With Thanksgiving just around the corner, supermarket meat executives interviewed last week didn't want to say a word about turkey.
They were all waiting to see who would make the first move in the inevitable Thanksgiving turkey price wars.
"We know we are selling them because it is Thanksgiving. And we know that they will be cheap." That's all that Mickey Clerc, vice president and director of advertising at Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla., would say.
"From a merchandising standpoint, what we sell turkeys at is decided at each division, and nobody is going to tell what they do until they do it," he said of the company's 12 divisions.
Joel Brandenberger, director of public affairs at the National Turkey Federation, Reston, Va., said wholesale prices for birds are ranging from the upper 60s to lower 70 cents per pound this year.
But retail prices, he said, cannot be predicted. "It is still difficult to know what the going retail price of turkeys will be, because more and more they are used as loss leaders at Thanksgiving."
He said turkeys often are discounted to 39 cents per pound and lower. Several retailers, he noted, will also give away turkeys or slash prices through special promotions.
Regardless of what they are obtained, American consumers are expected to go through 45 million birds this Thanksgiving, a figure comparable to last year, said Brandenberger.
But even the week before the bulk of ads were expected to break, retailers polled by SN declined to say how they were pricing their turkeys this year.
One West Coast retailer, who asked not to be named, said his company's ads will appear Nov. 16, and a decision on price won't be made until the last minute.
"We have a range but we will be watching [for competitor's prices]. Some have mailers that have to be sent out earlier, and everybody is looking at everybody else's ad," said the retailer.
"Everybody pays the same price and it is a question of how much of a loss are you willing to accept. There is no one here that sells turkeys at a profit."
The bottom line, he said, is every retailer has to make up his own mind as to the value of its program.
"For us," he said, "to offer an outstanding value on turkey is a way of saying thanks for shopping with us all year long."
John Gunn, meat merchandiser at the 128-store Atlanta division of Kroger Co., Cincinnati, also wouldn't reveal prices last week. He said his company's ads for Thanksgiving turkey would debut on Nov. 13 or Nov. 14.
Gunn said he didn't expect retail turkey prices to be higher this year. The loss-leader role of turkeys "is a tradition," he said.
As of Nov. 9, A&P, Montvale, N.J., was offering turkeys at 39 cents per pound, with a minimum purchase of $25 for a hen and $50 for a tom turkey, said William Vitulli, vice president of community and government relations.
However, he said, depending on what the competition does, A&P's prices could be lowered closer to the holiday.
"What happens this time of year is if competition moves to a lower price, generally the entire industry will follow," said Vitulli.
In a departure from the norm, Smitty's Super Valu, Phoenix, a 28-store chain, made an apparent attempt to keep turkey prices up in its highly competitive market by announcing its prices early on.
In an ad on Oct. 16, it said Norbest turkeys would be featured at 49 cents a pound, with a minimum $10 purchase, from Oct. 16 through Nov. 23. It also said it would match any competitor's lower price.
Smitty's executives were not immediately available for comment.
"Anytime a chain would break with a price that heavy is basically trying to tell the marketplace what the price should be," said the spokesman for the West Coast chain mentioned above, commenting on Smitty's program. "It has not be very successful in all the times I have seen that tactic used."
Harry Fischer, buyer-merchandiser for meats at Bashas' Markets, Chandler, Ariz., a Smitty's competitor, said it was a good attempt by Smitty's to try to limit losses but also didn't think that price would hold.
"I can assure you, 49 cents will not stand in this market," he said.
"It is a very, very competitive market. It is the toughest market I've worked in," said Fischer, who has worked in several markets, including El Paso, Houston and Dallas, during his retail career.
Bashas' plans to break its ad Nov. 16. Last week, Fischer also declined to preview his company's turkey prices.
However, he said the chain would be offering free turkeys to its customers through its ongoing Bargain Booster stamp collection program. For each $5 spent, a customer receives one stamp. Six stamps fill a book, and each book can be redeemed for 50 cents off any item from a designated list of booster items.
"We will be telling customers they can apply their boosters up to the entire cost of the Norbest Grade A turkey," said Fischer.
By focusing its efforts through its ongoing frequent shopper program, Fischer said, "we try to take care of the Bashas' customer."