What is the Bullwhip Effect and How Can It Affect Your Business

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Bullwhip Effect

The bullwhip effect. The very name conjures up images of a ranch hand cracking their whip while cattle scrambles to get away from the blow. 

When it happens, chaos ensues, and the herd scatters until the ranch hand regains control.

Inventory in a supply chain can be like those cows, and your business is the ranch hand getting your inventory of “cows” under control and herding them to where they need to be. 

All analogies aside, the bullwhip effect is a very real phenomenon in which external forces can whip the entire chain and its participants into a frenzy.

Failing to understand this concept could potentially cost you a lot of money, headaches, and time.

This article will define the bullwhip effect and discuss its implications for your business. It will also show you how to mitigate this phenomenon.

What is the Bullwhip Effect?

According to the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply (CIPS), the Bullwhip Effect is “the demand distortion that travels upstream in the supply chain from the retailer through to the wholesaler and manufacturer due to the variance of orders which may be larger than that of sales.”

That was a mouthful. This concept is illustrated best with a popular example.

P&G Gave Us a Perfect Example of the Bullwhip Effect

There’s no better example of the Bullwhip Effect than in the case of Proctor & Gamble (P&G) in the 1990s. The company was selling its Pampers diapers through retail channels at that time when they got to witness the effect firsthand. 

Demand is pretty much flat for diapers since babies use them at a predictable rate, so it’s safe to say the P&G team had their guard down.

The company saw a slight shift in consumer demand when a popular talk show host mentioned Pampers during the program. This seemingly small increase in demand at the retail level created a ripple effect back to P&G’s suppliers. 

The upstream suppliers then increased their production rates, which caused downstream distributors to do the same. In turn, retailers ordered more products from their distributors, exacerbating the effect.

In this example, a small change in consumer demand caused significant changes throughout the supply chain. By the time P&G saw what was happening, they had to deal with excess inventory and production costs due to increased manufacturing rates caused by the bullwhip effect.

The term “bullwhip effect” was actually coined by P&G in reference to the order variance amplification observed between them and their suppliers. 

Now the word picture should make more sense. Cracking a whip takes only a few inches of wrist movement, yet compounds in size the further down the rope you go. 

One small shift in customer demand cracks the whip, and the further suppliers are from the demand, the greater the impact. 

The phenomenon typically leads to ever-widening swings in inventory for suppliers.

This was an unfortunate event for P&G, but an excellent case study for us today. A small demand change at the retail level created a much larger variation upstream as suppliers and distributors reacted to it. 

When it comes to the bullwhip effect, there are many ways that a business can combat these issues. The first step is awareness of the problem and the factors that contribute to it. By understanding how the bullwhip effect works, businesses can minimize its impact on customer satisfaction and their supply chain.

The Impact on Supply Chain Management

The bullwhip effect can have a significant impact on the supply chain, resulting in issues like:

  • Overproduction and stockpiling
  • Reduced customer service levels
  • Higher shipping rates and longer lead times
  • Loss of revenue and increased costs

What Causes the Bullwhip Effect In the Supply Chain?

Several factors can contribute to the bullwhip effect in a supply chain. The most common are:

Demand forecast updating

When retailers change their demand forecasts, they often don’t update the rest of the supply chain. This can cause suppliers to produce more or less than is needed, magnifying the bullwhip effect.

Order batching

Order batching occurs when businesses wait until orders build up before placing orders with their suppliers. Suppliers often produce more or less than what is required in these circumstances.

Lead-time issues

When suppliers are far from the demand source, there is often a long lead time between orders. Suppliers then have to guess how much inventory they need to produce for each batch. 

Price fluctuations

Manufacturers sometimes offer discounts or sales on their products in response to changing demand forecasts. Prices may also fluctuate due to a change in the cost of raw materials or other factors. 

Shortage gaming

When supplies are low, some businesses will hoard what is available rather than order only what is needed, hoping that prices will increase. This can cause buyers and sellers to deliver over or under their order quantities.

Lack of visibility

If different parts of the supply chain don’t have visibility into what is happening at other levels, it can lead to inaccurate production and ordering decisions.

Risk aversion

In some cases, businesses want to avoid the risk of running out of stock at all costs. This leads them to order more products than they need and causes an excess inventory situation for everyone else in the supply chain later on down the road.

Information asymmetry

When some supply chain members have more information than others, it can lead to incorrect decision-making. This is often seen when suppliers are given inaccurate demand forecasts from their customers.

Inventory ordering policies

These are the rules businesses use to decide how much inventory to order. These policies are often based on averages or historical data, which can lead to over-and under-ordering.

To combat the bullwhip effect, you need to be aware of these factors and take steps to minimize their impact. 


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How Can Supply Chain Stakeholders Counter the Bullwhip Effect?

To counteract the negative effects of the bullwhip effect, businesses should be aware of its causes and take steps to minimize their impact. What follows are 23 tips and ideas that can help you counter the bullwhip effect:

1. Manage Your Inventory Levels

If you don’t have a robust inventory management system, the bullwhip effect is going to be the least of your problems. Instead of risking it all, invest in a warehouse management system that helps you track your inventory in real-time, streamline operations and have better product flows. 

Moreover, the right platform will provide insight into your demand, better visibility, and actionable data. Better still, integration of your WMS with other logistics systems helps you see the big picture, helping your business mitigate the bullwhip effect.    

2.  Focus on the customer

A network design works best if it centers around your customer. The best way to do this and reduce the bullwhip effect is by focusing on customer demand.

That means that businesses should focus on what their customers want rather than what they think they need. For example, if a company sells women’s shoes and sees an increase in sales for one type of shoe (such as flats), this could indicate a trend in customer preferences. 

The company could then focus on producing more flats to meet this demand, rather than continuing with its current production schedule of pumps and sandals.

Companies should also make sure that they are keeping up with trends by listening to feedback from their customers or looking at the data available through market research firms. 

3. Communicate both upstream and downstream in the supply chain

Companies should communicate with their suppliers and distributors to ensure that they can meet customer demand.

They should also make sure that customers are aware of any issues in production so they can adjust accordingly. For example, if a product is out of stock or delayed, customers need to know this before placing an order online or entering a store.

It’s also important to communicate with suppliers and distributors about upcoming changes in demand to prepare accordingly. 

In addition, they should know when new products are being introduced or existing ones have been discontinued because this affects their planning processes (e.g., deciding how much inventory is needed).

4. Use technology to your advantage

Technology can help businesses overcome the bullwhip effect by providing accurate demand forecasts.

Through a process called “demand sensing,” data from retailers, suppliers and manufacturers predict changes in customer demand.

Forecasting and inventory management software can also help reduce the bullwhip effect by providing accurate information about sales forecasts and the timing of orders.

This data allows companies to make better decisions regarding their supply chains, leading to more efficient operations overall. 

Systems like SkuVault allow you to see how much inventory is on hand to make better decisions about what they need or don’t need at any given time.

Inventory management software can also provide valuable insights into customer demand and trends over time—allowing businesses more control over their supply chain processes. 

5. Segment your supply chain based on your value proposition

Another way to reduce the bullwhip effect is by segmenting your supply chain based on your value proposition.

Your value proposition is what makes you different from your competitors. It’s what sets you apart and provides value to your customers.

When companies focus on their unique selling proposition, they can create a supply chain that better aligns with their specific needs. This will help to reduce the chances of inventory build-up and improve customer satisfaction.

Once you’ve determined your value proposition, break down your products and services into different categories. Then, create a separate supply chain for each category. This will help to ensure that the right products are getting to the right places at the right time.

6. Reduce lead times

The bullwhip effect can be reduced by reducing lead times. This means that businesses should focus on getting their products to market as quickly as possible, which will allow them to respond more effectively to changes in demand and customer preferences.

This may involve streamlining the production process or using different suppliers located closer together to deliver goods faster.

It’s also important for businesses to minimize delays in the delivery process by using reliable shipping companies and ensuring that orders are sent out promptly once they’re placed online or over phone calls. 

The goal is to get products into customers’ hands as quickly as possible so there aren’t any unnecessary bottlenecks along the way. 

If you’re working with suppliers located further away from you, then make sure that they have sufficient inventory on hand so there aren’t any delays in getting your products when needed.

In addition to reducing lead times, businesses can also reduce the bullwhip effect by minimizing the number of steps involved in delivering a product or service. 

For example, if you sell books online, your supply chain should include steps such as printing them out and putting them in packages before shipping them to customers. 

If there are too many processes involved with delivering the product from point A (where it’s printed) until point B (where it’s shipped),  this will affect how quickly orders can be filled and could lead to an inventory build-up.

Technology can also help reduce the number of steps in a supply chain. For example, using an inventory management system will keep track of all the sold products, and how many of each product is left in stock. 

This information can then be used to determine what needs to be ordered and when so that there’s never too much inventory or not enough on hand.

Reducing lead times will help businesses avoid getting caught up with demand fluctuations because they’ll be able to quickly respond and adjust their production accordingly. 

This is especially important during periods of economic uncertainty where customers may want more control over the products they’re buying.

The Takeaways

The bullwhip effect can have a serious impact on your business, but there are ways to help prevent it from happening, including having accurate data, communicating with your suppliers regularly, and automating your supply chain processes.

By implementing some of the strategies discussed in this article, you can help keep prices stable and ensure that customers always have what they need and are always happy when they come to your store. 

Let SkuVault Help You Address the Bullwhip Effect in Your eCommerce Business

If you’re looking for comprehensive inventory management software that can help you address the bullwhip effect and other challenges in your eCommerce business, SkuVault is a great option. 

Our system includes all the features you need to help prevent this phenomenon from occurring, including accurate real-time data, historical data analysis before placing orders, and automation tools that put supply chain processes on autopilot.

Schedule a live demo today and we’ll show you how SkuVault can help scale your business to new heights (without the added stress). 
Matt Kenyon

Matt Kenyon


Matt has been helping businesses succeed with exceptional content, lead gen, and B2B copywriting for the last decade. When he’s not typing words for humans (that Google loves), Matt can be found producing music, peeking at a horror flick between his fingers, or spending quality time with his wife and kids.