Thanksgiving dinner costs are up even as turkey prices tumble

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Deena Shanker | Bloomberg News (TNS)

Inflation is slowing, turkey prices are dropping and yet, somehow, Thanksgiving dinners will still cost more than they did last year.

“Don’t expect tremendous savings,” a new report from Wells Fargo’s Agri-Food Institute warns, noting that food-at-home prices are still up 2.4% compared with last October. “This year’s celebration will not be less expensive.”

Still, not all Thanksgiving mainstays are going to cost more, and the price of the traditional roasted-turkey centerpiece is falling. Retail prices for whole fresh turkeys were down 9% the week of Oct. 23, when the report was written, but have dropped even more since then, down 13% as of Oct. 30, said Michael Swanson, the institute’s chief agricultural economist. “We expect those prices to fall even more.”

While turkey prices are falling, consumers aren’t getting the full benefit of the lower price tag retailers are seeing: Wholesale prices are down 30%, according to the report. “The retailer has more expenses,” said Swanson, one of the report’s authors, citing high labor costs as an example. Swanson also pointed out that low prices on turkeys hurt the farmers who raise them.

Not everyone is so optimistic on the cost of gobblers. Lower turkey stocks as a result of avian flu could hurt supply and support prices, said Justin Barlup, an analyst at Bloomberg’s Green Markets.

Ham prices, meanwhile, have gone up 5.2% since last year, according to the report. Canned foods are way up, too, Swanson said, with canned pumpkin up 30% and green beans rising 9% compared with a year ago. Canned cranberries are up 60%, but those willing to spend more time cooking can save some money: Fresh cranberries are down 20%, year over year.

Cream supplies are tight across the country, pressuring milk and dairy prices, according to the latest U.S. Foods Farmer’s Report. The report, from Oct. 27, also says that green beans from Georgia have seen crop damage due to hurricanes and rains over the past couple of months — crimping supplies headed into the Thanksgiving holiday.

Swanson attributes the variability to a range of factors: Farmers put a lot of turkeys into their barns over the summer, so supply is high and retailers are competing with each other to bring down prices. Packaging and transportation costs are still making canned items more expensive. Finally, the COVID supply-chain impacts have subsided, and retailers can go back to forcing competition between suppliers, rather than simply hoping to keep their own shelves stocked.

With ingredient shortages over, low prices are once again how supermarkets will try to bring in shoppers. Expect plenty of discounts, but don’t bank on them being particularly deep, said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Jennifer Bartashus.

Prices can vary a lot by store, she said, as grocers look to get customers through their doors, and maybe keep them coming back even after the holiday. “For retailers, it’s an opportunity to offer great value — and to inspire loyalty,” Bartashus said.

—With assistance from Leslie Patton.

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