The Logistics of Thanksgiving

Since Thanksgiving originated and was celebrated in 1621 amongst the Pilgrims and Native Americans, turkey has been synonymous with the holiday. Turkey has been the iconic centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner for over 150 years, when President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a National Holiday.  

The U.S. National Turkey Federation states that more than 88% of Americans will “gobble gobble” turkey on Thanksgiving Day. The number of turkeys consumed on Thanksgiving is staggering – over 46 million turkeys will be served to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. Another 22 million turkeys will be served for Christmas, 19 million turkeys will be served for Easter, and an estimated total of 220 million turkeys over the course of the entire year will be consumed… that’s nearly 70% of the U.S. population, IN TURKEYS! 

Providing that number of turkeys requires the precision of a massive supply chain. How is such a high volume of turkeys raised, processed, transported, distributed, and purchased all to meet demand for one single day? 

In the U.S., the largest turkey producing states are Minnesota (18% of total U.S. production), followed by North Carolina (14%), Arkansas and Missouri. Each of these states requires the appropriate logistics and transportation capabilities to handle this highly desired product. 

 

Fresh or Frozen Turkey? 

In the context of a turkey supply chain, it is extremely important to note that 90% of turkeys consumed are frozen and 10% are fresh. This 90% of frozen turkeys certainly provides some much-needed flexibility to the supply chain.  

Frozen turkeys have a very long shelf life. The demand for turkeys reaches its peak on only 3 specific days of the year: Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. The frozen turkey supply chain does not have to be quite as time-sensitive as the fresh turkey supply chain, which is great news for logistics experts in the industry. Turkeys slated to be frozen can be raised and processed throughout the year as needed. 

Frozen turkeys can be transported and stored in refrigerated facilities for consumption at a future date. If turkeys are not consumed on Thanksgiving, they can be stored for consumption on Christmas, Easter, or throughout the year. As such, the supply-demand planning of the Frozen Turkey Supply Chain is more concerned with the amount of supply and the volume of demand, and less concerned with meeting last minute, real-time delivery needs. 

The fresh turkey supply chain, on the other hand, is much more difficult to execute, since fresh turkeys only have a 21-day shelf life. This requires a tremendous amount of supply-demand planning, scheduling, time management, and on time delivery. Without this level of precision, fresh turkeys will spoil and cannot be consumed.  

 

Thanksgiving Turkey 

Retailers work with turkey farmers, distributors, and logistics carriers to forecast demand, and make sure they stay on schedule. Farmers need to carefully schedule and time everything from the incubation of eggs and the raising of the turkeys to the transportation and distribution of these birds. Carriers need to have the appropriate refrigerated transport capacity available precisely when needed. Meanwhile, retailers and distributors must be able to take these products into their channel on a timetable consistent with when consumers will take possession of the turkeys. Planning at all levels is measured in hours and days. 

Given that the 4 states mentioned above produce the majority of turkeys for the entire U.S., these turkeys, fresh or frozen, need to be transported to markets in time for Thanksgiving. Turkeys may be shipped directly to retailers or to 3PLs who hold the turkeys in storage until they get demand signals from local retailers. Coordination of logistics schedules here is critical. 

 

The Logistics of Thanksgiving 

The logistics for Thanksgiving turkeys is tremendous, given the sheer volume of turkeys and the number of retailers and 3PLs involved. There are many major turkey brands such as Honeysuckle, Butterball, Jennie-O, as well as innumerable smaller, local producers. 

On top of turkey logistics, when you consider all the other food products needed for a Thanksgiving dinner, the detailed nature of the supply chain really starts to come together. For instance, over 80 million pounds of cranberries (that is 20% of annual demand) is consumed on Thanksgiving. 

This year, over 50 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles to their Thanksgiving dinner, of which, 4 million will fly to some other part of the country. 

What happens after Thanksgiving dinner? Everyone will shop. Online shopping alone in 2021 is expected to be over $5 billion on Thanksgiving Day, and another $6.8 billion on Black Friday.  The shipment of those goods is another set of logistics entirely. 

 

Let’s Break it Down

Celebrations throughout the year are very important and Thanksgiving stands as a critical part of our American culture. At the center of that tradition, and at the center of the dinner table, is the turkey. 

The annual consumption of turkey per person in the U.S. has increased from 8.3 pounds in 1975 to 16.7 pounds in 2016; 20% of the country’s annual consumption of the bird is on Thanksgiving. The popularity of turkey has never been higher. 

So, with all this being said, let’s take a moment to be thankful to all the farmers, retailers, and logistics service providers who run the turkey supply chain and make Thanksgiving possible! 

 

Written by:
Tim Griffin
Director of Marketing & Media, C.L. Services

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