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Solving for food waste with data analytics in Google Cloud

With over ⅓ of the food in the USA ending up as waste according to the USDA, it is a compelling challenge to address this travesty.  What will happen to hunger, food prices, trash reduction, water consumption, and overall sustainability when we stop squandering this abundance?

Beginning with the departure from the farm to the back of the store, the freshness clock continues to run.  Grocers work very hard to purchase high quality produce items for their customers and the journey to the shelf can take a toll in both quality and remaining shelf life.  Suppliers focus on delivering their items through the arduous supply chain journey to the store with speed and gentle handling.  The baton is then passed to the store to unload and present the items to customers with care to sell through each lot significantly before the expiration or sell by date.  This is to ensure that the time spent in the customer’s home is ample to ensure a great eating experience as well. Food waste is a farm to fork problem with opportunity at every step of the chain, but today we will focus on the segment that the grocery industry oversees.

With the complexities of weather, geopolitical issues, distribution, sales variability, pricing, promotions, and inventory management, it seems daunting to impact waste.  Fortunately, data analytics and machine learning in the cloud is a powerful weapon in the fight against food waste. Data Scientists harness knowledge to draw meaning from data turning that data into decision driving information. 

One key Google has been working on to accelerate value is to break down data silos and leverage machine learning to realize better outcomes, using our Google Data Cloud platform. This enables better planning through demand forecasting, Inventory management, assortment planning, and dynamic pricing and promotions.

That sounds great but how does it work?  

Let’s walk through a day in the life journey to see how the integrated Google Data Cloudplatform can change the game for good. Our friendly fictitious grocer FastFreshFood is committed to selling high quality perishable items to their local market. Their goal is to minimize food waste and maximize revenue by selling as much perishable fresh food as possible before the sell by date. Our fictitious grocer in partnership with Google Cloud could build a solution that will take a significant bite out of their food waste volume and better satisfy customers. 

Sales through the register and online are processed in real time with Datastream, Dataflow to keep an accurate perpetual inventory by minute of every single item.

A Demand forecasting model using machine learning algorithms in BigQuery then identifies needs for back room replenishment, so Direct Store Delivery and daily store Distribution Centers manage ordering more efficiently to ensure just the right amount of each product each day.

Realtime reporting dashboards in Looker with alerting capabilities enable the system to operate with strong associate support and understanding. The reporting suite shows inventory levels into the future, daily orders, and at risk items.

The pricing algorithm could also alert store leadership concerning any items that will not sell through and suggest real time in store specials resulting in zero waste at shelf and maximized revenue.

This approach is not just for perishable categories and is a pattern that works well for in-store produced items and center store items.  The key point is that by bringing ML/AI to difficult business problems grocers are reinventing what is possible for both their profitability and sustainability.

The technical implementation of this design pattern in Google Cloud leverages Datastream, Dataflow, BigQuery and Looker products, it is detailed in a technical tutorial accompanying this blog post.

In partnership with Google Cloud, retailers can solve complex problems with innovative solutions to achieve higher quality, lower cost, and provide great customer experiences. To learn more from this and other use cases, please visit our Design Patterns website.

Curious to learn more? 

We’re excited to share what we know about tackling food waste at Google, a topic we’ve been working on in the last decade as we’ve embarked on reducing our own food waste in our operations in over 50 countries in the world. The Google Food for Good team works exclusively on Google Cloud Platform with our partners on this topic. Two additional articles below. 

Silos are for food, not for data – tackling food waste with technology
This business Cloud blog directly addresses information silos that currently exist across many nodes in the food system and how to break down cultural and organizational barriers to sharing. 

Unsiloing” data to work toward solving food waste and food insecurity 
This follow-on technical Cloud blog articulates the path to setting up data pipelines, translating between data sets (not everyone calls a tomato a tomato!) and making sense of emergent insights.

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