AI at the Thanksgiving Table

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Data Society
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November 2023
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No holiday in the US comes with more specific gastronomical expectations than Thanksgiving. Still, each autumn brings its own set of circumstances that impact the supply and demand of foods that are most popular on the fourth Thursday of every November. Behind each of our Thanksgiving feasts are food suppliers who work to anticipate, monitor, and respond to these variables, and AI-driven technologies are serving up solutions that help bring the season’s bounty to our tables safely and affordably.

Anticipating Consumers’ Demands

Especially when it comes to the holiday season, demand forecasting and inventory planning are among the most critical challenges that AI can help food suppliers meet. As a nation, we consume an estimated 46 million turkeys, 250 million pounds of potatoes, 40.5 million rolls, 480,000 pounds of pumpkins, and 80 million pounds of cranberries over the Thanksgiving holiday. The busiest day for Thanksgiving grocery shopping is the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. 

Yet, despite the apparent consistency of Thanksgiving menus and shopper behavior over the years, historical data has its limits when it comes to forecasting demand from year to year. There are many dynamic drivers that can impact consumer demand, ranging from emerging trends to economic and social variables. For example, due to an uptick in smaller gatherings, most likely because of COVID-19, 2021 saw more consumers favoring scaled-down menu items. This unexpected shift in demand left suppliers with a shortage of small turkeys and a surplus of large turkeys.

Such scenarios underscore the inadequacy of historical data alone as the basis for accurate demand forecasting. By capturing, integrating, and analyzing real-time data, AI tools can give suppliers more immediate insights into dynamic drivers of demand. With machine learning algorithms, these technologies can analyze unstructured, qualitative data from sources such as social media posts to track emerging trends and gauge consumer sentiment. In addition, deep learning and NLP help suppliers identify patterns and trends to make better decisions about production, stocking, and logistics.

Your Food’s Steps Along the Way

Aside from planning for demand, there are numerous decisions suppliers face as your food makes its way to you. These decisions help them ensure the safety, quality, and affordability of your food.

Here are just a few examples of food supply phases that AI technologies are shaping:

At the Farm
Many Thanksgiving favorites begin their journey to your holiday spread at the farm. AI-driven agricultural solutions contribute to this critical phase of the supply chain by increasing operational efficiency and food safety and by giving consumers access to more information about how their produce was cultivated.

IoT sensors that monitor crops and environmental trends can help farmers detect and respond to issues that impact crop health, such as indicators of disease and variations in weather and soil conditions. Tracking this data can also help producers gain insights into the relationships between such variables and patterns in crop performance to help them identify strategies for increasing efficiency, improving the quality of their produce, and optimizing their resource utilization. 

AI-powered tools are also contributing to agriculture through automation, which can  help farmers maintain production despite a decline in the agricultural labor force. From autonomous tractors to AI-powered tools that can identify and eliminate weeds, data-driven technologies are stepping in as farm hands to help streamline efficiency and boost productivity in agricultural processes. 

On the Move
Most of the turkeys consumed this Thanksgiving will come from one of the top turkey-producing states, which include Minnesota and North Carolina. Cranberries generally hail from Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Oregon, New Jersey, and Washington. While potatoes are, for the most part, famously sourced from Idaho, your sweet potatoes will likely come to you from North Carolina, California, Mississippi, or Louisiana. In short, depending on where you live, your Thanksgiving indulgences will likely include food that has traveled a considerable distance to join your celebration. Making sure it reaches you on time and in peak form is a challenge that data science solutions can solve.

Real-time data captured by IoT sensors can inform decisions and facilitate rapid responses to critical conditions that impact the safety and quality of food in transit. AI technologies can transform these insights into recommendations for immediate corrective actions. For example, sensors can monitor temperatures and alert personnel when they are beginning to stray beyond the bounds of safe storage for their perishable cargo.

Data-driven technologies are improving transportation and logistics in several other ways. By identifying optimal routes, monitoring equipment, and making recommendations for predictive maintenance, AI solutions can ease the burden of beleaguered drivers, increase efficiency, and decrease carbon emissions associated with moving your groceries to the market.   

In the Store
Grocery stores share many of the challenges that AI technologies are addressing throughout the supply chain. For example, demand planning is also essential to meeting consumer needs while avoiding surplus stock on the retail level. 

Keeping the right amount of inventory in stock at the right locations and at the right times is a perennial concern for groceries stores. While falling short of demand for popular items can lead to lost sales and diminished customer loyalty, overstocking can be costly in terms of storage expenses and the social and environmental scourge that is food waste. Because demand for many of the popular Thanksgiving items is relatively fleeting, managing inventory is especially challenging at this time of year. AI technologies can help grocery retailers forecast their inventory needs more accurately and automate stock checks to streamline and optimize replenishment.

AI technologies also increase efficiency, product quality, and customer experience in grocery stores. Just as they do in the vehicles that transport perishable goods to market, IoT sensors can track storage conditions in the store to prevent food spoilage and can monitor equipment and alert employees to the need for maintenance. Other emerging manifestations of AI technology in the grocery store experience include automated customer support and analyses of customer behavior data, gathered through video surveillance, to increase the effectiveness of in-store displays. 

Innovative Approaches to Preserving Tradition

Thanksgiving celebrates time-honored traditions as well as fresh takes on these customs by newcomers to the US and younger generations. It’s also a time when current trends and tastes, such as locally sourced food and vegan diets, help shape new approaches to holiday feasts. 

For many of us, despite reliable traditions such as the Macy’s Parade on TV, Alice’s Restaurant on the radio, and football games in the yard, Thanksgiving really is about the meal. Thankfully, for those of us fortunate enough to indulge for the holiday, AI technologies are helping to ensure that our favorite Thanksgiving fare reaches our tables every year.

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