Fresh Food

Where’s the Beef? On Many Holiday Tables

With smaller gatherings, sales of non-turkey options climb
Photograph: Shutterstock

When traditional Thanksgiving plans go out the window, do traditional Thanksgiving menus follow suit?

That was a big question for retailers and U.S. consumers alike in November, with surging cases of COVID-19 across the country scuttling many households’ plans for large family turkey day gatherings. New data from market-research firm IRI finds that while turkey sales—even for whole turkeys—remained robust this year, especially in the two weeks before Thanksgiving week, other proteins posted even larger gains.

The biggest winner was beef, which saw sales climb 18.7% year over year (in dollars) in the four rolling weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. Fresh beef sales totaled $2.07 billion for the four-week period. By volume, beef sales were up 10.6% vs. the same period in 2019. Sales of ribeye in particular were strong: The premium cut saw sales climb 45.6% year over year in November. Beef "has been a pandemic powerhouse" since spring, IRI noted in its Thanksgiving 2020 report.

Turkey sales for the pre-Thanksgiving period increased 7.3% in dollars vs. 2019; by volume, turkey purchases slipped 0.5%. Not surprisingly, with many households hosting fewer (if any) guests for Thanksgiving dinner this year, consumers sought out smaller turkey breasts for their table (sales up 43% year over year), as well as turkey wings (up 19%) and turkey legs (up 16%).

“I think in a year like this, the idea of keeping up with tradition and bringing some comfort in … is very important,” said Anne-Marie Roerink, principal of 210 Analytics, which parsed the IRI data. “But then at the same time, let’s just say you’re sitting around the table with four people, then what in the world are you going to do with a 20-pound turkey?”

Whether they opted for a whole bird and lots of leftovers or something smaller for their oven or fryer, consumers who chose turkey this year bought their birds earlier. Turkey sales gains were strongest in the weeks ending Nov. 15 and Nov. 22, with turkey sales actually falling 5.5% vs. a year ago during Thanksgiving week.

Pork and chicken were no slouches in November, either: Both posted dollar gains north of 10% (as well as volume gains) vs. the 2019 pre-Thanksgiving period. Consumers may have turned to chicken as a smaller-portion option for Thanksgiving week meals, IRI noted in its report. Fresh chicken sales were up 12.4% year over year to $931.3 million in the weeks before Thanksgiving.

And what of plant-based meat alternatives? Sales were well beyond those of a year ago, continuing their upward trajectory. Still, sales of tofu turkeys, bean burgers and soy-protein sausages represented a small fraction of the sales racked up by other proteins. In the four weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, sales of plant-based meat alternatives rose 36% in dollars to $34.5 million.

Looking ahead, December holiday gatherings look to be similarly smaller, with only 1 in 4 shoppers surveyed by IRI planning to celebrate with others outside their household—half the share who said the same in 2019. One in three shoppers anticipates spending less on groceries for the holidays this December, and a plurality indicated they plan to ring in 2021 at home without guests.

Restaurants are making a hard push to capture holiday sales with special Hanukkah, Christmas week and Christmas Day menus available for pickup or delivery, Roerink noted. Without a calendar full of private holiday parties and larger catering events, restaurants are setting their sights on consumers eager for some seasonal festivity but who aren’t necessarily looking to cook elaborate holiday meals for their household.  

It’s “a face-off between, ‘I want tradition’ … and, ‘Why spend all that time?’ ” Roerink said.

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