The economics of Thanksgiving

November 01, 2014 | Paul Brucker

If you’re like 88% of American households, you will sit down for a Thanksgiving dinner that features a turkey. That turkey, on average, will weigh 16 pounds. And it will be bursting with stuffing and topped off with gravy, cranberry sauce and potatoes. About 29% of the turkeys raised in the United States this year will be consumed. That’s about 736 million pounds of turkey. And if you have the full traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll ingest about 3,000 calories, some 600 calories more than an active teenager should eat in a whole day.

On Thanksgiving, you’ll also experience one of the most critical days in the U.S. economy. A day farmers, airlines, manufacturers, financial institutions and stores have been preparing for months ahead.

The average cost of last year’s feast for 10 people was $49.04 and helped secure income for the farmers who produced the turkeys, green peas, cranberries, sweet potatoes, carrots, celery, etc. – and the stores that sell them.

Interested in cutting costs for your dinner? Some people swear that there’s no difference in taste between a frozen and a fresh turkey – and you’ll save up to 40% by buying yours frozen. On the other hand, many grocers sell turkeys as a “loss leader,” at a price at or below what they paid for them. That’s to entice you to go to their store and stock up on other Thanksgiving food with marked up prices.

And if you’re interested in cutting your calorie intake, follow the advice of MIT economist Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational. Fill up first with a soup course. Serve from the kitchen rather than at the table so people have to get up and move to get extra helpings and not just reach over the table for them. Plus, wear a tight fitting shirt or pants.

Thanksgiving is a boon for the travel industry. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest air travel day in the United States. About 23.6 million people take flights. Gas stations also see a lot of action, as more than 43.6 million Americans take road trips to visit their families.

And the cash register is a familiar sound during this time. The day after Thanksgiving, dubbed “Black Friday,” has become a primary shopping day for the December holiday season. It’s the day when many retailers who have been in the red all year earn enough gross sales to move into the profitable black. Many stores open their doors at midnight on the night of Thanksgiving with “door-busting” discount sales. And last year, some big box retailers and department stores kicked off their big sale by opening as early as 6:00 am on Thanksgiving Day.

These tactics work. About 37% of Americans hit the stores on Black Friday (and 57% of those shoppers really like the experience), according to the Consumer Electronics Association. In recent years, brick-and-mortar stores have had to compete even more fiercely for business because of online sales offered on “Cyber Monday,” the Monday after Thanksgiving.

Historians date the first American Thanksgiving as either 1621, when the Plymouth, Massachusetts, Pilgrims feasted on deer during a hunting party with friendly Indians, or 1623, when the Pilgrims, facing starvation, finally grew an abundant harvest.

Thanksgiving was celebrated on different days by different states until 1863. That’s when Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War, signed a proclamation making Thanksgiving the final Thursday in November. He hoped this act would help create a sense of some unity among the warring North and South. But the Southern states didn’t accept his authority and balked at the gesture. Finally in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation officially designating Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November.

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