
  • Dedicated forecasting software: Advanced platforms offer sophisticated features for in-depth analysis, capable of accommodating complex business models and a wide range of variables.
  • Inventory management systems: These systems often include forecasting functionalities tailored to the specifics of inventory management, integrating sales data for real-time insights.

Retail seasonal forecast example

Let’s have a look at another example in the context of retail seasonality.

Scenario: A toy store examines sales data for the last three holiday seasons and notices a trend: each year, sales in December increase by approximately 20% compared to the previous year. They attribute this growth to a combination of effective holiday marketing campaigns and an increasing customer base.

Calculation Method: To forecast the upcoming holiday season's demand, the store calculates the average year-over-year growth rate based on past December sales data. They use the formula for the compound annual growth rate (CAGR), where n is the number of years. Applying this formula, they confirm a consistent 20% growth rate:

Action: Based on this analysis, they decide to increase their inventory orders for the upcoming holiday season by 20% across their best-selling toy categories. Additionally, they plan to launch their holiday marketing campaign two weeks earlier than the previous year to capture early shoppers.

How to forecast inventory automatically

Automating inventory forecasting is a game changer, allowing businesses to predict future stock needs accurately and with minimal manual effort. Here's how to streamline your inventory forecasting process using automation:

Step 1: Implement an inventory management system

Choose a system that integrates with your sales channels, offering features for trend analysis and demand forecasting. This system should automatically gather and analyze sales data, providing a solid foundation for your forecasts.

Step 2: Leverage machine learning

Advanced inventory systems use machine learning to refine forecasting accuracy. These systems learn from ongoing sales patterns, adjusting predictions to improve reliability over time.

Step 3: Integrate external data

Incorporating external factors, like market trends and seasonal influences, into your forecasting model can significantly enhance its accuracy. Select a system that allows for this integration, giving you a comprehensive view of potential demand.

Step 4: Automate reordering

To capitalize on your forecasts, set up automatic reordering based on predicted needs. This ensures you maintain optimal stock levels, automatically adjusting orders to match forecasted demand.

Step 5: Regularly review and adjust

Even the best automated systems need oversight. Regularly compare forecasted outcomes with actual sales to fine-tune your system's accuracy, adjusting for any discrepancies or unanticipated market shifts.

Forecasting for new products

Launching a new product comes with its set of challenges, not least of which is forecasting demand without historical sales data. However, strategic approaches can help your business predict how much inventory you’ll need:

Tip 1: Market research

Begin with thorough market research to understand potential customer interest in your new product. Surveys, focus groups, and analysis of similar products in the market can provide valuable insights into customer demand.

Tip 2: Analogous products

Look at the sales data of products similar to the new item, especially if they share the same target audience or serve a similar need. This data can serve as a proxy to estimate the demand for the new product.

Tip 3: Pre-orders

Offering the product for pre-order can directly gauge customer interest and provide a tangible measure of initial demand. This strategy also generates early sales momentum.

Tip 4: Pilot launches

Consider a limited release in a specific market or channel before a full-scale launch. This can offer a real-world test of demand and allow adjustments to inventory levels before wider distribution.

Tip 5: Iterative approach

Start with a conservative inventory level based on your market research and adjust as sales data starts coming in. This flexible approach allows you to respond to actual demand without the risk of significant overstock.

Handling seasonal products

Seasonal products require a nuanced approach to forecasting, given their demand peaks during certain periods of the year. Effective forecasting ensures that businesses maximize sales during these peaks without being left with excess stock as demand wanes.

Historical sales data

Analyze sales data from previous seasons to identify demand patterns. Adjust for any factors that might affect comparability, such as economic conditions or marketing efforts.

Trend analysis

Look beyond your data to industry trends and broader market analysis. This can help predict shifts in consumer behavior that might impact demand for your seasonal product.

Seasonal indexes

Develop seasonal indexes to quantify how much demand fluctuates throughout the year. This involves adjusting your forecasts based on the specific time of year, taking into account known peaks and troughs in demand.

Lead-time adjustments

Factor in the lead time required to produce and deliver your seasonal product. Start planning well in advance of the peak season to ensure you have sufficient stock on hand when demand begins to rise.

Post-season analysis

After each season, review your forecasting accuracy and inventory management performance. Identify any discrepancies between forecasted and actual demand to refine your approach for the next season.

Forecasting for new and seasonal products is both an art and a science, requiring businesses to balance data-driven insights with market intuition. By adopting these strategies, you can navigate the uncertainties of launching new products and managing seasonal demand fluctuations, ensuring they meet customer needs while maintaining optimal inventory levels.  

Bugs in inventory forecasting

To be fair, inventory forecasting is fraught with challenges that can disrupt even the most efficient systems. Nothing is easy, especially when it comes to forecasting, since it is a prediction. Variability in customer demand stands as a primary hurdle, with shifts in consumer preferences and emerging market trends often occurring faster than warehouses can adapt their stock levels. This unpredictability is compounded by the ever-present risk of supply chain disruptions, where delays from suppliers or unexpected global events can leave shelves empty or overly stocked.  

Seasonality, as touched upon, adds another layer of complexity, demanding precise planning to navigate the ebb and flow of peak and off-peak periods. Without accurate seasonal forecasts, warehouses risk either stockouts during critical sales periods or excessive inventory during slower months. Complicating matters further is the quality of data warehouses rely on for forecasting. Inaccurate sales data can lead to misguided stock decisions, while a lack of historical data for new products or ventures makes informed forecasting nearly impossible.

The lifecycle of products also presents a unique challenge, especially when introducing new items without previous sales data or managing the decline of aging products. Warehouses must carefully balance the introduction of new stock with the phasing out of older items to avoid surplus or shortages. Moreover, physical constraints within the warehouse, such as limited storage capacity, can limit the ability to adjust inventory levels in response to forecasted demand changes. Operational limitations, whether budgetary, manpower, or technological, further restrict the agility needed to adapt to these forecasting challenges.

Addressing these challenges requires a multifaceted approach, combining advanced forecasting tools, flexible operational strategies, and a deep understanding of market dynamics, as mentioned a few sections above.  

Another challenge to be addressed is the handling of data quality issues, which leads us to the next section.

Handling data quality issues in inventory forecasting

One of the critical "bugs" in inventory forecasting that can disrupt even the most sophisticated systems is the challenge of ensuring data quality. Inaccurate, incomplete, or unreliable sales data can lead to misguided stock decisions, significantly affecting the forecasting accuracy and operational efficiency. Here are strategies to enhance data quality and address common data issues in forecasting:

Establishing data governance policies

Implementing data governance policies is crucial for maintaining high-quality data. These policies should define data collection, storage, and maintenance standards to ensure consistency and accuracy. Regular audits and validations should be part of these policies to identify and correct inaccuracies promptly.

Leveraging data cleansing tools

Data cleansing tools can automate the process of detecting and correcting errors in the data. These tools help in identifying outliers, missing values, or inconsistencies, ensuring that the data used for forecasting is as accurate as possible. Regular use of data cleansing can significantly improve the reliability of inventory forecasts.

Implementing data integration solutions

Often, data is spread across various systems and platforms, leading to inconsistencies and gaps in information. Data integration solutions can consolidate data from multiple sources, providing a unified view that is crucial for accurate forecasting. These solutions ensure that all relevant data points are considered in the forecasting process, reducing the risk of oversight.

Utilizing advanced analytics for data quality insights

Advanced analytics and machine learning algorithms can provide insights into data quality issues by identifying patterns that may indicate data problems. These technologies can help forecasters understand the impact of data quality on forecasting accuracy and prioritize areas for improvement.

Training and awareness

Educating the team responsible for data collection and analysis about the importance of data quality is fundamental. Training sessions should highlight the impact of data quality on forecasting and overall business performance, encouraging adherence to best practices in data management.

Encouraging collaboration across departments

Collaboration between departments such as sales, operations, and finance can enhance data quality. Each department provides a different perspective and can contribute unique insights into the data collection and analysis process, ensuring a more comprehensive approach to forecasting.

Adopting a continuous improvement approach

Finally, treating data quality management as an ongoing process rather than a one-time task is essential. Continuous monitoring, coupled with the willingness to adapt and refine data practices, ensures that the business can respond to changes in data quality dynamically. This approach minimizes the impact of data quality issues on inventory forecasting.

Another way to go beyond these bugs and leverage your inventory forecasting capabilities is by investing in the AutoStore system — the world’s fastest automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS). Let’s have a closer look at how AutoStore is truly a game changer, especially in B2B distribution.  

Enhancing inventory forecasting with AutoStore: A game changer in B2B distribution

Effective inventory forecasting stands at the heart of successful B2B distribution, enabling businesses to navigate the tightrope of supply and demand with precision. In this landscape, AutoStore emerges as a revolutionary force, redefining the norms of inventory management and forecasting with its cutting-edge technology and automation.

Introducing AutoStore

AutoStore is cube-based AS/RS comprised of five hardware components — the Grid, Bins, Robots, Ports (workstations), and the Controller. It also includes two optional software; QubIt Fulfillment Platform™ for managing complex online order fulfillment and Unify Analytics™, a cloud-based platform that automates the traditional way of collecting and analyzing system log data.

Overall, the system provides space savings (75% when compared to traditional storage), speed and efficiency, reliability, and flexibility. Because of its ability to integrate with inventory management software, companies companies can identify best-selling items and understand seasonal demand fluctuations with a high degree of accuracy and efficiency.

Addressing lead times with rapid handling

One of the perennial challenges in inventory forecasting is the impact of lead times — the delay between placing an order and its delivery. Traditionally, longer lead times compel businesses to forecast demand far into the future, a task fraught with uncertainty and risk of overstocking or stockouts. AutoStore directly tackles this issue with its rapid handling time, dramatically reducing lead times and thereby allowing businesses to maintain optimal inventory levels with greater confidence. This agility in the picking process means businesses can react swiftly to market changes, ensuring they neither fall short of demand nor tie up capital in excess inventory.

Leveraging technology for precision forecasting

The integration of AutoStore empowers businesses to enhance their forecasting accuracy significantly. With its high-density storage solutions and unparalleled automation capabilities, AutoStore provides a robust framework for businesses to predict inventory needs with a high degree of precision. This system enables a seamless adaptation to fluctuating demand patterns, ensuring that forecasting is not just a reactive process but a proactive strategy. The advanced technology inherent in AutoStore allows for real-time data analysis, which is crucial for making informed decisions about inventory levels.

Navigating product life cycles with advanced insights

Understanding the product life cycle is pivotal for accurate inventory forecasting. From the launch of a new product to its peak and eventual decline, sales data provides invaluable insights into customer preferences and market trends. AutoStore excels in offering businesses the tools to monitor these trends closely, facilitating strategic inventory decisions throughout a product's life cycle. By providing a granular view of sales performance, AutoStore enables companies to anticipate shifts in demand, aligning inventory planning with actual market needs.

AutoStore - an overall comprehensive solution

At its core, AutoStore is more than just a storage solution; it's a comprehensive approach to modernizing inventory forecasting. Its high storage density and scalability ensure that businesses of all sizes can benefit from its implementation. Moreover, AutoStore, being compatible with existing systems, makes it a versatile tool for enhancing operational efficiency and profitability. By revolutionizing how inventory is stored, retrieved, and managed with this cube storage solution, AutoStore enables businesses to achieve a level of forecasting accuracy and responsiveness previously unattainable.



What is the formula for forecasting inventory?

Formulas often used for forecasting inventory are the simple moving average (SMA) or exponential smoothing (ES).

For SMA:

For ES (where α is the smoothing constant between 0 and 1):

What is the best method for inventory forecasting?

The best method depends on your business's specific needs. Quantitative methods like time series analysis are suitable for products with historical sales data, while qualitative methods are better for new products or when market conditions are rapidly changing. A combination of methods often yields the best results.

How do you forecast inventory in Excel?  

To forecast inventory in Excel, you can use formulas like SMA or linear regression. Excel's Forecast Sheet feature, available in newer versions, automates this by generating a forecast based on historical data with just a few clicks. Simply select your sales data, go to the Data tab, and click on the Forecast Sheet button to create a forecast model.  

What is required for forecast inventory?

Forecasting inventory requires historical sales data, understanding of current market trends, and knowledge of any future events that might affect demand. Additionally, a forecasting model or method, such as exponential smoothing or regression analysis, is needed to analyze this data and predict future inventory requirements.

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Guide to Inventory Management
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Guide to Inventory Management
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Benefits of AutoStore
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