Major edit: I would like to say big thanks to Dave & Nick so far for their responses. The good news is that I got the loop to work (principle borrowed from Prof. Hydnman's post on batch forecasting). To consolidate the outstanding queries:

a) How do I increase the maximum number of iterations for auto.arima - it seems that with a large number of exogenous variables auto.arima is hitting maximum iterations before converging on a final model. Please correct me if I'm misunderstanding this.

b) One answer, from Nick, highlights that my predictions for hourly intervals are derived only from those hourly intervals and are not influenced by occurrences earlier on in the day. My instincts, from dealing with this data, tell me that this shouldn't often cause a significant issue but I am open to suggestions as to how to deal with this.

c) Dave has pointed out that I require a much more sophisticated approach to identifying lead/lag times surrounding my predictor variables. Does anyone have any experience with a programmatic approach to this in R? I of course expect there shall be limitations but I would like to take this project as far as I can, and I don't doubt that this must be of use to others here as well.

d) New query but fully related to the task at hand - does auto.arima consider the regressors when selecting orders?

I am trying to forecast visits to a store. I require the ability to account for moving holidays, leap years and sporadic events (essentially outliers); on this basis I gather that ARIMAX is my best bet, using exogenous variables to try and model the multiple seasonality as well as the aforementioned factors.

The data is recorded 24 hours at hourly intervals. This is proving to be problematic because of the amount of zeros in my data, especially at times of the day which see very low volumes of visits, sometimes none at all when the store has just opened. Also, the opening hours are relatively erratic.

Also, computational time is huge when forecasting as one complete time series with 3 years+ of historical data. I figured that it would make it faster by computing each hour of the day as separate time series, and when testing this at busier hours of the day seems to yield higher accuracy but again proves to become a problem with early/later hours that don't consistently receive visits. I believe the process would benefit from using auto.arima but it doesn't seem to be able to converge on a model before reaching the maximum number of iterations (hence using a manual fit and the maxit clause).

I have tried to handle 'missing' data by creating an exogenous variable for when visits = 0. Again, this works great for busier times of day when the only time there are no visits is when the store is closed for the day; in these instances, the exogenous variable successfully seems to handle this for forecasting forward and not including the effect of the the day previously being closed. However, I'm not sure how to use this principle in regards to predicting the quieter hours where the store is open but doesn't always receive visits.

With the help of the post by Professor Hyndman about batch forecasting in R, I am trying to set up a loop to forecasting the 24 series but it doesn't seem to want to forecast for 1 pm onwards and can't figure out why. I get "Error in optim(init[mask], armafn, method = optim.method, hessian = TRUE, : non-finite finite-difference value [1]" but as all the series are of equal length and I am essentially using the same matrix, I don't understand why this is happening. This means the matrix is not of full rank, no? How can I avoid this in this approach?



#Read input files
INPUT <- read.csv("Input.csv")
XREGFDATA <- read.csv("xreg.csv")

#Subset time series data from the input file
TS <- ts(INPUT[,2:25], f=7)

fcast <- matrix(0, nrow=nrow(XREGFDATA),ncol=ncol(TS))

#Create matrix of exogenous variables for forecasting.
xregf <- (cbind(Weekday=model.matrix(~as.factor(XREGFDATA$WEEKDAY)),
#Remove intercepts
xregf <- xregf[,c(-1,-8,-20)]

NoFcast <- 0

for(i in 1:24) {

  if(max(INPUT[,i+1])>0) {

  #The exogenous variables used to fit are the same for all series except for the
  #'Nodata' variable. This is to handle missing data for each series
   xreg <- (cbind(Weekday=model.matrix(~as.factor(INPUT$WEEKDAY)),
                     Nodata=ifelse(INPUT[,i+1] < 1,1,0),
  xreg <- xreg[,c(-1,-8,-20)]

  ARIMAXfit <- Arima(TS[,i], 
                     order=c(0,1,8), seasonal=c(0,1,0),
                     ,optim.control = list(maxit=1500), method="ML")  

  fcast[,i] <- forecast(ARIMAXfit, xreg=xregf)$mean

 } else{
  NoFcast <- NoFcast +1

#Save the forecasts to .csv


I would fully appreciate constructive criticism of the way I am going about this and any help towards getting this script working. I am aware that there is other software available but I am strictly limited to the use of R and/or SPSS here...

Also, I am very new to these forums - I have tried to deliver as full an explanation as possible, demonstrate the prior research I have done and also provide a reproducible example; I hope this is sufficient but please let me know if there is anything else I can provide to improve upon my post.

EDIT: Nick suggested that I use daily totals first. I should add that I have tested this and the exogenous variables do produce forecasts that capture daily, weekly & annual seasonality. This was one of the other reasons I thought to forecast each hour as a separate series though, as Nick also mentioned, my forecast for 4pm on any given day will not be influenced by previous hours in the day.

EDIT: 09/08/13, the problem with the loop was simply to do with the original orders I had used for testing. I should have spotted this sooner and places more urgency on trying to auto.arima to work with this data - see point a) & d) above.

  • $\begingroup$ Also, I tried using fourier to take care of seasonality but returned the same error "Error in optim(init[mask], armafn, method = optim.method, hessian = TRUE, : non-finite finite-difference value [1]" even when used as a matrix on its own with no other exogenous variables. Please could someone help me with an explanation as to why that would be the case? $\endgroup$
    – krcooke
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ could you reupload the data? $\endgroup$ Commented May 26, 2014 at 17:52

2 Answers 2


Unfortunately your mission is doomed to failure since you are restricted to R and SPSS. You need to identify lead and lag relationship structure for each of the events/holidays/exogenous variables that may come into play. You need to detect possible Time Trends which SPSS can't do. You need to incorporate Daily Trends / Predictions into each of the hourly forecasts in order to provide a consolidated.reeconciled forecast. You need to be concerned with changing parameters and changing variance. Hope this helps. We have been modelling this kind of data for years in an automatic manner, subject of course to optional user-specified controls.

EDIT: As OP requested I present here a typical analysis. I took one if the busier hours and developed a daily model. In a complete analysis all 24 hours would be developed and also a daily model in order to reconcile the forecasts. Following is a partial list of the model enter image description here . In addition to the significant regressors (note the actual lead and lag structure have been omitted ) there were indicators reflecting the seasonality , level shifts , daily effects , changes in daily effects , and unusual values not consistent with history. The model statistics are enter image description here . A plot of the forecasts for the next 360 days is shown here enter image description here . The Actual/Fit/Forecast graph neatly summarizes the results enter image description here .When faced with a tremendously complex problem (like this one!) one needs to show up with a lot of courage , experience and computer productivity aids. Just advise your management that the problem is solvable but not necessarily by using primitive tools. I hope this gives you encouragement to continue in your efforts as your previous comments have been very professional, geared towards personal enrichment and learning. I would add that one needs to know the expected value of this analysis and use that as a guideline when considering additional software. Perhaps you need a louder voice to help direct your "directors" towards a feasible solution to this challenging task.

After reviewing the Daily Totals and each of the 24 Hourly Models , I would definitely reflect that the Number Of Visits is in a serious downslide ! This kind of analysis by a prospective buyer would suggest a non-purchase while a seller would be wise to redouble their efforts to sell the business based upon this very negative projection.

  • $\begingroup$ Hi Dave, thanks very much for taking the time to read my question and respond. I understand that your software goes above and beyond any alternatives but is unfortunately not an option to me for the time being. Knowing R's capabilities is there any advice you can offer me to improve on what I've done already? Kind regards, $\endgroup$
    – krcooke
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 15:44
  • $\begingroup$ @krcooke You can examine the cross-correlation between visits and alternative leads/lags around each of your regressors in order to identify the appropriate response.I totally agree with Nick that some regressors might be useful for some of the hours but not for others.You might model each hour separately.Detecting the 4 kinds of outliers (Pulse,Level Shift,Seasonal Pulse and Time Trends) is not available in SAS when you have causals & is probably unavailable in SPSS.I have downloaded your data and will use AUTOBOX.We are always looking for "tough data" like yours to harden our analyics. $\endgroup$
    – IrishStat
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ Hi Dave, I'll see what I can do surrounding the analysis of the regressors. I felt that the regressors I used were very 'standard' and likely to impact all such stores. I used the jubilee bank holiday weekend as an example in Nick's comment; this would most likely benefit from the use of regressors but I haven't included this for now. And I'm very interested to see what you can do with the data! Thanks again. $\endgroup$
    – krcooke
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 17:41
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ "Unfortunately your mission is doomed to failure since you are restricted to R and SPSS." -- this comment, unfortunately goes too far; any Turing-complete language can implement any algorithm written in any other, even if it is only programmable in machine code by flipping switches & is entirely implemented in Lego. There's no calculation that can be implemented in one that can't be done in another. Unless you're claiming magical properties for AUTOBOX, I believe what you probably mean to say something like "already available as functions in the vanilla distribution" as the difference. $\endgroup$
    – Glen_b
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Glen_b What I might have said is that the firepower in the vanilla distributions that you are using is insufficient to solve the problem at hand unless you have a lot of time on your hands to write new procedures. $\endgroup$
    – IrishStat
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 23:30

This is no more than a bundle of comments but it will be too long for that format. I am no more than a time series amateur, but I do have some simple suggestions.

  1. You may be under orders here, but I think this needs some sharpening up in terms of what you expect to achieve and what is most important to you. Forecasting visits is, unfortunately, a fuzzy goal. For example, suppose it is 4 p.m. and you want to forecast visits one hour ahead. Do you really need a super-model incorporating a treatment of the entire previous series? This has to come from some consideration of the real practical and/or scientific goals, which may be stipulated by your superiors or a client or may be your own as a researcher. I suspect it's more likely that different models are needed for different purposes.

  2. Separating out hourly series seems to be driven by the idea of cutting down the computation without very much consideration of how much sense it makes. So, the implication is that you don't (won't) use information from earlier today in predicting what's happening at 4 p.m., just all previous 4 p.m. observations? It seems to me that needs a lot of talking through.

  3. You are evidently a learner in time series (and I'm putting myself on a par) but no learner should start with a problem this big. Really! You have a lot of data, you have periodicities on several scales, you have irregularities of opening hours and holidays, you have exogenous variables: you have picked a very difficult problem. (What about trends too?) It's easy to say, but it's evidently passed you by so far: you might have to work on very simplified versions of the problem first and get a feel for how to fit simpler models. Throwing everything in to a big complicated model is evidently not working well, and something radically simpler seems called for, or a realisation that the project is possibly too ambitious.

  • $\begingroup$ Hi Nick, 1- Indeed I am under orders! The goal is to attempt to build a model so that it will not tend to significantly over-forecast (resulting in wasted staff hours) or under-forecast (so that the staff are not over-whelmed). 2- I had considered this but shall dig deeper to understand what I gain/lose this way. Forecasting as one series seemed akin to a 'super model' as you put it. 3- I am aware this is extremely difficult and that I'm punching above my weight at the moment, but am entirely open to a simpler solution that will also work for me here. Many thanks for your thoughts, Nick. $\endgroup$
    – krcooke
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ It terms of simpler solutions, I couldn't work exponential smoothing techniques in such a way that jubilee weekend period last year cause this year (same period) to over-forecast. Due to the sort of outliers that are involved I felt like I absolutely had to use exogenous variables. Have you got any other ideas that I could explore? $\endgroup$
    – krcooke
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ All I can say is what I would do if I were under orders and had precisely the information you give here. My instinct would be first to aggregate to daily totals and work with those. That's hard enough. It's much easier to be critical here.... $\endgroup$
    – Nick Cox
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ Hi Nick, My fault, I should have stated already that I've tried this. With daily totals the results appeared reasonable. Reasonable being the key word because, as both you and Dave have stated, there is far more to be considered here. If it is of interest, I can re-re-run the daily data and demonstrate that it is capturing the weekly, monthly and annual seasonality. That is why I then thought to forecast each hour as a daily series. $\endgroup$
    – krcooke
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ One of the problems I had, as mentioned in the first post, is that auto.arima hits maximum iterations before converging which is why I'm using quite generalised parameters with Arima(). Any guidance as to how I can overcome this would be greatly appreciated! $\endgroup$
    – krcooke
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 18:16

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