These are the glory days for stores that specialize in ready-made turkey or ham, as Kenneth Higgins can attest.
Higgins, who owns six Heavenly Ham stores in the Washington area, sells more honey-glazed ham and turkey during Thanksgiving week than he does in a typical month, and getting all of it on the shelves and out the door requires the skills of a master planner.
Higgins figures out how much merchandise he needs, from ham to paper clips, in June. He places his orders in September. By October, he's hitting the job fairs because he needs to double his staff size. Around the same time, he starts reserving refrigerated trucks for the perishables and unrefrigerated space for everything else.
"What we do is push as much non-product out of our walls so that we have room within our walls for the food," Higgins said. "Needless to say, our capacity is stretched at this time of year."
The thing about Thanksgiving, and particularly the day before, is that it comes and goes quickly, leaving little room for mishaps, such as running out of birds or refrigerated trucks or uniforms for seasonal hires. Just like the host who must get the dishes on the table all at once, retailers face a juggling act on a much grander scale when it comes to generating strong Thanksgiving sales.
Unlike their customers, the purveyors of turkey, ham and all the trimmings can't afford to prepare for Thanksgiving at the last minute. For them, the day before the turkey feast is perhaps the largest one-day moneymaking opportunity of the year, rivaling even Super Bowl Sunday, when gatherings spur huge demand for beer and chips, industry watchers say.
An early start means everything, which is why Wegmans Foods Market Inc. began eyeing turkey prices in February. Giant Food LLC locked in airtime for its television advertisements over the summer. And Whole Foods Market began gathering turkey bones for turkey stock in June.
"If you don't work on it, Thanksgiving will sneak up on you like it does for most consumers," said Sarah Kenney, director of marketing for the Mid-Atlantic region at Whole Foods. "More than any other time of year, your systems have to be precise."
So precise that planning often starts a year in advance. Whole Foods does a "holiday postmortem" after each Thanksgiving to assess what worked and what didn't, Kenney said. It starts planning in earnest in June, when its food developers test recipes at the company kitchen in Landover, which helped produce 1,000 pounds of stuffing as well as 1,500 pounds of cranberry relish and conserves for each of the Washington area's 16 stores this week.
"It's very strange when it's 80 degrees and humid outside and we're sitting there eating comfort foods associated with the chilly months," Kenney said. "You just want to kick back and relax like you do after a Thanksgiving meal."
For many people, part or all of that meal is usually prepared by someone else, either their host or a food retailer, according to NPD Group Inc., a consumer marketing research firm that tracks how Americans eat.
An impressive chunk of Whole Food's sales during Thanksgiving week comes from prepared foods -- five times more customers are making such purchases compared with five years ago. Fresh Direct, an online grocer that delivers in the New York City area, delivered about 1,600 fully cooked Thanksgiving dinners last year, up 500 from the year before. And the National Restaurant Association said that 53 percent of Americans last year used takeout for some or all of their Thanksgiving dinner.
But in the end, Thanksgiving is still about the turkey, no matter who prepares it, and for that many retailers begin planning as early as February, figuring out their strategies and how to carry them off.
Many sell frozen turkeys at bargain prices, using them as lures to attract shoppers, who will then end up buying much more than turkey. But that doesn't mean retailers don't care about pricing.
Quite the contrary, said Marty Gardner Sr., vice president of purchasing at Wegmans. Gardner said he starts tracking turkey prices in February, pooling information from vendors and independent services about turkey stocks to pinpoint the best time for Wegmans to buy.
It's a delicate balance, he said. If the chain commits to purchases too early, it might lose out on a better price in the future. If it waits too long, prices might spike.
These blips matter to a chain that buys turkey by the ton, Gardner said. "When talking about the ability to shave a penny off cost, a penny can be a good financial decision on a turkey."
All the planning, the marketing, the coordination is supposed to help guarantee a smooth start for the frenzied food shopping season of December, when office parties and Hanukkah celebrations and Christmas and New Year's dinners take place. For many shoppers, their Thanksgiving experience creates a first impression and helps determine if they will become repeat customers.
Most shoppers are oblivious to these calculations. Consider Shelley Gunner, at the checkout line of the Bethesda Whole Foods yesterday. In her cart, she had the 24-pound turkey and the prepared gravy, stuffing, green beans, carrots, corn pudding and roasted vegetables.
She's less concerned about her December entertaining than she is about playing good hostess to her Thanksgiving guests, all 12 of them.
"The hard part is all the other meals because they're staying through Sunday," Gunner said. "Thanksgiving is nothing. It's just the tip of the iceberg."