Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Poultry Price Paradox - Why Are Turkeys Cheaper During Thanksgiving?

Guest Post
by David Williamson

Over the holiday, Catherine Rampell wrote a piece for the New York Times that raised an interesting question. Why are turkeys cheaper during Thanksgiving when demand is higher? Rampell offers two possible explanations, but I am not totally convinced by either of them. So, I will spell out my concerns with each of Rampell's explanations below and offer a third explanation of my own. Rampell's comments are in block quotes and mine are not.

Explanation #1 (Rampell) - Turkeys are "Loss Leaders"

The most intuitive and popular explanation for a high-demand price dip is that retailers are selling 'loss leaders.' Stores advertise very low prices — sometimes even lower than they paid their wholesalers — for big-ticket, attention-grabbing products in order to get people in the door, in the hope that they buy lots of other stuff. You might get your turkey for a song, but then you also buy potatoes, cranberries and pies at the same supermarket — all at regular (or higher) markups.
This is certainly the most popular explanation, but I worry that it ignores the consequences of competition. The way your store makes money selling turkeys at a loss is by attracting new customers that would normally buy potatoes, cranberries, and pies from your competitors' stores. But why would your competitors allow you to steal their customers? Wouldn't they lower the price of their turkeys in response? If so, wouldn't this cancel your effort to attract new customers and just leave you losing money on turkeys? Also, as an empirical matter, do stores really charge the same or higher prices for potatoes, cranberries, and pies during Thanksgiving? I can't find any systematic data to answer this question, but Kroger (America's largest traditional grocery store) had sales on all these items before Thanksgiving and not just turkeys.

Explanation #2 (Rampell) - Grocery Stores Are Price Discriminating
[P]lenty of economists...argue that it’s actually demand-side forces — changing consumer preferences — that drive these price drops. Consumers might get more price-sensitive during periods of peak demand and do more comparison-shopping, so stores have to drop their prices if they want to capture sales.
This explanation seems more theoretically consistent to me, but I think it rests on three shaky empirical assumptions. First, a grocery store needs market power to price discriminate. However, even after years of growing concentration, this industry is still pretty competitive (the top four firms account for less than 40% of sales). Second, to preserve its pricing strategy, a price discriminating grocery store needs to prevent others from buying in the cheap market (the Thanksgiving season) and selling in the expensive market (the rest of the year). But how do you stop anyone with a freezer from doing just that? Third, for charging consumers less in November to make sense, it must be that they are more price sensitive during the holidays. But is that true? Rampell gives some good reasons for why it might be true, but I can also see why they might not. Specifically, people tend to be more price sensitive when there are more close substitutes available. I am personally very sensitive to the price of Coke because there are always close substitutes (e.g. Pepsi). But it seems like there are very few substitutes for turkey during Thanksgiving. Would Thanksgiving be the same at your home if you served chicken instead?

Explanation #3 (Me) - The Costs of Stocking Turkey are Lower

My preferred explanation is that because grocery stores are competitive, they must charge prices that reflect the marginal costs of the products they sell. Therefore, if the price of turkeys is higher in July than November, it must be because each turkey is more costly to sell. The tough part is figuring out why. One reason turkeys might be more expensive for grocers to sell in July is that they don't sell very quickly that time of year (i.e. they have low "turnover"). Low turnover means higher costs for grocery stores because every day a product sits unsold on your shelf, you are giving up money you could have earned by stocking something that would sell more quickly. When turkeys start flying off the shelves in November, the cost of stocking each turkeys drops and that is reflected in the price. An advantage of this explanation is that it also implies that we would expect the price of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie to be lower during Thanksgiving, which I think is the case.

What do you all think? Am I missing something important about Rampell's argument? Am I wrong that higher turnover means lower marginal costs? Are there other reasons why turkeys might cost less to sell and product in November? Your comments are much appreciated. Happy Holidays!

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