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Optimization is the application of algorithms to sets of data to guide executives and managers in making the best decisions. It’s a trending topic because using optimization technologies and techniques to better manage a variety of day-to-day business issues is becoming easier. I expect optimization, once the preserve of data scientists and operations research specialists will become mainstream in general purpose business analytics over the next five years.

Optimization was first adopted by businesses in the middle of the 20th century, aided by the introduction of digital computers. The first technique that gained broad for a few specific purposes was linear programming, one of the most basic optimization methods. Linear programming enables analysts to quickly determine how to achieve the best outcome (such as maximum unit volume or lowest cost) in a given situation. They do so using a mathematical model that captures the key variables that go into the decision and any constraints that may affect that decision. A food processor, for instance, may use three types of cooking oil to make a product. To maximize its profit, the company needs to determine the exact proportions of the three oils that result in the lowest production cost. However, it can’t just choose the cheapest of the three in every case because for flavor and shelf-life requirements there’s a limit to the maximum percentage of each oil that it can use. Linear programming using the simplex algorithm quickly solves the problem.

As computing capabilities became increasingly affordable, companies could use more complex algorithms to handle ever more difficult optimization problems. For instance, the airline industry used it to determine how best to route aircraft between two cities and to staff flight crews. Not only can softwarevr_Big_Data_Analytics_01_use_of_big_data_analytics find the best solution for scheduling these assets in advance, it also can rapidly re-optimize the solution when weather or mechanical issues force a change in how aircraft and crews are deployed. Airlines were also in the vanguard in the 1980s when they started using revenue management techniques. In this case, the optimization process was designed to enable established airlines to compete against low-cost startups. Revenue management enabled the large carriers to offer low fares to price-sensitive but flexible vacationers without sacrificing the higher fares that the less flexible businesspeople were willing to spend. The same approach was adopted by hotels in pricing their rooms. Starting in the 1990s markdown management software, which I have written about gained ground. It enables retailers to make more intelligent pricing decisions by monitoring the velocity of purchases of specific items and adjusting prices to maximize revenue. To be feasible, each of these optimization problems require large data sets and sufficient raw computing power.

We’re now on the cusp of “democratizing” what I call optimization analytics. Big data technologies are making it feasible and affordable for even midsize companies to work with much larger data sets than they have been able to in the past. Our benchmark research on big data analytics finds that about half of participating companies already use analytics with big data. This is partly the result of more powerful and affordable data processing resources but also because companies have invested in systems to automate many functions. The rich data sets created by these business applications provide corporations with the raw material for analysis. This data has the potential to enable businesses to make more intelligent decisions. From a practical standpoint, though, the value of these large data sets can only be realized by moving optimization analytics out of the exclusive realm of data scientists and into the hands of business analysts. These analysts are the ones who have a sufficient understanding of the business and the subtleties of the data to find useful and repeatable optimization opportunities. Three-fourths of companies in our research said that they need these business skills (“domain expertise”) to use big data analytics successfully.

vr_Big_Data_Analytics_14_big_data_analytics_skillsOptimization analytics is a breakthrough technology with the potential to improve business performance and create a competitive advantage. You can’t do optimization in your head, and it’s not feasible in desktop spreadsheets for anything but the most basic use cases, such as linear programming optimizations on relatively small data sets. This is a good reason for almost any company to consider adopting optimization software.

Another reason why companies will find it attractive to apply optimization analytics broadly is that the results of applying optimization routines may be superior to using common rules of thumb or relying on instinct and experience. One of the most important lessons for executives about optimization analytics is that optimal solutions are sometimes (but – crucially – not always) counterintuitive to established norms. For instance, in markdown management, retailers often have found that smaller, more frequent price reductions maximize profits and produce a considerable improvement in sales over the end-of-the-season price slashing that was once considered to be the best practice. In financial services, charging your best customers more for loans and other services turns out to be the optimal choice for the bottom line of financial institutions. Another important insight from our collective experience with optimization is that while the value of these analytics as realized in a single event or transaction may be small, it can have a measurable impact on profitability and competitiveness when applied broadly in a business.

At this point optimization analytics is in a dual mode. On the one hand, there are proven examples of the narrow application of optimization such as those mentioned above. On the other, bringing optimization analytics to the masses is only beginning. Some vendors have made progress in simplifying their analytics, but mainstream products are only on the horizon. It’s also important to recognize that, as with past breakthroughs in information technology, there are bound to be more duds than success stories in initial attempts at using optimization analytics. Experience suggests that a small number of companies that have strong analytical skills and a rigorous approach to managing company data will prove to be the leaders in finding profitable opportunities for applying optimization technologies and techniques. Others will do well to find these examples and consider how to apply them to their own organizations.


Robert Kugel – SVP Research

Managing prices has always been an activity of keen interest to businesses, but it has become even more critical to do it well. Over the past decade many companies have found their ability to raise prices has been constrained by intense competition resulting from Internet commerce, global competition and other factors. One tool for dealing with this pressure is price and revenue optimization (PRO), an analytic methodology that calculates how demand varies at different price levels and then uses that algorithm to recommend prices that should optimally balance revenue and profit objectives. Computer-supported PRO began in earnest in the 1980s as the airline and hospitality industries adopted revenue management practices in efforts to maximize returns from less flexible travelers (such as people on business trips) while minimizing the unsold inventory by selling incremental seats on flights or nights in hotel rooms at discounted prices to more discretionary buyers (typically vacationers). Price and revenue optimization algorithms are designed to enable a company to achieve fatter profit margins than are possible with a monolithic pricing strategy. Using PRO, airlines and hotels catering mainly to less price-sensitive business travelers found they could match discounters’ fares and rates to fill available seats and rooms without having to forgo profits from their high-margin customers.

PRO has expanded into other industries as computing power and data storage become ever less expensive, as software vendors have improved their techniques and algorithms to deliver better results and as the software has grown increasingly user-friendly. While the concepts underlying all PRO software are the same, there are different categories in which it is customized to meet the needs of specific industries. Retailers in particular have requirements that are best met by using applications that manage markdowns.

At the heart of price and revenue optimization is the concept of demand-based pricing. As its name suggests, demand-based pricing is a method that sets a price that is controlled by the seller’s assessment of what the buyer is willing to pay, which in turn is based on an estimate of a good’s or a service’s perceived value to the buyer. Companies use demand-based pricing to optimize – rather than simply maximize – their pricing to achieve revenue and profitability objectives. It uses data to estimate where the prospective buyer sits on a demand curve and therefore how much the individual is likely to pay. In some respects this is similar to what happens daily in souks, bazaars and other markets in cultures that do not insist on set prices. However, software makes demand-based pricing practical in large businesses and facilitates its introduction in societies used to set pricing.

Advanced analytic applications – especially for price and revenue optimization – have been gaining ground in corporate management because they have demonstrated to work. Significantly, they have the ability to deliver results that are unobtainable otherwise. Such software can crunch through very large data sets rapidly, apply purpose-built algorithms and automate the repetitive mechanical steps needed to put decisions into action.vr_Office_of_Finance_13_finance_lacks_advanced_analytics It also ensures consistency and supports objectivity in how executives and managers make decisions. Price and revenue optimization applications have benefited as the cost and complexity of the computing resources needed to use them have declined.

The adoption of PRO software is part of a broader trend of using applications to support fact-based decisions that once depended on experience and hunches. However, our benchmark research on the Office of Finance finds that just 20 percent of companies use price optimization analytics extensively. Only one-third look at product profitability. We think that more of them should do both. Analytic applications can digest a considerable amount of data to segment markets into useful groupings, pinpoint correlations and divine trends, to name a few tasks necessary for pricing management. However, companies investigating PRO software should narrow their search to applications that are appropriate for their specific business. While some offerings have broader applicability than others, no software product now available performs well in every industry.

Retail businesses that have multiple outlets, especially those that deal in trend- or fashion-driven products, face unique price and revenue optimization challenges and this affects the design of pricing management applications aimed at retailers. Many of these businesses are self-service, exclusively so if they are Internet-based, so there is no face-to-face contact during the product selection process. Negotiating prices isn’t feasible in most multiple-outlet retail settings in developed economies because of cultural norms and the hazard of delegating these decisions to front-line staff in even a midsize company. Unlike business-to-business transactions that involve ongoing relationships with established products, most stores today know little about most of their customers, so there is no direct way of judging an individual’s price sensitivity for the specific purchase at hand. In other words, most of the elements that support PRO strategies in analytics used for other types of businesses aren’t available to multiple-outlet retailers.

Since they usually cannot gauge the price sensitivity of their customers, retailers take a different approach: Let the merchandise do the talking. Products that aren’t selling well are by definition overpriced in that market. Retailers have used markdowns as a crude tool of price optimization for a long time. Offering a 30 percent discount near the end of the season is usually better than having to take a 60 percent haircut from a close-out specialist. Yet deciding when and by how much to reduce prices and then implementing the reductions at the store level in an optimal fashion is complicated because of the number of variables that must be considered. There are different types of merchandise, including long-life categories of goods that can be offered for sale for years, short-life fashion and fad items that are offered only once and those somewhere in between. There are differences in demand patterns and price sensitivity between regions and even at the store level. Seasonality, weather and movable holidays such as Easter and Thanksgiving must be considered.

Using analytic applications is superior to relying on experience and intuition because applications often demonstrate that the best decisions go against the grain of established practices. For example, retailers have found that smaller markdowns applied earlier and more frequently produce better results (that is, greater volumes sold at a lower aggregate markdown) than the common practice of making one or two big moves. Until the data became available, minimizing the number of markdowns was reasonable because of the cost in staff time to change prices at the store level. However, retailers using smaller and more frequent markdowns more than pay for these costs and then establish processes to facilitate price changes. Some retailers have found to their surprise that early small markdowns reduce the overall cost of markdowns. Analytic applications also are able to deal with a range of variables that retailers can use in markdown management. For example, they can vary percentages and frequency by size and color as well as by location. The software can monitor sales and inventory levels by the SKU at each store and automatically make detailed recommendations on how to adjust pricing. The software also enables retailers with multichannel operations (usually an online presence) to manage pricing decisions optimally across different types of outlets.

PRO software designed for markdown management also enhances the ability of a multiple-outlet retailers to run their business in a way that maximizes the productivity of their stores measured in sales or gross margin per square foot (or meter) or per linear foot (or meter) of shelf space. Items taking up space in a store or on a shelf have an opportunity cost in that they could be replaced by faster-moving or more profitable goods. Modeling the cost of the uplift required to free up space can result in a more attractive mix of merchandise that will improve returns.

While usability and capability of markdown management software have been improving, retailers face internal challenges in being able to utilize it. Analytic applications are only as good as the data available to feed the systems. Our research consistently finds that data accuracy and availability are significant challenges that almost all midsize and large companies face. Using markdown management software successfully also involves a change management effort requiring heavy involvement by senior management to endorse changes in how the organization handles day-to-day business as well as changes to processes and training and considerable amounts of follow-up to ensure compliance with the new ways of doing business.

Information technology is playing an increasingly important role in how companies conduct their businesses. Analytic applications can transform how entire industries operate. Today, airline and hospitality businesses operate very differently from how they ran in the 1980s because of the Internet and analytics. All sorts of businesses are finding that price and revenue optimization software enables them to improve their results measurably. Retailers should look into markdown management software as a way to fatten their bottom line. Other types of businesses also should consider PRO tools as applied to their particular needs.


Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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