How to Know If Inventory Planning Is a Good Fit for You
Insight from Kay Lin Nelson, Senior Manager of Inventory Planning at Chubbies
If you can predict the endings of movies and TV shows, you might be good at inventory planning, says Kay Lin Nelson, Senior Manager of Inventory Planning at Chubbies.
“It’s all about picking up patterns and paying attention to really small details,” she explains, as our focus is pulled to the ‘I love spreadsheets’ mug sitting behind her on her desk.
Kay’s prediction skills and attention to detail have helped her build a successful career in inventory planning and she wants to encourage other people who find joy in numbers to try it for themselves. “I think a lot of people like planning, but there is definitely a good group of people that are just obsessed with it, like me,” she says. “I totally nerd out over planning.”
We sat down with Kay to learn more about how she built her career in inventory planning and advice she has for people looking to start theirs.
Breaking into the Fashion Industry
Growing up in Southern California, Kay was constantly surrounded by the latest fashion trends. So when it came time to choose a college major, she didn’t think twice before deciding on fashion merchandising. “I was drawn to the fashion aspect, but I took a sewing class and ended up with so many bloody fingers!” she laughs.“It wasn't a hundred percent what I expected, because it was a lot more design focused.”
It wasn’t until she took an elective buying class that she found her passion for the business side of fashion, which is why she decided to add on a business administration degree. “It was the perfect mixture of the fashion creative world and the numerical side of things.”
After college, Kay went through an executive development program with Neiman Marcus, basically getting a 10-week crash course in fashion buying that covered retail math, profit margins, and management, as well as cross-functional experience working with marketing, finance, and other teams. “My career path went in a pretty straight line from there. I think it is the perfect mix of experiences to get into planning.”
Building Her Career
After completing the professional development program, she transitioned to a full-time position at the company as an assistant buyer where she got experience working on a team with buyers and inventory planners. “A lot of people’s end goal is to become a buyer, but in order to do that you really need to know how to plan,” Kay explains. “You can't just go from assistant buyer to buyer, because before you spend money, you need to know how the budgets got there and the reasons why the budgets are there.”
Following the standard career trajectory, Kay took on a role as senior merchandise planner, and quickly realized she enjoyed the challenge. “I originally thought I would've ended up as a buyer as well, but I just really fell in love with planning and the numbers side of things.”
After a couple of years as a merchandise planner at her first company, Kay was ready to take the next step in her career. Instead of opting to move into a buying role, according to the typical career trajectory, she decided to stay, and grow, in inventory planning at weekend apparel brand, Chubbies. “When I interviewed for the job at Chubbies, people kept referring to [it] as a startup which, to be honest, scared me a little bit coming from a hundred-year-old company that was very regimented in the way we did things.” She wasn’t sure if the fast-paced environment would be the right fit for her, but when she met with her future teammates, she was drawn to everyone’s support and drive for a common goal.
What Is Inventory Planning?
So what exactly is this inventory planning that Kay loves to nerd out on?
It’s the process of determining the right amount of stock to order for a given season. It involves managing numbers, looking at past trends, and making predictions for the future.
“Inventory planning is a really fun job with managing in-season as well as planning preseason,” says Kay. “It’s kind of like a game figuring out how to reach your goals and what steps we need to take to get there.” She breaks it down like this:
“There are two cycles of planning and they sometimes overlap. We do in-season planning every month and then we do preseason planning every quarter.”
Preseason planning: “Every quarter we go into a planning cycle where the merchant, design, and production team come up with an assortment line plan, which is, in layman terms, a list and photos of all the products that we want to present to our customers for the next planning season,” explains Kay. It is then the planner’s job to dig into the historical data of how similar products have performed in the past to project performance for the upcoming season and create a buy plan. “It's a long process of analyzing data, and it probably takes four months to do one planning cycle.”
In-season managing: “This is a month-to-month process. We start the month by analyzing what inventory we have, what inventory we are going to get that month, and how sales are doing currently.” When managing inventory in-season, it's important for planners to stay on top of the numbers and make adjustments based on current performance.
Demand planning: “Demand planning is like a forecast,” Kay explains. “How do we think we're going to do? Is there a reason we need to push higher? If we're not hitting plans, how do we figure out a way to push the current number up to that plan number? Do we do a sale? Do we go all in on marketing expenses?” Planners must be proactive and exercise their problem-solving skills in this step.
One unique aspect about this process at Chubbies is that “when we do our forecast, we actually have three different perspectives that get presented— one from marketing, one from finance, and one from inventory management,” Kay explains. This allows Kay and her team to create the most well-rounded plan. “When all the perspectives come together, it pushes out an end product that's been beaten back and forth and will be the best plan forward.”
“As a planner, it's your job to manage the inventory, so once you have that forecast, you have to figure out how to end the season with the most efficient stock to start the next season,” she explains. “That's kind of the game you play by looking at all the different analytics and deciding what to do.”
How to Be a Successful Inventory Planner
Do you think you might be good at inventory planning? Kay has three pieces of advice for professionals who want to explore the field:
1. Pay attention to the details. Inventory planning involves juggling many parts, and while grasping the big picture is necessary, paying attention to the details is crucial. “When you’re starting out in planning, it's so important to start in the details,” Kay advises. “Then as you progress in your career, you get higher up and further out—you go from doing individual SKU planning, to channel planning, to greater planning.” Understanding how the small details affect performance helps early planners build a strong base to grow from. “It’s also important to remember that everything we do in planning leads into the bigger corporate goal.”
2. Find a mentor. “Finding a mentor is important, especially as a young professional,” Kay explains. “You want to be able to pinpoint a person that can change the trajectory of your career.” In Kay’s case, she leaned on her mentors when she was deciding whether to move into buying or stay in planning. “I wouldn't be where I am today without each single person that mentored me along the way.”
3. Don’t be afraid of conflict. “Something I learned is that conflict is good. Relationship conflict is bad, but task conflict is good because you have people from different backgrounds, different perspectives, looking at the same thing in different ways.” Learning from others’ perspectives has become part of Kay’s daily work at Chubbies, as she collaborates with other teams and team members to create the most well-rounded inventory plan for each season.