Beyond the Bird: Turkey Tumbled as Thanksgiving Traditions Expand

Beyond the Bird: Turkey Tumbled as Thanksgiving Traditions Expand

Within the U.S., Thanksgiving is a big week for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sales in brick-and-mortar stores. So far, the week of the holiday was the highest grossing week of 2018.

During the week ending Nov. 24, 2018, FMCG sales in the U.S. reached nearly $17.3 billion, out-performing total sales figures over the past five years. While sales are up nearly 1% compared to the same period in 2017, growth remains inflationary, with unit volume hovering just below (-0.3%) rates of this time last year.

But despite the positive sales momentum seen across the FMCG space as a whole during the holiday week, not all categories benefited equally. Consumers’ shifting traditions and health concerns shook up holiday sales this year.


Over the past few years, big changes have been taking place among Thanksgiving traditions. With shifting dietary preferences reshaping the protein landscape, the Thanksgiving plate is evolving.

While turkey may have once been the talk of the town, we’ve seen a move toward other proteins this year. In the last month, sales of beef have far outpaced those of turkey. And during this week alone, beef reached heights of nearly $416 million, up 7% from a year ago. Comparatively, turkey sales represented $281 million, down 7% from the same period last year.

Growth across raw meat remains inflationary, as volume consumption this month lags nearly 4% behind rates of last year. But the strength of sales beyond the traditional turkey still indicate that change is upon us. While turkey and chicken have seen both dollar and volume declines this month, Nielsen’s reference data by meat type shows some niche sectors of growth. For the consumer seeking a unique protein to grace their tables, Cornish hens, ducks and goat are among this month’s top-selling fowl or exotic meats.


Not everything has diverged from what might be deemed “traditional” Thanksgiving cooking staples. For many, Thanksgiving kicks off the peak of the cooking and baking season, and when it comes to cooking fats, Americans aren’t as taken with substitutes.

This week, butter (+3%) and lard (+14%) were among the only cooking oils, spreads and other cooking fats to see dollar sales growth. Conversely, margarine, cooking spray and substitute spreads all saw dollar and volume declines this week.           

Looking deeper at traditional cooking fats, there may be opportunities within emerging butter subcategories. While traditional butter sales grew 2% this week, ghee, a variation of clarified butter that originated in India, along with other clarified butters outperformed this week, up nearly 63% in dollars compared to the same period last year. It should also be noted that the combined subcategory of clarified butter and ghee has garnered $23 million within the latest 52 weeks ending Nov. 24, 2018.  


Sales of prepared foods reached nearly $918 million in stores this week, a figure that’s up 4% from the same time last year. Among the items most-sold this week were soups ($98 million, up 3%), prepared complete meals ($97 million, up 6%) and sides ($81 million, up 1%). But growth has really taken off where prepared foods were manufactured with health and wellness attributes in mind. According to Nielsen reference data, sales were higher for prepared foods that claim to be gluten free (+3%), to contain limited salt or sodium (+3%), to be organic (+6%), or to have natural or limited preservatives (+9%).      

While this week was big across several FMCG categories, it wasn’t quite as momentus for romaine lettuce. With the leafy green plagued by another E. Coli outbreak (the second one this year) and many stores forced to remove all products from shelves in precautionary measures, we’ve seen what appears to be the latest dip in romaine sales. This week was the lowest of the year for sales, which reached just over half that of what we’ve seen in weeks prior. Down a whopping 38% in sales compared to this week a year ago, we see first hand the cost that outbreaks like this can have.  

Insights from this article were fueled by Nielsen Friday morning data delivery, the earliest FMCG market read available. Learn more about Friday morning data delivery.

NOTE: Data in this article represents all Nielsen-measured channels excluding convenience stores. Analysis of meat performance is specific to raw or uncooked products.