Retail sales of turkey were strong this year, but there were a few changes in the typical Thanksgiving sales picture, according to retailers contacted by SN last week.
Some supermarket meat executives said hams sold surprisingly well for this traditionally turkey-only holiday, especially in the Midwest. Also, while frozen birds continued to be the sales leader, some retailers saw a rise in sales of fresh birds and growing interest in turkey parts and smoked turkey items.
A few even experimented with promotions of beef.
Overall, sales appeared to be at least even with, if not above, those of last year, retailers said. On the Monday after Thankgiving, Teresa Farney, director of consumer affairs at the National Turkey Federation, Reston, Va., said, "Sales were brisk and everything went off just fine."
The turkey federation expected some 45 million turkeys to be sold this Thanksgiving, about comparable to last year.
"There were no real catastrophies and consumers should have been satisfied with their ability to get the product they want," said Farney, referring to occasions in the past when turkeys have been in short supply or recalled for various reasons, such as breakdowns in refrigeration for frozen birds.
One New England retailer said his company's turkey sales this year were "outstanding."
"We sold both frozen and fresh, and the fresh sold better," said the buyer.
A handful of retailers, including four Super Kmart Center stores in the Chicago area, featured tie-in programs in which customers could buy a ham and get a turkey free.
Rice Food Markets, Houston, started offering a similar promotion last year, said Ron Shernack,
director of meat operations at the 31-store chain.
"It helps because you are able to cut the loss a little bit. Because you do make some money on the ham, so it improves the profit."
Turkey pricing is notoriously competitive during the Thanskgiving season, with most retailers selling birds at or below cost.
"Plus, a lot of customers will want a small turkey and a ham rather than one large turkey. It gives them more diversity," Shernack added.
Joe Leathers, director of merchandising at the National Pork Producers Council, Des Moines, Iowa, said a record production of hogs this year has forced ham prices down. "It is a good value, and the consumer perception of pork has changed a lot," he said.
Beef was on the menu for Steele's Markets, Fort Collins, Colo. "We were trying to see if we could entice people to come shop here, because turkey prices are kind of unexciting," said Russell Kates, co-owner of the six-unit independent.
The company sold prime rib at $2.79 per pound the week before Thanskgiving. "We thought we'd try to see if something else would work to draw more customers," said Kates. "It is like a contest at Thanksgiving to see who can lose the most money on turkeys."
Kates said the prime rib sale was "very successful" and the company would probably offer a similar promotion next year.
"We probably sold 400 of them," said Kates. "In a typical week we might sell 125. I think the people we sold them to were primarily couples who didn't have a lot of family coming to dinner."
Larry DeLarwelle, meat procurement manager at Nash Finch Co., Minneapolis, a wholesale grocer that operates 116 corporately owned retail stores, said turkeys were in abundance.
"We had enough supply this year. I was being called even the week before Thanksgiving that product was available to ship if we wanted."
DeLarwelle said that while frozen birds sold better than fresh, "we did very well on the fresh also.
"The whole-bird turkeys sold best, but we also sold some frozen turkey breasts and turkey parts," he added. "The only problem this year was a shortage in small sizes. Production was good and the birds just kept putting on weight."
But he said around Thanksgiving, people generally go for the bigger sizes. "Especially when you put a 29-cents-a-pound price on something. The 10- to 12-pound birds are more popular around Christmas."
"We did sell some hams this season too," said DeLarwelle. Nash Finch also offered a promotion with a free turkey along with the purchase of a ham. "Mainly, it is an opportunity to sell two items." He said the customer would possibly buy the two items and purchase items to go with it for two meals.
"It is a promotion that has been very successful in the Midwest around Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter," he said.
Ken Davidson, director of meat merchandising at Abco Foods, Phoenix, a 72-store chain, said his company was just getting its Thanksgiving sales figures in, "but my sense is that it was a good year.
"The majority of the turkeys we sold were frozen," said Davidson. Abco priced its turkeys at 29 cents per pound with a minimum $10 purchase, or 48 cents without a purchase.
"I also think it was a pretty good year for hams because they were also reasonably priced."
But like Steele's, Abco included beef in its holiday merchandising strategy.
"We also promoted New York strip steak at $2.99 a pound the week before Thanksgiving, and that was a strong draw."
Turkey sales for Harvest Foods, Little Rock, Ark., were up this year, said David Lynch, meat director at the 52-unit chain.
"Sales were better this year than last year," said Lynch. Its frozen turkeys were priced at 37 cents a pound, a drop from last year's price of 39 cents a pound.
He said the average turkey price in his market this year, by major competitors, was 39 cents a pound. A smaller player sold birds at 29 cents, he noted.
He also said ham sales were up.
"We always get ham sales this time of year. But this year, it seems like we got a little bit more."
Kates of Steele's said sales of smoked turkeys and smoked turkey breasts, which are processed at the company's own facility, sold well.
Shernack said sales at Rice were comparable to last year. But in the Houston market, at least, he said retailers began promoting turkeys earlier this year.
"We sold a lot of turkeys before Thanksgiving. And I think a lot of our competition did the same.
"If you take the number of turkeys we sold from early October through Thanksgiving, we sold more than last year. But if you took just the two weeks prior to Thanksgiving, then we sold less than the year before," said Shernack.
Rice, which operates stores under four different formats, offered different turkeys and different price specials in each format.
"In our company, fresh turkeys are becoming a bigger factor overall," said Shernack. In its Rice Epicurean Markets division, it sold out of one brand of fresh turkey priced at 89 cents per pound.
He said smoked turkeys also sold well and accounted for about 10% of sales. They were offered at 99 cents a pound, down from the regular price of $1.39 to $1.49.