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A data-driven newsvendor problem: From data to decision

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Abstract and Figures

Retailers that offer perishable items are required to make ordering decisions for hundreds of products on a daily basis. This task is non-trivial because the risk of ordering too much or too little is associated with overstocking costs and unsatisfied customers. The well-known newsvendor model captures the essence of this trade-off. Traditionally, this newsvendor problem is solved based on a demand distribution assumption. However, in reality, the true demand distribution is hardly ever known to the decision maker. Instead, large datasets are available that enable the use of empirical distributions. In this paper, we investigate how to exploit this data for making better decisions. We identify three levels on which data can generate value, and we assess their potential. To this end, we present data-driven solution methods based on Machine Learning and Quantile Regression that do not require the assumption of a specific demand distribution. We provide an empirical evaluation of these methods with point-of-sales data for a large German bakery chain. We find that Machine Learning approaches substantially outperform traditional methods if the dataset is large enough. We also find that the benefit of improved forecasting dominates other potential benefits of data-driven solution methods.
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A data-driven newsvendor problem: From data to decision
Jakob Hubera,, Sebastian M¨ullerb, Moritz Fleischmannb, Heiner Stuckenschmidta
aData and Web Science Group, University of Mannheim, B6 26, 68159 Mannheim, Germany
bBusiness School, University of Mannheim, Schloss, 68131 Mannheim, Germany
Retailers that offer perishable items are required to make ordering decisions for hun-
dreds of products on a daily basis. This task is non-trivial because the risk of ordering too
much or too little is associated with overstocking costs and unsatisfied customers. The
well-known newsvendor model captures the essence of this trade-off. Traditionally, this
newsvendor problem is solved based on a demand distribution assumption. However, in
reality, the true demand distribution is hardly ever known to the decision maker. Instead,
large datasets are available that enable the use of empirical distributions. In this paper, we
investigate how to exploit this data for making better decisions. We identify three levels
on which data can generate value, and we assess their potential. To this end, we present
data-driven solution methods based on Machine Learning and Quantile Regression that
do not require the assumption of a specific demand distribution. We provide an empirical
evaluation of these methods with point-of-sales data for a large German bakery chain. We
find that Machine Learning approaches substantially outperform traditional methods if
the dataset is large enough. We also find that the benefit of improved forecasting domi-
nates other potential benefits of data-driven solution methods.
This article has been published in the European Journal of Operational Research, Volume
278, Issue 3, 2019, Pages 904-915,
Keywords: inventory, newsvendor, retail, machine learning, quantile regression
Corresponding author: Jakob Huber (Tel: +49 621 181 2681).
Email addresses: (Jakob Huber), (Sebastian M¨uller), (Moritz
Fleischmann), (Heiner Stuckenschmidt)
1. Introduction
Demand uncertainty is a major challenge in supply chain management practice and
research. An important remedy for demand risk is the deployment of safety stock. In
order to set appropriate stock levels, many inventory models assume a specific demand
distribution (Silver et al., 2017). These problems are then solved in a two-step procedure.
First, the parameters of a given demand distribution are estimated, and second, an op-
timization problem based on this distribution is solved. Despite the theoretical insights
generated, the distribution assumption is problematic in real-world applications, as the
actual demand distribution and its parameters are not known to the decision maker in
reality and may even change over time (Scarf, 1958).
The growing availability of large datasets (“Big Data”) may help overcome this issue
and improve the performance of inventory models in real-world situations. Data that are
indicative of future demand provide an opportunity to make better-informed decisions.
These data include external information that is available through the Internet and data
from internal IT systems. While this potential is widely recognized (see e.g. Bertsimas &
Kallus (2018)), it is unclear how to best exploit it. Extant literature is rather fragmented in
that regard and proposes multiple alternative directions. Our paper intends to contribute
to a more wholistic understanding of the potential of data-driven inventory management.
To this end, we distinguish three levels on which data can be used to revise the traditional
decision process (see Figure 1). We discuss how these levels are interrelated, and we
quantify their respective impact in a real-life application.
The first level on which data can be exploited is demand estimation. The available
data may contain information about future demand that can be extracted by suitable fore-
casting methods. These methods use historical demand data and other feature data (e.g.
weekdays, prices, weather, and product ratings) to estimate future demand. The output
of these models is a demand estimate together with historical forecast errors. If additional
information can be extracted, the reduced demand risk results in more accurate decisions.
Machine Learning (ML) has attracted a great deal of attention in the past decade. ML
methods are able to process large datasets and have been successfully applied to numerous
forecasting problems (Barrow & Kourentzes, 2018; Crone et al., 2011; Carbonneau et al.,
2008; Thomassey & Fiordaliso, 2006).
On the second level, the inventory decision is optimized based on the demand forecast
and the historical forecast errors. To this end, it is necessary to incorporate the remaining
Demand estimation
(Section 3.2) Inventory optimization
(Section 3.3)
data inventory
point forecast
forecast errors
(a) Separate estimation and optimization
Integrated estimation and optimization
(Section 3.4)
data inventory
(b) Integrated estimation and optimization
Figure 1: The three levels of data-driven inventory management
uncertainty associated with the forecast. Traditionally, uncertainty is modeled through
a demand distribution assumption (Silver et al., 2017). We call this approach model-
based since it explicitly models a demand distribution. However, this assumption might
be misspecified and leads to suboptimal inventory policies (Ban & Rudin, 2018). Instead
of speculating about a parametric demand distribution, the assumption can be replaced
by empirical data that are now available on large scale. This approach is called Sample
Average Approximation (SAA) (Kleywegt et al., 2002; Shapiro, 2003) and we call it data-
driven as it does not rely on a distribution assumption.
On the third level, demand estimation and optimization are integrated into a single
model that directly predicts the optimal decision from historical demand data and feature
data, as depicted in Figure 1b (Beutel & Minner, 2012; Sachs & Minner, 2014; Bertsimas
& Kallus, 2018; Ban & Rudin, 2018). This approach is also data-driven, as it does not
require the assumption of a demand distribution and works directly with data.
From the existing literature, it is not yet clear whether and under which circumstances
data-driven approaches are preferred to model-based approaches. Furthermore, the ques-
tion of the conditions under which separate or integrated estimation and optimization is
superior remains open.
To shed light on these questions, we focus on the newsvendor problem as the basic
inventory problem with stochastic demand. We empirically analyze the effects of data-
driven approaches on overall costs on the three levels. Moreover, we develop novel data-
driven solution methods that combine modern ML approaches with optimization and
empirically compare them to well-established methods.
In our approaches, we integrate Artifical Neural Networks (ANNs) and Decision Trees
(DTs) into an optimization model. Most previous work on integrated estimation and op-
timization assumed the inventory decision to be linear in the explanatory features (Beutel
& Minner, 2012; Sachs & Minner, 2014; Ban & Rudin, 2018). This assumption poses
many restrictions on the underlying functional relationships. We extend this literature
by integrating multiple alternative ML methods and optimization in order to avoid these
strong assumptions and incorporate unknown seasonality, breaks, thresholds, and other
non-linear relationships. Recently, Oroojlooyjadid et al. (2018) and Zhang & Gao (2017)
also used ANNs in this context.
We evaluate our solution approaches with real-world data from a large bakery chain
in Germany. The company produces and sells a variety of baked goods. It operates a
central production facility and over 150 retail stores. Every evening, each store must
order products that are delivered the next morning. Reordering during the day is not
possible. Most of the goods have a shelf life of only one day. Thus, leftover product at the
end of the day is wasted, while stock-outs lead to lost sales and unsatisfied customers.
From an optimization perspective, the problem can be represented by a newsvendor
model, and the available point-of-sales data can be used to calculate forecasts. We apply
our data-driven methods to the problem and compare their performance to the perfor-
mance of well-established approaches. To summarize, our key contributions include the
We identify and conceptualize three levels of data-driven approaches in inventory
We investigate the impact of the three levels on overall performance in a newsvendor
We present novel data-driven solution approaches to the newsvendor problem based
on Machine Learning.
We compare our method to well-established approaches on the three levels and show
that data-driven methods outperform their model-based counterparts on our real-
world dataset in most cases.
The remainder of this paper is organized as follows. In the next section, we provide
an overview of related literature. In Section 3, we describe the problem and introduce the
methodology, including the data-driven ML approaches. Section 4 contains an introduction
to the reference models, an empirical evaluation, and a discussion of the results. In Section
5, we summarize our findings and outline opportunities for further research.
2. Related literature
Most inventory management textbooks assume that the relevant demand distribution
and its parameters are exogenously given and known (Silver et al., 2017). For a review of
newsvendor-type problems, see Qin et al. (2011). In this section, we review the literature
on inventory problems in which the demand distribution is unknown. More specifically,
we focus on Robust Optimization, Sample Average Approximation (SAA), and Quantile
Regression (QR).
One approach that needs only partial information on demand distributions is robust
optimization (Ben-Tal et al., 2009). Scarf (1958) studies a single period problem in which
only the mean and the standard deviation of the demand distribution are known. He
then optimized for the maximum minimum (max-min) profit for all distributions with this
property. Gallego & Moon (1993) further analyzed and extended it to a setting where
reordering is possible. Bertsimas & Thiele (2006) and Perakis & Roels (2008) provide
more insights into the structure of robust inventory problems. The main drawback of
robust optimization is its limitation to settings with very risk-averse decision makers. For
most real-world applications, robust optimization is overly conservative. For our analysis,
we focus on methods that minimize expected costs instead of the max-min objective.
A data-driven method with a wider range of applications is Sample Average Approx-
imation (SAA) (Kleywegt et al., 2002; Shapiro, 2003). Here, the demand distribution
assumptions are replaced by empirical data. Levi et al. (2007) analyze the SAA solution
of a newsvendor model and its multi-period extensions. The authors calculate bounds on
the number of observations that are needed to achieve similar results compared to the case
with full knowledge of the true demand distribution. These bounds are independent of the
actual demand distribution. More recently, Levi et al. (2015) showed that the established
bound is overly conservative and does not match the accuracy of SAA obtained in simula-
tion studies. Therefore, they develop a tighter bound that is distribution specific. In this
paper, we provide empirical support for the good performance of SAA and compare the
results of diverse methods.
Instead of using sequential estimation and optimization, integrating both steps into
a single optimization model has been suggested (Bertsimas & Kallus, 2018). Beutel &
Minner (2012) incorporate a linear regression function for demand into their newsven-
dor model. The authors test their approach on simulated data and actual retail data.
The model was later extended to situations with censored demand observations (Sachs &
Minner, 2014). Ban & Rudin (2018) propose an algorithm that is equivalent to the one
in Beutel & Minner (2012), in addition to a kernel optimization method. Furthermore,
the authors show several properties of the algorithm and test it with empirical data in
a newsvendor-type nurse staffing problem. Oroojlooyjadid et al. (2018) and Zhang &
Gao (2017) integrate a neural network into a newsvendor model and compare it to sev-
eral other approaches from the literature. However, they do not distinguish the effects
of estimation, optimization, and integrated estimation and optimization. A drawback of
extant research on integrated estimation and optimization is that non-linear relationships
between inventory decision and feature data remain understudied. By using ML instead of
a linear decision rule, our approaches can detect a priori unknown non-linear relationships
between the optimal decision and the input features. Furthermore, we disentangle the
effects of the three different levels of data usage highlighted in Figure 1.
It is well known that the optimal solution to the standard newsvendor model corre-
sponds with a certain quantile of the demand distribution (Silver et al., 2017). Estimating
a certain quantile of a distribution is known as Quantile Regression (QR) in the statis-
tics and ML literature (Koenker, 2005). A very general approach to QR is presented by
Takeuchi et al. (2006). The authors derive a quadratic programming problem and provide
bounds and convergence statements of the estimator. Taylor (2000) use an ANN for QR
in order to estimate conditional densities of financial returns. Similarly, Cannon (2011)
describes an implementation of ANNs for QR and gives recommendations on solution ap-
proaches with gradient algorithms. More related to our application, Taylor (2007) applies
QR to forecast daily supermarket sales. The proposed method can be interpreted as an
adaption of exponential smoothing to QR. In the empirical evaluation, the author tests
three implementations of the method: one with no regressors, one with a linear trend
term, and one with sinusoidal terms to account for seasonality. None of the papers on
QR we found uses QR to evaluate the costs of an inventory decision. For our solution
approach, we build on the existing literature on QR by integrating ML methods into the
optimization model and and evaluate the resulting costs of the newsvendor decision.
The challenge of incorporating demand uncertainty in inventory models without de-
mand distribution assumptions is most recently also discussed by Trapero et al. (2019).
They argue that the typical assumption of normal i.i.d. forecast errors should be ques-
tioned and suggest using a non-parametric kernel density approach for short lead times.
Prak & Teunter (2019) propose a framework for incorporating demand uncertainty in
inventory models that mitigates the parameter estimation uncertainty.
To summarize, we empirically evaluate the impact of data-driven approaches on the
three levels (1) estimation, (2) optimization, and (3) integrated estimation and optimiza-
tion. To this end, we extend the literature by proposing novel data-driven approaches to
the newsvendor problem that are based on ML and build on the existing knowledge on QR
in order to leverage existing big data and computation power for inventory optimization.
We also illustrate the connection between QR and integrated estimation and optimization
in the newsvendor context. Finally, we empirically compare the data-driven methods to
their model-based counterparts and other well-established approaches.
3. Methodology
3.1. Problem description
We consider a classical newsvendor problem with an unknown demand distribution: a
company sells perishable products over a finite selling season with uncertain demand. The
company must choose the number of products to order prior to the selling season. If the
order is too high and not all products can be sold, the company bears a cost of cofor each
unit of overage. If the order is too low and more units could have been sold, the company
bears costs of cufor each unit of underage. Thus, the objective is to minimize the total
expected costs according to
where qis the order quantity and Dis the random demand. The well-known optimal
solution to this problem is to choose as the order quantity the quantile of the cumulative
demand distribution function Fthat satisfies
q= inf p:F(p)cu
where cu
cu+cois the optimal service level. The service level represents the probability of
satisfying demand in a given period.
The problem that we address is that in most real-world cases, the actual demand
distribution Fis unknown. However, historical data Sn={(d1,x1), ..., (dn,xn)}are
available, where diis the demand and xiis a vector of covariates or features (e.g. weekday,
historical demand, and price) in period i. These data can be leveraged in different ways
to reduce demand risk.
In the following sections, we present approaches that use the data on the three levels
introduced in Section 1. First, we introduce forecasting models based on ML that we
use throughout our analysis. Next, we describe a data-driven optimization approach that
leverages the empirical distribution of forecast errors. Finally, we present novel data-driven
models that integrate ML and the optimization model.
3.2. Demand estimation
If the underlying structure of the demand data is unknown, it is reasonable to consider
very general forecasting models. ML methods have been applied to numerous forecasting
tasks. Compared to traditional forecasting methods, ML is able to “learn” non-linear
relationships between inputs and outputs. The most widely and successfully used methods
are Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs) and Gradient Boosted Decision Trees (DTs).
ANNs are data-driven models that can approximate any continuous function (Hornik,
1991), making them suitable for forecasting if enough data are available and it is difficult
to specify the underlying data generation process. An overview of time series forecasting
with ANNs is provided by Zhang et al. (1998). The multilayer perceptron with a single
hidden layer is commonly used for time series forecasting (Zhang et al., 1998):
ˆy(x) = oW(2)aW(1)x+b(1)+b(2)(3)
Equation (3) specifies a fully-connected feed-forward ANN. All input nodes xare connected
to the nodes in the hidden layer, which is represented by the weight matrix W(1). The
activated output of the hidden layer is connected to the output layer by W(2). The vectors
b(1),b(2)describe the bias for each node. The functions a(·) and o(·) are the activation
functions of the hidden layer and output layer, respectively.
Decision trees (DTs) are simple binary trees that map an input to the corresponding
leaf node. Since the introduction of Classification and Regression Trees (CART) several
approaches have been developed that combine multiple DTs for one prediction (e.g. Ran-
dom Forrest Breiman (2001)). Gradient boosted DTs are tree ensemble models, that use
Kadditive functions to predict the output ˆy(Friedman, 2001):
ˆy(x) =
where each function fkrepresents a decision tree that maps the input xto the corre-
sponding leaf in the tree.
3.3. Optimization
Recall that the true demand distribution Fis unknown to the decision maker. In the
following sections, we present two different ways to deal with this problem: traditional
model-based optimization and data-driven optimization based on SAA. Both approaches
use the point forecast and the historical estimation errors as inputs to determine an in-
ventory decision.
3.3.1. Model-based optimization
The model-based approach assumes a certain forecast error distribution ¯
F(e.g. normal
distribution) whose parameters θ(e.g. mean and standard deviation) are estimated based
on historical forecast errors. The order quantity is then optimized by evaluating the
function at the service level quantile and adding it to the forecast:
q(x) = ˆy(x) + inf p:¯
F(p, ˆ
where ˆy(x) is the mean forecast, given that the features x, and ˆ
θare the parameters of
the error distribution estimated from the resulting forecast errors. In our evaluation, we
adopt normally distributed errors for the model-based approaches.
Of course, this approach yields the optimal decision if the distribution assumption is
true. However, in reality, the distribution is unknown and may even change over time.
The observed forecast errors depend on the model chosen to produce the forecast. A
misspecified model leads to errors that are not distributed as assumed. If the demand
distribution is misspecified, highly distorted decisions may result. Ban & Rudin (2018)
show this for the example of a normal distribution assumption where the actual demand
is exponentially distributed.
3.3.2. Data-driven optimization with Sample Average Approximation
A data-driven method to optimize the inventory decision is SAA. Here, the error
distribution ¯
Fis determined by the empirical forecast errors 1, ..., n. A distribution
assumption is not needed. Thus,
F(p) = 1
To optimize the order quantity, the service level quantile of the empirical distribution
is selected and added to the point forecast. Thus, the resulting order quantity given the
features xis
q(x) = ˆy(x) + inf (p:1
The performance of the optimization highly depends on the quality of the forecast,
the number of available data points, and the target service level. Levi et al. (2007, 2015)
provide worst-case bounds for a given number of observations. An important and intuitive
result is that if the optimal service level is close to 0 or 1, i.e., extreme quantiles need to
be estimated, the required sample size is much higher than for service levels close to 0.5,
as extreme observations are rare.
3.4. Integrated estimation and optimization with Quantile Regression
Instead of sequentially forecasting demand and optimizing inventory levels, one can
also directly optimize the order quantity by integrating the forecasting model into the
optimization problem. The optimal order quantity qof the standard newsvendor model
(1) is then a function of the feature data x. Instead of first estimating the mean demand
and the error distribution and then solving the newsvendor problem, we can now directly
estimate the optimal order quantity from the feature data. Beutel & Minner (2012) and
Ban & Rudin (2018) formulate this problem as a linear program. This implies that the
optimal order quantity is a linear function of the features. We extend these approaches
by incorporating ML and thus also allowing for non-linear relationships:
i=1 cu(diqi(Φ,xi))++co(qi(Φ,xi)di)+,(8)
where qi(Φ,xi) is the output of the ML method in period iwith parameters Φ(e.g. weight
matrix of an ANN) and input variables xi.
By introducing dummy variables uiand oifor the underage and overage in period i,
the problem can be reformulated as a non-linear program:
(cuui+cooi) (9)
subject to:
uidiqi(Φ,xi)i={1, ..., n},(10)
oiqi(Φ,xi)dii={1, ..., n},(11)
ui, oi0i={1, ..., n}.(12)
The objective function (9) minimizes the empirical underage and overage costs, while the
constraints (10) to (12) ensure that deviations of the estimate from the actual demand are
correctly assigned to underages and overages. By solving the problem for the empirical
data Sn={(d1,x1), ..., (dn,xn)}, we obtain parameters Φfor the ML method that
minimize the empirical costs with respect to these data. Once the model has been trained,
the resulting order quantity for period pis the quantile forecast with qp(Φ,xp).
Bertsimas & Kallus (2018) and Ban & Rudin (2018) showed that integrating forecasting
in the optimization model is equivalent to the more general QR problem in Takeuchi et al.
(2006). For a better understanding, we elaborate on this relation in more detail. The
basic idea of QR is to estimate the unobservable quantile by modifying the loss function of
a standard regression model. Minimizing the sum of squared errors Pn
the mean, while minimizing the sum of absolute errors Pn
i=1 |yiˆyi|yields the median.
By weighting the underages with the quantile τ(0,1) and overages with (1 τ), thus
i=1 τ(yiˆyi)++ (1 τ)( ˆyiyi)+, we obtain an estimate for the quantile (Koenker,
2005). The optimal solution of the newsvendor model is the quantile τ=cu
cu+coof the
demand distribution; thus, (1 τ) = co
cu+co. Inserting these values of τand (1 τ) into
the objective function of the quantile regression yields the optimization problem (9).
The main advantage of QR over the model-based approach and SAA is its ability to
model conditional quantiles under heteroscedasticity and for unknown error distributions.
However, the performance of the approach depends crucially on the underlying model q.
On the one hand, if qis too simplistic (e.g. linear), the model might not be able to capture
the structure in the training data. On the other hand, if qis too complex, there is a risk
of overfitting the model.
3.5. Summarizing the three levels of data-driven inventory management
We conclude this chapter by linking our methodology explained in Subsections 3.2 -
3.4 to our framework of data-driven inventory management introduced in Figure 1. To
this end, Figure 2 positions each piece of our methodology in the framework.
(i.e. order
point forecast
forecast errors
Choice of
(e.g. ETS,
Model fitting
Choice of
(e.g. model-
based, SAA)
(i.e. derive
Demand estimation Inventory optimization
(a) Separate estimation and optimization
Choice of
QR model
(e.g. linear,
ANNs, DTs)
Model fitting
(i.e. solve
(i.e. order
(b) Integrated estimation and optimization
Figure 2: Relating our methodology the three levels of data-driven inventory management
On the first level (demand estimation), we choose a parametric forecasting model (e.g.
ETS or ANN). For the ML models, this includes the selection and optimization of hyper-
parameters (e.g. number of layers of ANNs). We then use the data to fit the model by
optimizing its parameters in order to minimize a certain objective function (i.e. MSE).
The outputs of the first level of data-driven inventory management are a point demand
forecast and the resulting empirical error distribution.
On the second level (inventory optimization), we operationalize a model-based ap-
proach by fitting a normal distribution and distinguish it from a data-driven (SAA)
approach. We then optimize by selecting a certain quantile of the respective demand
distribution. This gives us the resulting order quantity.
On the third level (integrated estimation and optimization), we choose a parametric
QR model (e.g. ANNs) and fit its parameters by solving problem (8) instead of minimizing
the MSE.
From the existing literature, it is not yet clear how the choices on each of the three
levels affect performance. In the following, we investigate this question empirically.
4. Empirical Evaluation
Our empirical evaluation aims to assess the impact of data-driven approaches for the
three levels – (1) demand estimation, (2) optimization, and (3) integrated estimation and
optimization – on average costs for the newsvendor problem. To this end, we evaluate the
performance of the methods with respect to costs by using a real-world dataset to compare
it to various standard approaches.
4.1. Data
We evaluate the proposed approaches using daily demand data of a German bakery
chain. The observed sales are not necessarily equal to demand, as stock-outs occur and lead
to censored demand information (Conrad, 1976). In order to estimate the daily demand
in the case of a stock-out, we leverage intra-day sales patterns of point-of-sales data (Lau
& Lau, 1996). In particular, for each product and weekday, we determine the average
demand proportion of each hour in relation to the total demand on days on which the
product was not sold out. This process allows us to interpolate the sales when a stock-out
occurs and obtain an estimate for historical demand. The approach is feasible because we
have access to point-of-sales data and information on the overage for each product per day.
Figure 3 shows the strong weekly seasonality of demand for (a) a representative product
and (b) a box plot that confirms this pattern for all time series. While median demand
on Tuesdays and Thursdays is the lowest, it is slightly higher on Mondays, Wednesdays
and Fridays. The median demand on Saturday is higher than it is for all other days. The
standard deviation of demand does not vary strongly across the weekdays.
Data Source Features
Master Data store class, product category, opening times (day, hours/duration)
Transactional Data lagged sales, rolling median of sales, binary promotional information
Calendar day of year, month, day of month, weekday, public holiday, day type, bridge
day, nonworking day, indicators for each special day, school holidays
Weather temperature (minimum, mean, maximum) and cloud cover of target day
Location general location (city, suburb, town); in proximity to the store: shops (bak-
eries, butcher, grocery, kiosk, fast-food, car repair), amenities (worship, med-
ical doctors, hospitals), leisure (playground, sport facility, park), education
(kindergarden, school, university)
Table 1: Features used in the machine learning methods
0.0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.0
09.02. 23.02. 09.03.
date [day.month.]
(a) Exemplary demand time series of six weeks
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
0.0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.0
(b) Boxplot of demand per weekday
Figure 3: The demand shows a strong weekly seasonality. The demand levels for working days (Mon-Fri)
are comparable, while the demand level on the weekend (Sat) is noticeably higher.
The dataset comprises eleven stock-keeping units, namely, six breads and five buns, for
five stores over a period of 88 weeks, where each store is open from Monday to Saturday.
This configuration amounts to 55 ordering decisions per day. Additionally, we enrich the
dataset with external explanatory features related to calendar, weather, and location of
the store (see Table 1). We split the dataset into a training set containing up to 63 weeks
and a test set containing the remaining 25 weeks (see Table 2). We perform a rolling 1-
step-ahead prediction evaluation on the test set in order to assess the performance of the
methods. We fit the models and distribution parameters every 10 days on a rolling training
dataset with constant size. Due to computational constraints, we fit the parameters of the
ANNs every 50 days only. To evaluate the effect of the amount of available data, we use
different sample sizes for the training set. The full training set (sample size 1.0) covers 63
weeks, while the smallest training set (sample size 0.1) contains only 6 weeks (see Table 2).
sample 1.0 0.8 0.6 0.4 0.2 0.1
train length (days) 378 300 228 150 78 36
test length (days) 150 150 150 150 150 150
Table 2: Training & test periods for different sample sizes.
While traditional time series methods such as exponential smoothing or ARIMA are
able to process only a single times series at a time, a major advantage of the ML methods
is their ability to deal with a large number and variety of features. In order to leverage this
advantage, we do not only train them with a single time series per product but alternatively
also across products and stores. In the latter case, we also include the features listed in
Table 1.
4.2. Experimental design
In our experiment, we evaluate the impact of different (1) estimation, (2) optimization,
and (3) integrated estimation and optimization approaches on the costs of the newsvendor
model. We start by assessing the impact of forecast performance. In addition to the ANNs
and DTs introduced in the previous section, we evaluate six different reference forecasting
methods, which we outline in the next section. For each forecasting method, we measure
the forecast accuracy (Section 4.4) and then investigate its impact on costs (Section 4.5.1).
Second, we compare the model-based optimization assuming a normal distribution (Norm)
with the data-driven optimization using SAA. To this end, we calculate the average costs
for different target service levels (Section 4.5.2). Third, we assess the performance of the
integrated estimation and optimization approach with QR and compare it to the separate
approaches (Section 4.5.3). Fourth, we evaluate the sensitivity to the sample size in order
to assess the value of a large training set (Section 4.5.5). Overall, the database of the
evaluation results comprises more than 9.1 million entries, i.e., close to 0.6 million point
forecasts and approximately 8.6 million order quantities. We employ the Wilcoxon signed-
rank test to test the statistical significance of our results at the 5% significance level.
4.3. Reference methods and ML setup
In order to evaluate the ML approaches, we compare them to well-established fore-
casting methods. With the exception of the first approach (Median), we rely on methods
that are explicitly able to model seasonal time series because the demand for baked goods
exhibits a strong weekly seasonality (see Figure 3).
4.3.1. Reference methods
Median and Seasonal-Median
The first benchmark forecast is the median of the entire training set (Median); it does not
consider seasonality. Nonetheless, we include it in our comparison in order to evaluate the
benefit of seasonal demand models. Its seasonal variant estimates the median by weekday
A popular benchmark method for forecasting is the Na¨ıve method and its seasonal variant
(S-Na¨ıve ). The forecast is set to the last observed value from the same part of the season:
ˆyt+h=yt+hm. Hence, we need to specify only the frequency of the seasonality m, which
we set to 6 for the considered time series.
Seasonal Moving Average
The seasonal moving average method (S-MA) sets the forecast to an average of the last
observations from the same part of the season: ˆyt+h=1
i=1 yt+hmk. Besides setting
the frequency of the seasonality m, we must set k, which controls the number of considered
values. We determine kin the range from 3 to 12 based on the last 20% of the training set
for each time series. We choose the value of kthat minimizes the sum of squared errors.
Seasonal Autoregressive Integrated Moving Average
Autoregressive integrated moving average (ARIMA) and its seasonal variant S-ARIMA
represent a widely used forecasting method. The autoregressive part of ARIMA represents
a linear combination of past values, while the moving average part is a linear combination
of past forecast errors. The time series must be stationary, which can be achieved by
differencing. We employ the method auto.arima() function from the forecast pack-
age (Hyndman & Khandakar, 2008) for the statistical software R (R Core Team, 2017)
in order to identify the most suitable model per time series. The auto.arima() function
selects a suitable model using a step-wise approach that traverses the space of possible
models in an efficient way until the best model is found.
Exponential Smoothing
Exponential smoothing methods calculate the forecast by computing a weighted average of
past observations. The weights decay as the observations get older. Hyndman et al. (2002,
2008) propose innovation space models that generalize exponential smoothing methods
(ETS). These models include a family of 30 models that cover different types of errors,
seasonal effects and trends (none, additive, multiplicative). We use the ets() function
from the forecast package (Hyndman & Khandakar, 2008) for the statistical software
R (R Core Team, 2017).
4.3.2. ML setup
In this subsection, we introduce methods that take multiple time series and additional
features (see Table 1) into account. For these methods, we also evaluate the integrated
estimation and optimization approach introduced in Section 3.4.
Linear regression
The linear regression model uses lagged demand data (lags: 1, 2, . . ., 6, 12, 18) which are
linearly scaled between 0 and 0.75 as input. The weekly seasonality is modeled through
binary variables. When all time series across stores and products and the extended feature
set are used for the prediction, further variables are introduced. In order to avoid over-
fitting, we include a regularization term in the objective function. The integrated linear
approach is equivalent to the models in Beutel & Minner (2012) and Ban & Rudin (2018).
We apply ANNs as described in Section 3.2. Several hyper-parameters (learning rate,
batch size, number of hidden nodes, activation function of hidden layer) are optimized by
a random search (Bergstra & Bengio, 2012) in combination with cross-validation on the
training set. As activation function for the output layer we use a linear function, which is
reasonable for regression with ANNs (Zhang et al., 1998).
In order to encode deterministic seasonality, we use trigonometric functions as features,
as proposed by Crone & Kourentzes (2009). This is a parsimonious approach which
requires only two additional input variables. Additionally, the approach is non-parametric,
as no seasonal indices need to be estimated. The two variables are xi,1and xi,2in period
i, with mrepresenting the frequency of the seasonality:
xi,1=sin(2πi/m) (13)
xi,2=cos(2πi/m) (14)
The input consists of lagged demand information (lags: 1, 2, . . ., 6, 12, 18), which
is linearly scaled between 0 and 0.75, as this is similar to what other seasonal methods
consider. When all time series across products and stores are considered, we enrich the
dataset with further explanatory features (see Table 1).
The performance of an ANN depends on its initial weights, which are randomly set.
Therefore, we employ an ensemble of ANNs with the median ensemble operator, as this
approach is robust to the initial weights and provides reliable results (Barrow et al., 2010;
Kourentzes et al., 2014). Another crucial aspect is the training of ANNs. We use the
stochastic gradient-based algorithm ADAM proposed by Kingma & Ba (2015) to optimize
the weights of the ANN. We also employ early stopping to avoid overfitting and train an
ensemble of 50 ANNs in order to obtain more reliable and accurate results (Barrow et al.,
2010; Kourentzes et al., 2014).
The DT approach is a tree-based ensemble model as described in Section 3.2. We use
Microsoft’s LightGBM implementation (Ke et al., 2017). Similar to the ANNs, several
hyper-parameters (learning rate, number of leaves, minimum amount of data in one leaf,
maximum number of bins, maximum depth of tree) are selected based on a random search
within the training data (Bergstra & Bengio, 2012). The number of trees is controlled by
early stopping, which also reduces the risk of overfitting. We consider the same features
as in the other ML methods.
4.4. Point forecast analysis
The relevant performance measure of the newsvendor model is overall costs (overage
and underage). Before evaluating the impact of the different estimation and optimization
approaches on cost in Section 4.5, we separately measure the accuracy of the point forecasts
in order to relate it to overall costs in the subsequent analysis.
For each forecasting method introduced in the previous section, we compute a set
of common accuracy measures, including the Mean Percentage Error (MPE), Symmetric
Mean Absolute Percentage Error (SMAPE), Mean Absolute Percentage Error (MAPE),
Mean Absolute Scaled Error (MASE) (Hyndman & Koehler, 2006), Root Mean Square
Error (RMSE), Mean Absolute Error (MAE), and Relative Absolute Error (RAE). We
provide more than one measure because each of them has its strengths and weaknesses.
For instance, RMSE and MAE are scale-dependent error measures and do not allow for
comparisons between time series at different scales, while percentage-based error measures
(SMAPE, MAPE) are not always defined and may result in misleading outcomes if demand
is low. Table 3 shows the average forecast accuracy over all time series by method.
Not surprisingly, the worst accuracy is achieved by the Median forecast, which is the
only method that does not incorporate the weekly seasonality pattern. The results im-
prove noticeably (more than 5 percentage points in MAPE) when the weekly seasonality is
considered (S-Median). S-Median is also more robust against sudden changes in demand
Median -22.34 29.71 39.43 1.01 39.89 15.70 1.72
S-Median -21.45 24.74 33.73 0.82 28.42 11.99 1.31
S-Na¨ıve -11.84 28.71 34.86 0.92 27.80 12.56 1.37
S-MA -14.61 23.32 30.15 0.75 22.27 10.14 1.11
ETS -12.47 22.19 28.47 0.71 21.83 9.66 1.06
S-ARIMA -14.35 22.88 29.71 0.73 21.40 9.87 1.08
Linear -18.73 23.75 32.07 0.77 23.43 10.54 1.15
DT-LGBM -18.80 22.88 31.13 0.73 21.98 9.92 1.08
ANN-MLP -14.73 22.63 29.59 0.72 21.28 9.75 1.07
Linear (all) -14.33 22.14 29.18 0.71 21.23 9.63 1.05
DT-LGBM (all) -13.44 21.51 28.34 0.68 20.06 9.15 1.00
ANN-MLP (all) -12.62 21.42 27.87 0.68 20.09 9.16 1.00
Table 3: Forecast performance of the point predictions (sample size: 1.0). The best performance for each
metric is underlined. Results that do not differ from the one of the best method at a significance level of
5% for each metric are printed in bold face.
and provides more reliable results than S-Na¨ıve.S-MA outperforms all baseline methods
(Median,S-Median,S-Na¨ıve) and its accuracy is even competitive to more sophisticated
approaches. It is not as prone to outliers but follows minor level shifts. Overall, ETS
is the best method compared to models that are trained on a single time series as it
captures the main characteristics of the time series by computing the weighted average
of past observations. Even the more complex ML approaches cannot improve the fore-
cast. However, when trained across stores and products with additional features, the ML
methods further improve significantly. ANN-MLP and DT-LGBM also outperform ETS.
The information contained in the features and supplementary time series has additional
explanatory potential that is effectively extracted by all three ML approaches.
We note that the negative MPE throughout all methods indicates that in the test data,
there are low-demand events that cannot be foreseen by the models based on historical
demand. These low-demand events are more frequent, more extreme, or both during the
test period than events of unexpectedly high demand. This observation might be due to
the fact that situations with very low demand (e.g. supply disruption, partial shop closing,
and construction) are more likely than situations with extremely high demand.
4.5. Inventory performance analysis
The purpose of the newsvendor model is to determine the cost-minimal order quantity
by considering demand uncertainty and underage and overage costs. In order to perform
a comprehensive analysis of the introduced methods, we calculate the order quantities and
compute the resulting average costs for each approach. As underage and overage cost may
vary among products and stores, we analyze multiple target service levels. The target
service level cu/(cu+co) is the optimal probability of having no stock-out during the day.
In the repeated newsvendor model, this corresponds to the long run fraction of periods in
which demand is fully satisfied. By setting the unit price and the sum of underage and
overage costs (cu+co) to 1.00 and varying their relative share, we obtain six different
target service levels. This process allows us to interpret cuas the profit margin and co
as the unit costs (e.g. material and production costs) of an item. In order to compare
the different methods, we measure the performance relative to the best method for each
target service level. Additionally, we report the realized average service level for each
approach. We calculate the realized service level as the relative share of days on which
total demand was met. A large deviation of the realized service level from the target
service level indicates that a method tends to overestimate or underestimate the optimal
order quantity. Note that the reported service level just serves to characterize the solution
by relating it to the newsvendor solution. It does not reflect a cost-service trade-off since
costs include both overage and underage costs. The results are reported in Table 4.
In the following sections, we analyze the effects of (1) demand estimation, (2) opti-
mization, and (3) integrated estimation and optimization on average costs and observed
service levels. Furthermore, we evaluate the sensitivity of the results to the size of the
available sample.
4.5.1. The effect of demand estimation
To evaluate the effect of demand estimation on costs, we compare the average cost of the
different estimation approaches for each target service level in Table 4. The best approach
for each target service level is underlined. We see that the approaches based on the ML
forecasts that use data across stores and products and additional features (all) provide the
lowest average costs for all target service levels. The performance of ANN-MLP and DT-
LGBM is very similar, while methods based on the Linear forecast yield higher costs. An
interesting result is that ETS performs best when training is restricted to single time series.
This is particularly noteworthy when considering its computational efficiency compared
Method TSL = 0.5 TSL = 0.6 TSL = 0.7 TSL = 0.8 TSL = 0.9 TSL = 0.95
Estimation Optimization ∆ Cost SL ∆ Cost SL ∆ Cost SL ∆ Cost SL ∆ Cost SL ∆ Cost SL
Median Norm 72.5% 0.61 83.9% 0.72 93.2% 0.79 99.4% 0.86 97.8% 0.92 92.0% 0.95
SAA 72.5% 0.61 79.4% 0.70 87.9% 0.79 99.6% 0.87 109.5% 0.94 101.9% 0.98
S-Median Norm 31.8% 0.64 33.5% 0.74 34.7% 0.83 34.9% 0.89 32.2% 0.95 29.6% 0.97
SAA 31.8% 0.64 30.3% 0.72 30.4% 0.80 29.5% 0.88 27.4% 0.95 31.2% 0.98
S-Naive Norm 38.0% 0.51 37.5% 0.63 37.0% 0.75 37.3% 0.85 37.2% 0.93 37.2% 0.96
SAA 38.4% 0.51 37.6% 0.61 35.6% 0.71 34.3% 0.81 32.2% 0.91 33.3% 0.96
S-MA Norm 11.5% 0.56 13.6% 0.68 16.0% 0.78 17.6% 0.86 18.3% 0.94 16.6% 0.97
SAA 10.5% 0.52 11.0% 0.62 11.4% 0.73 11.7% 0.82 12.2% 0.92 13.9% 0.96
ETS Norm 6.1% 0.53 6.7% 0.64 7.0% 0.74 7.1% 0.83 5.6% 0.91 5.7% 0.95
SAA 6.2% 0.50 6.5% 0.61 6.7% 0.71 6.7% 0.80 5.6% 0.90 5.9% 0.95
S-ARIMA Norm 8.5% 0.55 8.9% 0.65 8.8% 0.75 8.3% 0.84 7.5% 0.92 7.2% 0.95
SAA 8.0% 0.52 8.1% 0.62 8.0% 0.71 7.7% 0.81 6.5% 0.91 7.2% 0.95
ML single time series
Linear Norm 15.8% 0.58 17.7% 0.69 19.6% 0.78 20.8% 0.85 20.2% 0.93 20.9% 0.95
SAA 15.6% 0.56 17.2% 0.66 18.9% 0.75 20.1% 0.84 20.7% 0.93 21.8% 0.96
QR 10.6% 0.54 10.7% 0.64 11.4% 0.73 11.2% 0.82 11.8% 0.91 18.9% 0.96
DT-LGBM Norm 9.0% 0.60 8.6% 0.68 8.5% 0.76 8.8% 0.83 10.2% 0.89 15.2% 0.93
SAA 7.9% 0.57 7.7% 0.65 7.8% 0.73 8.4% 0.81 10.0% 0.89 14.4% 0.94
QR 11.1% 0.59 10.8% 0.68 12.1% 0.78 15.3% 0.85 20.8% 0.93 29.0% 0.96
ANN-MLP Norm 7.2% 0.55 8.4% 0.66 9.0% 0.75 9.6% 0.83 9.4% 0.91 10.5% 0.95
SAA 6.6% 0.52 7.6% 0.63 8.2% 0.72 8.6% 0.82 8.6% 0.91 10.2% 0.95
QR 7.5% 0.53 7.9% 0.64 8.6% 0.73 9.8% 0.82 13.0% 0.91 18.1% 0.95
ML pooled time series + features
Linear (all) Norm 5.9% 0.53 5.5% 0.64 5.6% 0.75 6.1% 0.84 4.9% 0.91 4.0% 0.95
SAA 5.4% 0.51 5.3% 0.62 5.0% 0.72 5.3% 0.82 5.2% 0.91 4.9% 0.95
QR 5.1% 0.52 4.5% 0.62 5.2% 0.72 7.2% 0.81 10.0% 0.90 12.8% 0.95
DT-LGBM (all) Norm 0.6% 0.53 0.4% 0.62 0.0% 0.71 0.1% 0.80 0.4% 0.87 2.1% 0.92
SAA 0.9% 0.51 0.4% 0.61 0.0% 0.69 0.0% 0.79 0.2% 0.88 1.7% 0.92
QR 1.6% 0.52 1.7% 0.61 1.6% 0.71 3.1% 0.80 6.4% 0.90 11.4% 0.94
ANN-MLP (all) Norm 0.7% 0.52 0.7% 0.63 0.7% 0.73 0.7% 0.82 0.0% 0.90 0.0% 0.95
SAA 0.3% 0.51 0.2% 0.61 0.3% 0.72 0.4% 0.81 0.4% 0.90 1.5% 0.95
QR 0.0% 0.50 0.0% 0.61 0.9% 0.72 3.3% 0.82 6.8% 0.91 11.2% 0.95
Table 4: Inventory performance analysis: Average cost increase relative to the best approach and average service level (SL) for various target service levels (TSLs) and
a sample size of 1.0. Methods denoted with all are trained on data across all products and stores. The best approach for each target service level is underlined. Results
that do not differ from the one of the best method at a significance level of 5% for each service level are printed in bold face.
to the ML methods. Overall, we observe that approaches based on accurate estimation
methods achieve significantly lower costs, independent of the optimization approach. Thus,
the level of demand estimation has a substantial impact on overall performance.
In order to further substantiate this statement, we conduct a correlation analysis. We
compute the Spearman’s rank correlation coefficient ρbetween costs and forecast accuracy
(SMAPE and RMSE) for each store-article-service level combination. The results are
depicted in Table 5.
Costs - 0.8799 (±0.1211) 0.9406 (±0.0481)
SL 0.4202 (±0.2879) 0.4253 (±0.2834) 0.3034 (±0.2678)
Table 5: Median of Spearman’s Correlations (±standard deviation) between absolute service level devia-
tion (SL), costs, and forecast accuracy (SMAPE, RMSE).
The analysis supports the claim that the general ranking of methods with respect
to costs is similar to the ranking with respect to forecast accuracy, with a median ρof
0.8799 for the rank correlation of costs and SMAPE and 0.9406 for the median rank
correlation of costs and RMSE. The reason for this observation is that more accurate
point predictions lead to more precise demand distribution estimates, which make the
succeeding optimization phase less crucial.
We complement the above cost analysis by looking at the realized service levels which
provide further insights into the order quantities obtained from the different methods.
Table 5 also shows the Spearman Correlations between the absolute service level de-
viations (i.e. difference between average observed service level and the newsvendor target
service level) and costs and forecast errors, respectively.
From Table 4, we can see that all methods overachieve the target service level on
average. This matches our observation of Section 4.4, that all forecasting methods over-
estimate the demand on average, due to events with unexpectedly low demand in the test
We further see that the correlation between the absolute service level deviation and
costs is relatively low (0.4202). This shows that the ability of a method to achieve a
desired service level on average is not a very good indicator for the cost performance of
that method. The service level measures only whether or not there was a stock-out and
thus indicates the direction of the deviation from the optimal order quantity on average.
It does not take into account the order of magnitude of overages and underages. The
low correlation between the forecast accuracy measures and the service level deviation
confirms this conclusion.
4.5.2. The effect of optimization
To assess the impact of model-based vs. data-driven optimization on costs, we compare
the average cost of Norm and SAA for each estimation method and target service level.
We perform a Shapiro-Wilk test on the residuals of the forecasts of S-ARIMA and ETS
and find that for approximately one quarter of the time series the residuals are normally
distributed at 95% confidence level. Thus, the normal distribution assumption can be
justified, although one cannot expect that all residuals follow the distribution assumption
in a real-world data set. We observe that the performance differences between SAA and
Norm are relatively small and the effect of accurate demand estimation clearly outweighs
the effect of data-driven optimization. However, for the majority of estimation methods,
SAA leads to lower costs than Norm for target service levels up to 0.9, while the normal
distribution assumption can be beneficial for higher service levels.
The good performance of SAA and its weaknesses for higher service levels are in line
with the theoretical results of Levi et al. (2015). The authors provide a bound on the
accuracy of SAA for the newsvendor model (Theorem 2 Improved LRS Bound ) that does
not rely on assumptions on the demand distribution. The bound has an exponential rate
that is proportional to the sample size and min(cu, co)/(cu+co). In our case, the bound
implies that using SAA, in order to obtain the same accuracy for a service level of 0.9
(0.95) as for a service level of 0.8, we would need 1.5 (4) times more data. However, in
the bakery industry, such high service levels are not common, and our dataset is sufficient
to let SAA outperform Norm for service levels up to 0.9 for most approaches.
4.5.3. The effect of integrated estimation and optimization
We also employ the QR approach that integrates the demand estimation into the
optimization model for the linear approach and the ML methods DT-LGBM and ANN-
MLP. In order to focus on the effect of integrated estimation and optimization, we compare
QR to SAA for the respective approaches. For DT-LGBM and ANN-MLP trained on
single time series, QR performs worse than SAA, while Linear QR outperforms SAA.
For high service levels QR generally performs relatively poor for all three estimation
approaches. When trained on data across stores and products and including features,
integration of estimation and optimization improves the performance of Linear (all) and
ANN-MLP (all) for low service levels. However, for high target service levels, SAA and
Norm perform better than QR for all estimation approaches.
The theoretical advantage of the QR approach is its ability to estimate conditional
quantiles that depend on the features (see Figure 4). The observation that for the ap-
proaches trained only on single time series, QR is not beneficial, might be explained by the
fact that too little features are available to leverage the feature-dependency of the quan-
tile. The previous statement is supported by the fact that Linear (all) and DT-LGBM
(all) improve through integration at low service levels as more data are available and
feature-dependent variance can be estimated more accurately. However, this theoretical
advantage cannot be observed for higher service levels. We suspect that more extensive
hyper-parameter optimization in combination with alternative scaling of the input data
for each individual target service level might improve the performance.
Our results for the single time series case are in line with the outcome of the empirical
analysis of Ban & Rudin (2018) who also report that separate estimation and optimization
outperforms the linear integrated approach on their relatively small dataset of one year.
We observe that this effect gets smaller when the models are trained with pooled time
series and features.
0 10 20 30 40 50 60
date [day.month.]
25.04. 19.05. 13.06. 05.07. 27.07. 18.08. 09.09. 01.10.
0.5 0.6 0.7 0.8 0.9 0.95
Figure 4: Forecasts for different service levels using ANN QR.
4.5.4. The effect of learning across products and external features
Our dataset comprises sales data of several breads and buns across multiple stores.
These products are relatively similar to one another and therefore one time series might
contain information about the other. Univariate time series models can only consider a
single product at time, while ML methods are able to process a large number of inputs.
Therefore, we train linear (all),DT-LGBM (all), and ANN-MLP (all) across all products
and stores. The pooling of training data also makes it possible to enhance the data set
with a large number of additional features that cannot be employed if the models are
trained per time series.
From Table 4 we observe that indeed all ML methods benefit from the additional data
and improve significantly. DT-LGBM (all) and ANN-MLP (all) perform similarly and
outperform all other methods. We note that a similarity of time series is not specific to
our case but can be found in many retail settings.
4.5.5. Sensitivity to sample size
The power of the data-driven approaches lies in their ability to leverage large amounts
of available data, which makes them very flexible but may limit their deployability if not
enough data is available. In order to determine the dependency of the different approaches
on data availability, we vary the size of the training data and compare the results on a fixed
test set (see Table 2). The results of this experiment are given in Table 6 and depicted
in Figure 5 for the data-driven approaches. We present only the results for target service
level 0.7, noting that the qualitative results also apply to the other service levels.
0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.0
0.0 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4
relative costs
sample size
S−Median | SAA
S−Naïve | SAA
DT−LGBM (all) | SAA
DT−LGBM (all) | QR
ANN−MLP (all) | SAA
ANN−MLP (all) | QR
Figure 5: Effect of the sample size (TSL = 0.7).
Based on our results, the methods can be divided into three groups: The first group
consists of methods whose performance hardly depends on the sample size. In our case
this includes methods based on the S-Na¨ıve forecast. The S-Na¨ıve approaches simply
forecast the demand of the same weekday of the week before. Thus, it does not improve as
more data becomes available. The second group consists of methods whose performance
Method S = 0.1 S = 0.2 S = 0.4 S = 0.6 S = 0.8 S = 1.0
Estimation Optimization ∆ Cost SL ∆ Cost SL ∆ Cost SL ∆ Cost SL ∆ Cost SL ∆ Cost SL
Median Norm 79.5% 0.72 82.0% 0.75 87.1% 0.79 92.7% 0.80 92.7% 0.80 93.2% 0.79
SAA 77.2% 0.70 78.2% 0.74 82.6% 0.78 88.0% 0.79 87.7% 0.79 87.9% 0.79
S-Median Norm 13.5% 0.70 15.5% 0.76 23.2% 0.81 32.5% 0.84 33.6% 0.83 34.7% 0.83
SAA 13.3% 0.65 12.1% 0.72 18.5% 0.79 26.8% 0.81 29.1% 0.80 30.4% 0.80
S-Naive Norm 36.7% 0.72 36.5% 0.73 36.8% 0.75 37.5% 0.75 37.1% 0.75 37.0% 0.75
SAA 40.2% 0.68 37.4% 0.69 36.2% 0.70 35.9% 0.71 35.7% 0.71 35.6% 0.71
S-MA Norm 15.8% 0.73 14.6% 0.75 15.1% 0.77 15.9% 0.78 15.6% 0.78 16.0% 0.78
SAA 19.2% 0.67 15.4% 0.67 12.1% 0.70 11.0% 0.72 11.8% 0.72 11.4% 0.73
ETS Norm 12.1% 0.70 8.8% 0.73 7.9% 0.74 7.7% 0.74 6.6% 0.74 7.0% 0.74
SAA 14.0% 0.66 9.6% 0.68 8.1% 0.69 7.6% 0.70 6.5% 0.71 6.7% 0.71
S-ARIMA Norm 25.8% 0.69 13.8% 0.72 10.7% 0.74 10.3% 0.75 9.2% 0.75 8.8% 0.75
SAA 29.2% 0.64 14.5% 0.68 10.5% 0.68 9.8% 0.70 8.6% 0.72 8.0% 0.71
ML single time series
Linear Norm 29.8% 0.70 18.0% 0.71 18.9% 0.76 21.1% 0.79 20.4% 0.78 19.6% 0.78
SAA 30.2% 0.68 18.3% 0.70 18.1% 0.74 20.1% 0.76 19.3% 0.76 18.9% 0.75
QR 32.1% 0.67 17.4% 0.68 14.3% 0.71 13.2% 0.73 12.0% 0.73 11.4% 0.73
DT-LGBM Norm 50.4% 0.72 22.6% 0.73 13.6% 0.77 12.5% 0.79 10.4% 0.78 8.5% 0.76
SAA 48.7% 0.68 22.6% 0.68 11.1% 0.73 10.2% 0.75 8.5% 0.75 7.8% 0.73
QR 52.4% 0.73 27.3% 0.75 17.7% 0.78 16.8% 0.80 13.6% 0.79 12.1% 0.78
ANN-MLP Norm 33.2% 0.69 14.3% 0.73 13.9% 0.78 12.0% 0.78 9.9% 0.78 9.0% 0.75
SAA 33.5% 0.70 14.9% 0.72 12.4% 0.74 10.2% 0.75 8.4% 0.75 8.2% 0.72
QR 33.1% 0.67 17.8% 0.71 12.5% 0.75 10.7% 0.75 9.2% 0.75 8.6% 0.73
ML pooled time series + features
Linear (all) Norm 16.0% 0.69 14.2% 0.70 14.8% 0.73 8.8% 0.74 8.2% 0.75 5.6% 0.75
SAA 17.2% 0.64 14.5% 0.66 13.5% 0.69 7.3% 0.71 7.6% 0.72 5.0% 0.72
QR 15.3% 0.65 12.7% 0.67 13.3% 0.69 7.7% 0.71 7.1% 0.72 5.2% 0.72
DT-LGBM (all) Norm 21.1% 0.67 10.4% 0.69 8.0% 0.69 5.5% 0.71 2.5% 0.70 0.0% 0.71
SAA 20.3% 0.65 10.6% 0.66 7.5% 0.67 4.7% 0.69 2.4% 0.68 0.0% 0.69
QR 18.5% 0.71 10.8% 0.69 7.7% 0.70 4.8% 0.71 3.4% 0.70 1.6% 0.71
ANN-MLP (all) Norm 33.5% 0.60 12.4% 0.69 6.1% 0.69 3.6% 0.73 0.7% 0.71 0.7% 0.73
SAA 36.3% 0.58 12.6% 0.66 5.4% 0.67 2.8% 0.71 0.3% 0.69 0.3% 0.72
QR 18.7% 0.63 12.4% 0.65 6.2% 0.68 3.1% 0.70 0.3% 0.70 0.9% 0.72
Table 6: The effect of the sample size: Average cost increase relative to the best approach (over all sample sizes) and average service level (SL) for the target service
level 0.7 and various sample sizes (S). Methods denoted with all are trained on data across all products and stores. The best approach for each sample size is underlined.
Results that do not differ from the one of the best method at a significance level of 5% for each sample size are printed in bold face.
diminishes as more training data become available. The approaches with a Median (not
depicted in Figure 5, see Table 6) and S-Median forecast are part of this group. The costs
increase as more training data are available and as more “outdated” data are included.
In our real-world case, this observation implies that, for example, demand data from
Winter is used to estimate the median forecast for Summer although these data are not
representative of this season. The third group consists of methods whose performance
improves as more data become available. This group comprises the ML methods proposed
in this paper. We also include methods based on S-ARIMA,ETS, and linear forecast in
this group. However, the performance of S-ARIMA and ETS stagnates for sample sizes
larger than 0.6. This effect might be due to the fact that we use a little over one year
of training data and consequently some months are included twice. It seems that the
ML approaches can account for this matter. Thus, in the present application, the purely
data-driven approaches benefit most from a large training set.
Comparing the different optimization methods, we find that with a sample size of
S= 0.4 (150 days) and larger, the data-driven SAA method yields lower costs than its
model-based counterpart Norm for most forecasting methods at a service level of 0.7. This
observation implies that a normal distribution assumption is beneficial in our case only if
a very limited dataset is available or if the target service level is very high (see Section
The performance and the ranking of the methods varies depending on the sample size.
However, if more data are available, it is possible to employ a method that reduces the
costs compared to the best method on the smaller dataset. For sample size 0.1, ETS Norm
is the best approach, while costs can be reduced by 17.4% using an DT-LGBM Norm with
a sample size of 1.0.
5. Conclusion
In this study, we propose a framework for how data can be leveraged in inventory
problems on three different levels: demand estimation, optimization, and integrated esti-
mation and optimization. We highlight that integrated estimation and optimization in the
newsvendor problem is equivalent to the Quantile Regression problem, and we introduce
novel data-driven methods for the newsvendor problem based on Machine Learning and
Quantile Regression. Moreover, we empirically compare the methods to well-established
standard approaches on a real-world dataset. We are specifically interested in the effect
of data-driven approaches on the three levels on the overall performance.
The key result of our evaluation is that data-driven approaches outperform their model-
based counterparts in most cases. In our evaluation, this finding already holds for a de-
mand history of beyond 25 weeks (i.e. 150 data points). However, overall performance
depends heavily on the demand estimation method employed. We found that poor fore-
casts cannot be compensated for by the choice of the subsequent optimization approach.
Thus, the selection of the forecast model is the most crucial decision in the case of sepa-
rated estimation and optimization.
The empirical evaluation of the Quantile Regression approaches revealed that integrat-
ing forecasting and optimization is beneficial only if enough data are available to estimate
the conditional quantiles and limited to target service levels smaller than 0.8. When work-
ing with single time series, separate estimation and optimization yields superior results.
This finding is in line with the empirical analysis of Ban & Rudin (2018).
More sophisticated estimation methods such as ANNs and Gradient Boosted Decision
Trees require more training data in order to produce reliable results. However, these meth-
ods are also the only methods that constantly improve as more data becomes available.
In our example, the demand history should contain more than six months of training
data before employing Machine Learning. If a limited amount of data is available, simple
methods such as the seasonal moving average can be suitable alternatives.
The major advantage of ML methods is that they are very flexible with respect to
the input and that they are naturally able to process large datasets. The ability of ML
methods to leverage similarities of time series across products and stores significantly
improved their performance in our case. Additionally, they do not require restrictive
assumptions on the demand process. Hence, they can identify patterns that traditional
time series methods cannot detect. For instance, they can model multiple seasonalities
(e.g. week and year), special days (e.g. public holidays), promotional activities and
outliers (Barrow & Kourentzes, 2018). A drawback of these approaches is that they are
a black box, which makes it more difficult to justify the resulting predictions. However,
when the improvements in forecast accuracy can be easily measured, as in the case of baked
goods, the advantage of accurate predictions should outweigh the issue of interpretability.
Data-driven inventory management is an active field of research with a variety of
opportunities for future work. Our analysis is based on a particular data set of bakery
products. It would be interesting to repeat the analysis on other data sets, including
other products. The methodology is applicable to perishable products with repetitive
sales (bread, fresh produce, newsprint,...). In other newsvendor situations, little or no
historical sales data may be available (fashion, electronics, sport events,...). In that case,
forecasting requires other leading indicators than historical sales. It will be interesting to
investigate the performance of alternative approaches to derive decisions from data under
those circumstances.
We presented a data-driven approach for the single-item newsvendor model. It seems
natural to explore the multi-product case as well. Particularly in the bakery domain, it
is a common practice to plan safety stocks on the product category level. This step is
reasonable because the substitution rates within a category in the case of stock-outs are
high for perishable goods (Van Woensel et al., 2007). Thus, it could be possible to leverage
hierarchical demand forecasts (Huber et al., 2017) in order to optimize inventory and to
make globally optimal decisions. Especially for the multi-product case, joint capacity
restrictions and lot sizes should also be considered.
Some bakery products can be sold over multiple days. Thus, expanding the model to
a multi-period inventory model is reasonable. It would widen the application of the model
to many other grocery products that can be reordered during the selling season. There are
several papers that deal with the the multi-period problem with unknown demand distri-
bution (e.g. Godfrey & Powell (2001), Levi et al. (2007)). Given the inherent similarity
between reorder point calculations and newsvendor trade-offs, one may expect machine
learning approaches to also be beneficial in that context.
In our application, there is no lead time. However, in other problem settings lead time
plays an important role. Prak et al. (2017) show that using one-period-ahead forecast
errors to optimize inventories leads to insufficient safety stock levels in case of a positive
lead time.
In addition to the problem specific extensions, the methodology of the presented ap-
proaches may also be adjusted. Other machine learning approaches can be used for inte-
grated forecasting and optimization, e.g., random forest or kernel methods.
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