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12 degrees of transformation: Fruit of the Loom spots winter’s actual arrival – in the data

The calendar says winter descends Dec. 21. But in the minds – and closets – of people from Virginia to Montana, Jack Frost hit town weeks ago.

Consumers in those states recently learned of fairly mild weather events that, nonetheless, spurred many to stock up on Fruit of the Loom fleece: Meteorologists predicted temperature drops of 12 degrees

It was that simple, that precise.

In Billings, Montana, the Nov. 3 forecast called for a crisp 44 degrees Fahrenheit, down from 56 a day earlier. In Richmond, Virginia, the Nov. 5 forecast predicted 62, down from 74 several days before, signaling the arrival of winter. (Yes, Virginia, there will be a Santa Claus – he still goes by the calendar.)

When the forecast shows an autumn temperature decrease of 12 degrees or more occurring within six days, many U.S. consumers consider that a cue to buy more fleece, according to new research conducted by Fruit of the Loom and Microsoft.

It doesn’t matter if the chillier, new temperature is 60, 50 or 30 degrees. It’s the size of the decrease that counts.

Weather and temperature data in the eastern and midwstern U.S. is shown on a tablet.
Weather data in markets across the U.S. signals where fleece sales will heat up.

“Winter is relative,” says Bobby Berry, senior vice president of business solutions at Fruit of the Loom.

“’Cold’ for somebody who lives in Florida is different than ‘cold’ for somebody in New York. But if the weather is about to cool by 12 degrees, people in both Florida and New York see that as cold – and time to go to the store for fleece,” Berry says.

Never mind the solstice. This is data science.

The finding gives Fruit of the Loom predictive analytics to make its supply chain more nimble, ensuring its retail partners have full stocks of fleece products ahead of autumn cold spells, thus boosting sales. It’s all part of the digital transformation of Fruit of the Loom, a 166-year-old company based in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

“Instead of having a cold weather event happen, then trying to very quickly ship in inventory, we’ve been able to be more proactive by having that inventory in place in the store days before,” says Beth Rogers, senior manager of data science at Fruit of the Loom.

Bobby Berry and Beth Rogers look at a laptop.
Bobby Berry, left, and Beth Rogers.

Rogers collaborated with Microsoft technologists to dig far below the obvious knowledge that cooler weather correlates to higher sales of winter wear. They sought to answer two consumer-psychology questions: How many days out must cold weather appear in a forecast – and how far must the mercury fall – before consumers respond?

To crack those unknowns, the team collected store-level, inventory metrics from a Fruit of the Loom national retail partner. They compared those numbers with 10-day temperature forecasts, supplied by AccuWeather, covering cities served by the retailer. The forecast analysis focused on October and November, Rogers says.

The data scientists used Microsoft SQL Server to process the vast datasets and Microsoft Azure machine learning to model the data and pinpoint the temperature change that prompts consumers to act: 12 degrees within six says.

The information was promptly put to use.

A Fruit of the Loom gray fleece top, close up.
A Fruit of the Loom gray fleece top.

“We worked with our team to develop a Power BI dashboard, marrying the weather and inventory data to understand which stores were about to experience a cold-weather event and which stores may not be able to service that demand with the inventory they had,” Rogers says.

In those cases, Fruit of the Loom can now notify a retailer about predicted temperature dips and any stores in that area with low stocks of fleece items, arranging for new shipments to arrive before the cold snap, Rogers says.

Of course, general weather warnings about approaching blizzards or sub-zero blasts have long fueled mass runs on grocery stores and gas stations. Think: Polar Vortex. That 2014 frigid weather event caused shoppers to empty food shelves across much of the United States in preparation for an extended, deep freeze. That sort of buying binge is largely rooted in survival instinct.

But chilly weather impacts consumer behaviors in other, broader ways, previous studies have found. For example, physical coldness can cause people to crave psychological warmth, leading to higher rentals of romance films, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

From dairy aisles to movie downloads, winter remains a relative concept often unconnected to the calendar. When it comes to fleece needs, it boils down to a basic question: How cold do you feel right now?

When local forecasters predicted looming temperature slides, sales of Fruit of the Loom fleece items abruptly increased at stores in 30 U.S. states, according to a heat map produced by the project.

A warehouse worker helps manage Fruit of the Loom shipments.
A warehouse worker helps manage Fruit of the Loom shipments.

One large portion of America – the area “most responsive in fleece sales to weather” – stretched from mid-Atlantic and southeastern states through parts of the Midwest and eastern Texas, the heat map showed. Within that swath, the “most responsive” markets included Washington, D.C., Charlotte, North Carolina, Atlanta, Georgia, Tampa, Florida and, in Texas, Dallas and Houston.

Other cities showing fleece-sale responses included Los Angeles, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Phoenix, Arizona, Salt Lake City, Utah, Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington.

“The northern part (of the United States) still feels an impact but the degree is much smaller,” says Jim Yang, a Microsoft data scientist and part of the Microsoft team that collaborated with Fruit of the Loom.

“If you are from Wisconsin, you have enough clothes in storage because your weather is always cold. It gets a little bit colder, you don’t care,” Yang says. “But for people in Florida, it’s a little different. They are more sensitive to the cold weather and when it’s cold, they feel much colder.”

In addition to enabling supply chain and sales improvements, the findings revealed a marketing nuance: Promoting winter wear ahead of a 12-degree temperature dip seems to be a waste of money, Yang says.

Sales revenues for Fruit of the Loom fleece were nearly identical – with or without accompanying advertising – during the days just before temperatures were expected to plummet, the data showed.

“A weather drop is like a big, free promotion,” Yang says.

“And with this data, if you know the temperature is going to drop by 12 degrees next week, you may want to stop that planned promotion and save yourself a lot of money.”

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