The 2020 Thanksgiving Logistics Shake-Up

Thanksgiving logisticsLast year, I wrote about the headaches involved with planning and celebrating Thanksgiving. Specifically, I pointed out the three main segments which caused logistics headaches: the feast itself, festivities around the holiday, and the kick-off to the holiday shopping season. The coronavirus pandemic that has engulfed 2020 has certainly changed Thanksgiving planning this year, but the reality remains the same: Thanksgiving logistics are still a headache.

Thanksgiving Logistics: The Feast

When it comes to Thanksgiving Logistics, the feast is the generally the biggest issue for most people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidelines around how to celebrate Thanksgiving this year. The biggest recommendation, which is a dramatic difference from just a year ago, is to celebrate with people in your household only. However, if there are people other than those from your household present, the CDC recommends maintaining a distance of six feet and wearing masks. According to a survey by NCSolutions (NCS), 80 percent of Americans still plan on celebrating Thanksgiving this year. Of those planning to celebrate this year, more than half (58 percent) indicated that they will celebrate with between two and six people; 90 percent indicated this will be the same or less than the number of people that attended last year.

With the number of people set, now its time to shop. According to the survey, even though the online grocery market has surged over the last 7 months, 80 percent of respondents still plan to shop in-store. The number one item for Thanksgiving is the turkey. The US National Turkey Federation states that nearly 90 percent of Americans will eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day. That equates to over 50 million turkeys served on one day. The real question is what kind of turkey to buy.

Retailers actually plan up to 6 months in advance to ensure they have all the birds they need in stock come Thanksgiving Day. This requires contracts, transportation, and deliveries from both large-scale turkey producers as well as local turkey farms. Retailers also need to balance the two varieties of birds: frozen and fresh. Frozen turkeys account for roughly 90 percent of Thanksgiving sales. These turkeys can be bred, slaughtered, and frozen year-round, which helps ease the demand fluctuations. The only potential hurdle in the frozen turkey supply chain is cold storage capacity in both warehouses and transportation. The coronavirus pandemic has made this more of an issue this year than in previous years.

Fresh turkeys, which make up the remaining 10 percent of turkeys, take more planning, as they only have a shelf life of 21 days. This means that producers need to carefully plan when eggs are laid in the spring to be given adequate time on the farm before being sent to slaughter. This way, producers can deliver fresh turkeys to retailers just in time for Thanksgiving sales.

Coronavirus certainly throws a monkey wrench into things here. While retailers may be planning six months in advance, consumers certainly are not. With the majority of Americans planning smaller Thanksgiving feasts, the demand for larger turkeys has likely dwindled. Smaller turkeys for smaller groups will likely see a surge in demand. For frozen turkeys, this is not a big deal, as a turkey can remain frozen for future use. However, fresh turkey providers could feel the crunch of less demand for larger birds.

Thanksgiving Logistics: The Festivities

Thanksgiving logisticsGenerally speaking, the festivities surrounding the holiday are another piece of Thanksgiving logistics to contend with. One of the largest annual celebrations is the Macys Thanksgiving Parade. As I have written about before, the parade brings out more than 3 million spectators to the streets of New York to watch the floats and balloons go by.  Between the costs for helium, float supplies and construction, studio space, and costumes, the parade costs, on average, more than $10 million to pull off. The parade also requires more than 8,000 participants and 50,000 hours of labor from setting up the route and police details to crowd control and first aid stations. On top of all of this are the labor and resources required for the construction and housing of floats and costumes. But, because this is 2020, these logistics issues are mostly a moot point.

The department store announced that it had to “reimagine” the upcoming 94th edition of the parade on November 26 and said it’ll be staged in a manner similar to its Fourth of July fireworks show. This year, rather than the normal event, parade events will be staged over two days, the overall number of participants will be reduced by approximately 75 percent and “all participants will be appropriately socially distanced.” The parade’s trademark massive balloons will still be in play this year, but without the traditional 80 – 100 handlers. Instead, Macys is employing a specially rigged anchor vehicle framework of five vehicles to fly the balloons.

Other components of the traditional festivities will look different this year as well. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, travel will be reduced significantly. While there will still be traffic jams out on the roads, air travel is expected to remain slow. Less travel and less people will certainly disrupt some holiday traditions. In Massachusetts, one of the biggest Thanksgiving traditions is high school football. Some of the oldest rivalries in country take place on Thanksgiving. Wellesley and Needham for example, were set to play the 133rd installment of their series. However, football is one fall sport that has been put on hold in Massachusetts, so games will not be taking place.

Thanksgiving Logistics: Holiday Shopping

Thanksgiving logisticsThanksgiving generally kicks off the holiday shopping season. Once again, the coronavirus pandemic has changed all of that. For many retailers, the holiday shopping season has already begun. This was in large part due to Amazon pushing off its annual Prime Day sale because of capacity issues during the height of the nationwide lockdown. With a new Prime Day taking place in mid-October, Amazon, and its key rivals, essentially kicked off an early holiday season.

While e-commerce has grown significantly over the last decade, Black Friday in-store deals were still hard to beat. Even with Cyber Monday sales, consumers still flocked to malls for the in-person events. This year, these events have pivoted. Retailers such as Walmart, Target, and Best Buy have gone with a hybrid approach to the event, limiting the number of people allowed in stores, using single file lines, and pairing the in-person events with online sales.

The bigger issue surrounding the holiday shopping season is going to be the capacity crunch. According to multiple reports, UPS and FedEx have already informed shippers that they have essentially reached full capacity already. Smaller carriers have sold out of capacity months in advance of previous years, which will leave a lot of shippers scrambling. With the onslaught of online shopping to come, retailers and logistics companies alike are telling consumers to shop and ship early. These companies are bracing for the potential of a massive capacity shortfall which could impact up to 7 million packages per day between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Final Thought on Thanksgiving Logistics

Even though this year will be very different than other years, the Thanksgiving logistics headaches will continue. The turkey supply chain remains a complex balancing act between supply and demand, especially at the fresh turkey level. Smaller gatherings could have an impact on demand for smaller birds, which can throw an added complexity into the mix. For those that enjoy a Black Friday deal after a day of turkey, this will be a different year as well. A pivot to more online-centric deals looms; and for those that do go to stores, the experience will be vastly different. But then again, everything has been different in 2020.

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