Good news: Wholesale turkeys are cheaper! Bad news: You're going to pay the same

Butterball frozen turkeys are displayed for sale at a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. location ahead of Black Friday in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Butterball frozen turkeys are displayed for sale at a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. location ahead of Black Friday in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013.

We hate to rain on your Thanksgiving Day parade, but turkeys aren't a lot cheaper than last year. In fact, by some measures, they're more expensive.

It's true that wholesale frozen and fresh turkeys got cheaper in recent weeks, and that they're cheaper than they were at the same time last year, but unfortunately that doesn't mean much for people picking up a bird at their local grocery store. That's because the companies distributing all those turkeys signed contracts setting the prices months ago, said Michael Sheats, director of the agricultural analytics division covering poultry for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It's far too late for wholesale prices to move retail prices this year.

"There is nobody out there at the packer saying, 'Joe Blow wants another turkey so let's process it and ship it out,'" said Sheats. "You always see the wholesale market rise in advance of Thanksgiving and you always see it fall just before Thanksgiving — that won't tell you what consumers were paying."

Sheats said that the data he's collected at stores across the country indicate that prices are about the same as last year. Another USDA series tracking the retail price of frozen turkeys also shows little evidence of cheaper turkeys this year. At the end of last week, retail prices for a conventional hen (not organic or specialty) were at 99 cents a pound nationally. At the same time last year, that figure was 95 cents, and the year before it was 97 cents. That's not a cheaper turkey.

Other media outlets have cited a change in a popular survey conducted each year by the nonprofit American Farm Bureau Federation, which found that the average turkey would cost $1.42 per pound this year compared with $1.44 per pound in 2015. That number is reliant on data gathered by 148 volunteers in 40 states and the Farm Bureau itself is sure to note that it "does not make any scientific claims about the data." In contrast, the USDA retail data for last week came from observations at more than 30,000 stores.

John Newton, director of market intelligence at the Farm Bureau, said his survey's findings are in line with turkey prices staying about the same as last year. The difference between the two data sets could have to do with variation in the sampling, how survey workers were instructed or how the data were weighted across the country.

"I think a 2-cent decline per pound is paramount to almost no change at all," said Newton. "It's not dramatic, and it's not like we saw a decline by 10 percent."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also gathers turkey prices each month as part of its consumer price index inflation measure. Based on the most recent October figures, that data series tells a similar story. Prices this year are higher than last year — the highest on record with the exception of the holiday season of 2013.

But like the Farm Bureau data, those number likely overestimate the actual price consumers are paying. That's because the sticker price may not take into account the variety of discounts and promotions that tend to show up each season. Those prices are probably 50 percent higher than the price we end up paying, said Sheats. But we can still be relatively sure prices this year aren't significantly lower than last year, based on the available data.

"There's as many price series as stars in the sky, so you have to look at exactly what they're measuring," said Sheats. "Consumers are paying the same they were last year and most of the major chains are pretty much where they were last year."

Prices vary by store, state and turkey type

That doesn't mean there aren't some generous promotions out there this year that could make turkeys cheaper for some people in some places. Sheats tracks dozens of grocers and brands across the country each year, marking down their marketing efforts in the competitive turkey business. So we know if you're in Ohio and you go to an Aldi grocery story this year you can get a frozen Butterball for 99 cents a pound, compared with a $1.29 last year.

You could also pay a lot more and get a kosher, organic or free-range bird. If you're in Washington, D.C., you can pick up a fresh organic bird at Whole Foods for $3.99 a pound, the same price as last year.

Some consumers are willing to shop around for exactly the prices and type of turkey they want. According to exclusive data from credit card analytics firm Cardlytics, customers spend more at specialty grocery stores like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods during the holidays than they do the rest of the year. During the holidays, we spend 71 cents for every dollar spent at traditional grocers like Kroger or Safeway, compared with 28 cents per dollar the rest of the year. The data also show that once we shop at a specialty store for our holiday needs, we're more likely to come back later too.

It's a competitive market for turkeys, and price is only one of many considerations for Thanksgiving consumers. Stores invest a lot in trying to lure in consumers with turkey deals, because then they're more likely to buy their other holiday foods there as well.

"These stores are dealing with consumer psychology," said Sheats. "And that's a strange bird."