If you've been noticing emptier shelves when shopping for Thanksgiving, you're not alone. But you won't have to cancel Thanksgiving.
In the week ending November 7, retailers were running lower on stock of essential Thanksgiving items compared to the same time last year, according to IRI, a market research firm that tracks US retail sales.
During that first week of November, whole bird frozen, fixed-weight turkeys were in stock at a rate of 64% on average across national retailers, IRI found. This time last year, that figure was around 86%. IRI data didn't include seasonal fresh turkey. Last week, many Americans who were buying turkey early were buying frozen birds.
Availability of packaged pie was roughly 68% that week, compared to 78% in 2020. Liquid gravy, with an in-stock rate of 73%, is down about 12 percentage points compared to last year. Cranberry sauce, with 79% availability, is down from 89% in that same period.
IRI uses point-of-sales data and e-commerce transactions to track weekly store stock rates. Retailers typically like to have around a 95% in-stock rate overall, noted Krishnakumar Davey, president of IRI's strategic analytics practice. This year, stores aren't anywhere close to that.
A number of factors are contributing to Thanksgiving staples disappearing from store shelves — including supply chain ruptures and an unexpected spike in demand.
But if you haven't done your shopping yet, don't panic. You may spend more than you'd like and have to make some substitutions.
Supply chains woes and early shoppers
Manufacturers and grocers say supply chain disruptions and high demand, both throughout the year and ahead of the holiday, have contributed to barer shelves.
Ocean Spray, a farmer co-operative that makes cranberry sauce and sells bagged cranberries, said that "consumers may experience some availability issues at times on a variety of cranberry products," because of supply chain issues. The co-op noted that it doesn't expect "significant impacts" on the availability of its products.
And SpartanNash, a food distributor that also owns grocery stores, has been having a hard time stocking a number of Thanksgiving items, said CEO Tony Sarsam. "There's probably ... a half a dozen classic holiday items that'll be tougher to find this year," he noted, including turkey, pie, frozen pie shells, liquid gravy and cranberry sauce.
Sarsam has had problems with other ingredients, including cream cheese, which is popular among home bakers and shows up in a lot of Thanksgiving recipes, he noted, like whipped cream and butterscotch chips.
Flavored chips, such as butterscotch and peanut butter, have been in high demand and have run into supply chain disruptions this year, according to Allison Kleinfelter, a Hershey spokesperson. "There may be some places where shelves run low or run out during the holiday baking season," she said.
Kleinfelter noted that "the production of our chocolate chips (milk, dark and semi-sweet) is strong and tracking with consumer demand. "
Cream cheese is another item that has been harder to find ahead of the holiday.
Kraft Heinz has seen "unprecedented demand for Philadelphia Cream Cheese in the past year," said Jenna Thornton, a spokesperson for the company. "We expect to see that trend hold over the holidays and plan to ship roughly 30% more Philadelphia product in November and December," she added.
One thing you should be able to find without a problem: Stuffing. IRI data shows that in-stock rates for stuffing mixes were at 92% in the first week of November, up from 90% in the same period last year.
'A Thanksgiving of alternatives'
So what happens if, or when, you can't find the food you want, or haven't started your shopping yet? Don't stress too much — you'll probably be able to find what you need.
But you may not get exactly what you want, and don't count on finding any deals. While in years past retailers or product manufacturers may have tried to incentive sales with promotions close to the holiday, given that supply is low and demand is high, that's unlikely to happen this year, IRI's Davey said. And you may have to go with a different brand than the one you were looking for.
"If you're particular about some things, then you may or may not find them on your shelf," Davey said. "That's the key takeaway." Davey said he doesn't expect out of stocks to get worse as we get closer to the holiday.
Some constraints have already eased, according to IRI data. In-stock rates for frozen, fixed-weight turkeys grew to 64% in the first week of November, up significantly from 40% in the last week of October.
Butterball has noticed that "whole turkey sales have been early and brisk, which potentially accounts for the reported out-of-stocks," said Christa Leupen, a company spokesperson. "We can affirm that there will be Butterball turkeys available in stores this season," she said.
Cargill, also a major turkey processor, is "confident that there will be an ample supply of turkeys for Thanksgiving this year throughout the US," said Daniel Sullivan, a spokesperson for the company, even as it has had to make certain adjustments to production this year.
Stew Leonard Jr, CEO of the small grocery chain Stew Leonard's, said that he's having trouble stocking some branded products. But he's been able to make substitutions so that shelves aren't empty.
"I would say this is a Thanksgiving of alternatives," he said. "I can't guarantee our customers that they will have every single item they want," he added. "But I can guarantee that they will have an alternative to what they want."
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