Why Turkey Prices Fall At Thanksgiving

Many Americans will be heading to the grocery store this week looking for the same thing: a turkey. Economics 101 says that when demand goes up, price goes up with it, but turkey prices don't seem to follow that rule. Host Scott Simon talks with New York Times reporter Catherine Rampell about this economic mystery.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There are alternatives to turkey, from tofu to spaghetti carbonara, which is what Calvin Trillin says the Pilgrims would have chosen if they'd just known about it. But the center of most traditional Thanksgivings is that browned bird in the middle of the table. Now, it's just basic economics that when demand increases, so does price - except not for turkeys, during the Thanksgiving season.

CATHERINE RAMPELL: The prices will sort of be bumping along, doing their thing throughout the year, and then in November there's a huge drop.

SIMON: That's Catherine Rampell, an economics reporter for the New York Times. She says prices of frozen turkeys actually go down by about 10 percent between October and November. There's more than one theory to explain that drop in turkey prices. Catherine Rampell says one is that turkey is a loss leader that food stores can use just to get shoppers in the door.

RAMPELL: So, maybe they're taking a loss on the turkey, but the consumer comes in and buys cranberries, buys potatoes, buys a turkey baster, all of these other things.

SIMON: Prices for avocados drop right before the Super Bowl, too, when a lot of guacamole gets made. But Valentine's Day bucks that price drop trend. Roses are popular for that holiday, and it turns out that roses are fussier than turkeys, which, after all, can be frozen. In economist-speak, roses are supply inelastic.

RAMPELL: They all have to be harvested within a very short period of time. They have to be packed and sorted and shipped around the country.

SIMON: But turkeys can be thrown into a freezer months ahead of time. So, if you're already thinking about what to get for a special someone next February 14th, here's an idea in economic verse...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Roses are red, violets are blue, but they're supply inelastic, so instead I got you a frozen turkey. It doesn't rhyme, but it's a solid investment.

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SIMON: Yee-haw. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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